A Western University law professor has issued an apology to her students after she was heard using the N-word during a first-year criminal law lecture earlier this week.
A group representing Black law students at Western, however, argues that isn’t enough, and is calling on the professor to issue a written apology to the broader law community, and for university brass to implement changes.
The professor, Kimberly Gagan, uttered the word on Tuesday while reading aloud from a criminal law casebook about the wrongful murder conviction of Donald Marshall Jr., said Jaidyn McEwen, president of the Western chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA Western) and a third year law student, in an interview Friday.
“There were a few members of the BLSA that were in attendance and the impact was quite significant and upsetting. A lot of them were really upset that nobody said anything at the time in the class,” she said.
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McEwen says she learned about the incident Tuesday evening and met with Erika Chamberlain, dean of the Faculty of Law, the next morning to talk about what had happened.
In a letter signed by McEwen, issued later that day to students, faculty and staff, BLSA Western condemned the professor’s use of the word, and it’s use by “a non-Black person in any context, in any form, for any purpose… It hurts us. This word does not belong to you.”
“To be clear – it is not just a ‘bad’ word. It is a derogatory term. It was and still is used to degrade and dehumanize Black men and women,” the letter reads.
“There are arguments for taking the power away from a word. There are arguments for allowing the use to ‘convey meaning’ in academic settings. To be clear – Black men and women do not need a non-Black person to use the word to convey meaning to us.”
The letter included several calls to action, including that Gagan issue a written apology “to the law school community as a whole,” citing her role as executive director of Western’s Community Legal Services Clinic.
Gagan offered an apology to her students at the start of Thursday morning’s lecture, McEwan said, adding that Chamberlain was also present and apologized on behalf of Western Law.
Chamberlain said Friday that she had attended the lecture to also express support for the students and “reaffirm to them that we’re committed to making sure that our classrooms are inclusive spaces and that we will work with (BLSA) to address their calls to action and move foward from here.”
Though she apologized to her students, Gagan has not issued a written apology as sought by BLSA Western in its call to action.
“I think that’s something that we’re going to be working on next week as we talk about the, kind of, overall response to these calls to action they had,” Chamberlain said when asked if Gagan planned to issue a written apology.
Gagan did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
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Among the calls to action sought by BLSA Western is for the university to implement mandatory equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training, offered by a person of colour, for all Western students, faculty and staff, and to make available to students a list of professors who refuse the lessons.
The letter also calls on Western Law to hire a BIPOC counsellor to tend to issues specifically facing non-white law students, and for non-Black students to “speak out and condemn racist acts when they happen.”
“A big issue is the fact that as soon as the word was said, non-Black students turned to look at the Black students in the classroom to sort of take direction,” McEwan said.
“It can’t always fall on POC students to stand up in these situations, and to look to us for direction or to comment or call it out.”
The group says it’s also calling on Western law to implement a “Black pathway in Admissions” to make sure the number of Black students at the law school increases every year rather than decreases.
Chamberlain says some of the things the group is calling for are already in the process of being implemented, including the creation of a Black admissions category, and Western-wide EDI training which is expected to roll out this fall.
“We also have an anti-racism working group here at the law school and their report is going to be issued sometime in October. Some of their recommendations, I think, will overlap with what BLSA has already called for,” she said.
“At that point we can look at all those recommendations and come up with a plan of action, and that would include some fairly short term things and also some longer term goals.”
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Since BLAS Western issued its letter on Wednesday, McEwan says she has received messages from students as well as some faculty expressing support.
“There are people that are backing this and that realise that this is not okay, and that want to work with us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“But I will say the training part is a huge concern and we want to see that implemented as quickly as possible, and to have a list of professors who refuse to take the training so that students are able to control what classes they take.”
It’s not the first time that a Western teacher has come under fire for using the N-word during a lecture.
In October 2019, English lecturer Andrew Wenaus issued a public apology for using the term “house N-word” during a discussion about the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s pilot episode, in which Will Smith is addressed as “Master William,” to his discomfort, by Geoffrey the butler when they first meet.
Days later, an anti-racism working group was struck by Western President Alan Shepard, to “better understand and target issues of racism on campus,” after a Black student was bombarded by racist emails and messages for calling out the professor’s use of the word.
The working group’s report, made public in June of 2020, affirmed there were “systemic problems embedded within the University’s colonial history, traditions, structures, practices and policies that normalize ‘whiteness,’ that ‘other’ racialized groups, and that perpetuate racism.”
Chamberlain says she commissioned Western Law’s anti-racism working group in the wake of the report to look at issues specific to the law school, and to look at diversifying the student body and faculty, and embedding anti-racism and EDI principles into the curriculum.
The report also prompted the appointment of an EDI advisory council, and the creation of an EDI Office on campus. Last year, the university named Opiyo Oloya as the office’s inaugural associate vice-president.
— with files from Jacquelyn LeBel
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