I write this only with love. Specifically, love for a community that I devoted my early graduate career to, and a community that has helped me through the toughest times I could imagine.
But it’s also a community of deep hurt and insidious, percolating hatred. It is a community that, from the moment you walk its ivy-lined walls, nudges you aside in favour of its red-carpeted guests in sleek SUVs. It heralds Canadian multiculturalism by foregrounding esteemed portraits of white folk on the walls. It celebrates the ‘progressivism’ of Canadian literature by hosting book clubs catered to the rich and elite, whose idea of literary diversity is Albert Camus writing through Algeria. And it celebrates history by denigrating those who suffered from the past and present of anti-Black racism in Canada.
This community is Massey College.
I had the privilege to serve as its Don of Hall, a fancy word for the college’s mix of student president and residence don. My election into the college leadership was a culmination of a year during which I swiftly fell in love with its people and its traditions.
Reciting the Latin prayers at the podium, perfecting each word at the advice of a Classicist and dear friend, I took pride in the ability to step away from the entangled mess of graduate student life and steep my colleagues in the meditative space of a shared meal.
I also took pride in being a Don of Hall blessed with deep pigments of melanin in his skin, whose consciousness was crafted by the revolutionary histories of the Philippines, and whose ancestors eked out a living on tobacco and sugar plantations while fighting for their futures in the face of military occupation.
History matters for an institution like Massey. When — if — a Masseyite welcomes someone in, they take the visitor on a tour of the college. A stop in front of the spoon that went up into space with the alumnus who is now our Governor-General. Flights through the snuff box in the corner, or the pictures of the royals of Sweden at a pumpkin-carving contest, or the Nobel Prize in the dining room. At Massey, we chart our welcomes with the histories that our forebears laid out for our pleasure.
But history, and history-making, require forgetting as much as they require remembering. We remember with fondness the continuity of pleasures that Massey fosters, while we gloss over the racist conversations that take place over the dining table. I am guilty of this, too.
And we honor, with reverence, the various quirks of college tradition, such as gowns, Latin prayers, and High Tables, leaving unacknowledged how these quirks can act to replicate an insider Canadian elite. Or, for that matter, how access to these ‘quirks’ of tradition, and the cultural capital that comes with it, require actual capital that most racialized and precarious graduate students do not have.
History can be weaponized. If histories are built — contrived, even — at Massey College, then histories have been armed to defend turf as the community sees fit. When an esteemed historian approaches Black junior colleagues, mocking them for their leadership in revising the “Master” title at the college — “Do you feel the lash?” — history becomes as sharp as a machete, as heavy as bullet. This historian, who has stockpiled the arsenal of scholarly merit and endowed research funding, can deploy his authority to bomb Black graduate students without so much as a slap on the wrist.
I write this with the tender love that only a historian, who has pored through thousands of pages in search of precious few moments to exhume the marginalized voice, can express. And I write this against the weaponized hatred that only the historian, whose pen bleeds with the lives that their narrative can gloss over, can express, too.
As a former Don of Hall, I call on the college to make good with the demands of its community, not least being the immediate change of the “Master” title for the Head of College. Not stopping there, I further call on the college to address racism, especially anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, through a comprehensive program of anti-oppression training and a systematic review of offending Fellows.
For Massey, and for the University of Toronto in general, diversity and equity do not end at admitting a ‘diverse’ Fellowship. Like a garden, whose rapid-growing weeds are violence and white supremacy, it must constantly be cared for at its soils, roots, and stems.
Adrian De Leon is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He was Don of Hall at Massey College in the 2016–2017 academic year.
Tags: Massey College