A Christian university in Calgary (Alberta) has found itself thrust headlong into the free-speech fray after apologizing — and then retracting their apology – for a Black History Month speaker who “caused severe harm” by denying the existence of systemic racism.
The Student Council at Ambrose University invited conservative Christian blogger and activist Samuel Sey to speak on the topic of racism at a socially-distanced Black History Month event in early February. The “What Is Racism?” talk aimed to delineate a “Christian definition of racism” based on Bible teachings.
Apparently the university did not expect Sey to argue that racism, as the Bible defines it, only counts if it’s intentional. For instance, Sey argued, if a law or policy does not draw an explicit distinction to advantage one race over another, it cannot be racist, regardless of its impacts or how it’s practiced on the ground. The only metric for racism, then, is any one person’s bias against any other’s, regardless of the sheer weight of bias in any one direction or the power relationships of those involved. By Sey’s definition, as he’s made explicit in his writings, anti-white racism and anti-Black racism are equivalent problems that needn’t be addressed or solved at any level except between individuals and Jesus.
His arguments left some Black students, as well as members of other racialized groups, feeling dismissed and disbelieved about their lived experiences of systemic racism.
So what went wrong here?
Sey makes no secret of the fact that he is a strong opponent of “critical race theory.” CRT is basically the idea that America’s historical racism still crops up in society through laws and institutions, but its critics often distort that and treat it like a personal attack.
In fact, Sey calls CRT “one of the most destructive anti-Christ ideologies within local churches today” and “the most socially acceptable form of racism today.” He argues that in the 21st century, white people are the real victims of racism. And in one of his all-time most popular posts — his scathing review of White Fragility, released in July of 2020 — he explicitly states what would be the thesis of his February talk:
Racism is always an intentional and unkind thought or deed. That isn’t a simplistic definition of racism by white people. That isn’t even a simplistic definition of racism by me. That’s a simple, scriptural definition of racism by God.
The people who invited Sey to speak should have been aware that he was deeply invested in denying the existence of systemic racism using Christianity and the Bible as source material. They could have known in advance how he would answer the question “what is racism?” and recognized the potential for harm.
Consequently, the Ambrose Student Council and Student Life apologized in a document the university has since removed from their website; a copy remains available online. In it, Student Council President Lauren Schmitke and Director of Social Justice Amy Bourque disavow Sey’s dismissal of systemic racism:
We want to make it explicitly clear that these are not the views that Ambrose Student Council wants to endorse. In a public statement issued by Ambrose University in the summer of 2020, our institution acknowledges the existence of systemic racism and its commitment to working to dismantle systems of oppression within our own system. We want to acknowledge the harm that was caused as a result of the statements made by the past guest speaker and send a sincere apology to those who have been denigrated… In our effort to grow, learn, and become allies for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, we acknowledge our mistakes and are working to create better policy and practice.
Added Student Life representative Monique Verhoef:
This speaker’s views dismissed the ways that bias and prejudice build systems that hurt and oppress. We are sorry that an event like this one caused harm and we are committed to doing what we can to support students and to dismantle bias, prejudice, and systemic injustice.
Fair enough, right? A controversial speaker said some things that the Student Council did not support, and they made it explicit that he did not represent them when he said systemic racism was not real. That is a valid choice, particularly coming from an organization with a mandate to support and represent their fellow students.
But Ambrose wasn’t so sure.
The university retracted the statement just days after it was posted and replaced it with a much more vague five-sentence statement that emphasized “freedom of expression” over the values the Student Council chose to emphasize. Below it, they curtly explained what had become of the Student Council’s message:
We have removed the statement/apology from Student Council and Student Life which appeared on this page. It was never intended to be public and sought only to provide support for those students who had been emotionally affected. Further, it didn’t include consideration of Ambrose’s commitment to freedom of expression, which is a vital part of our community experience.
And maybe that’s no surprise. A Christian university like Ambrose relies on a donor base that’s likely to be conservative and concerned about “free speech” questions, elevating that value above the emotional stability of a bunch of gaslit teenagers being told they’re the real racists — and sinners to boot — for considering systems of power in a discussion about race.
In spite of that, Sey is happy to paint himself as the victim of “woke” culture:
This past Monday, Ambrose University — a supposedly Christian university in Calgary — made it known I wasn’t useful for their agenda. They released a public statement suggesting they aren’t allies with black people like me.
… Ambrose didn’t mention my name. That’s probably because they didn’t want to make it known they were hating a black man while they were virtue signalling about their love for black people. They probably didn’t mention my name because they didn’t want to make it known they were suggesting I was a self-hating black man for choosing to disagree with their agenda.
They didn’t want to make it known that when they say they are allies with black people — they’re lying.
If they were allies with black people, they wouldn’t label me their enemy — they wouldn’t oppose and attack a black man for speaking against real racism. They’re not allies with me and their not allies with black people. They’re just allies with lies.
Samuel Sey’s closest ally, apparently, is theatricality.
He goes on to add a hefty dose of religious shame to the mix, explaining that the university — he draws no distinction between the administrators and the Student Council — is worse than just racist or cowardly. They’re actually anti-Christian:
Ambrose didn’t merely attack a black man, they attacked a Christian — for repeating what Christ says about racism. That’s the real controversy here. A Christian school has become so offended and so ashamed of what Christianity says about racism, they’ve released a public statement apologizing for what the Bible says about racism.
How dare they insinuate that an ancient text might not be capable of capturing all the nuances of power relations in a modern society? The horror! But it’s an effective cudgel to wield against a school that relies on its reputation as a godly environment to make bank. And sadly, there’s a centuries-long tradition of invoking the wrath of God to shame people into silence.
Sey doesn’t seem to see that as a violation of free speech. Nor does he see a restriction of the Student Council’s speech in Ambrose’s decision to scrub their document from the website. But criticizing his ideas — now that’s silencing. And probably racist.
(Thanks to Lorne for the link)