I’m not over it and here’s why you shouldn’t be either

When it first occurred to me to write a post about the pro-rape and anti-Indigenous chants that occurred at various UBC frosh events, my first reaction was to reject the idea on the basis of that topic is terribly last month. The subsequent “WAITAMINUTE” ringing through my head caused me to be disappointed in my own investment in a mass media mindset that a worthy topic has only a couple weeks of shelf life. Especially when that topic relates to the pervasiveness of rape culture, misogyny, racism, and colonialism – how could we ever be done talking about it?

So, why shouldn’t we be over what happened at UBC in those first weeks of September? Why, when student leaders have already stepped down and when UBC has promised us change? We should never be over the trivialization of sexual assault and colonial violence that was implicit in the chants because this isn’t just about the chants. This isn’t merely an issue of a handful of students making bad decisions and a dark mark on the UBC brand. As easy as it would be to scapegoat Sauder or pretend this is all UBC’s problem, to do so would be to overlook the reality that this is about the world we live in – a created culture in which we are all complicit in a public forgetting of colonial history and a social blindness in the face of violence and rape. In a statement made by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, the Institute points out that,

since it is 3rd-year undergraduate students who oriented the Sauder first-year students into singing the YOUNG chant, it is also the case that the older students both learned this chant as part of their UBC education, and have demonstrated that they have not learned anything that would have provided them with the understanding, knowledge and know-how with which to refuse to sing the YOUNG chant… It is also the case that we can rightly conclude there has been a failure of public education in the fact that the C.U.S. 3rd year students did not appear to take responsibility and intervene in – contest or otherwise resist and refuse – the routine socialization of students into anti-aboriginal actions and chants.

Yes, students made bad decisions when they decided to engage in and encourage the chants, but what about the likelihood that they didn’t truly understand how harmful these actions would be? Whose fault is their lack of education?

To draw from a statement released by UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies (CFLS), we have to ask what made those UBC student ill-equipped to connect the sentiments of the “YOUNG” chant with the fact that

sexual violence against women and girls is unfortunately commonplace. While the exact incidence of sexual assault is difficult to measure, a conservative estimate is that at least 1/3 women will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Rates of sexual violence are highest for adolescents and young women.

Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the likelihood that there were women and men sitting on that bus at UBC who have been sexually assaulted is significant. Instead of welcoming them to UBC as a site of critical reflection, safety, and well-being, the “YOUNG” chant made a joke out of what so many understand to be real and long-lasting trauma. To continue borrowing from the CFLS statement, jokes or comments that eroticize young women as “jailbait” or as “tight,” are actions that contribute to the construction and bolstering of rape myths that are mobilized every day to justify, ignore, or diminish the severity of violence. Let us compel universities to be locations where these actions are understood and condemned as displays of rape culture, where we can expect that students are learning to value respect for each other over getting a laugh.

(image courtesy of: http://audreychan.net/myths-of-rape-2012/)

We can’t ignore the connections between the “YOUNG” chant and the anti-Indigenous “Pocahontas” chant. In the words of Daniel Justice, “when white people sold the land, they raped, butchered and dispossessed human beings… Pocahontas is a figure used to justify men’s claims over land and women… It’s not only racist, it’s also misogynist.” Not only did the anti-Indigenous chant make light of colonial violence, but it also functions as part of a glamorization of the story of Pocahontas, given that is what the group’s “theme” was. Despite the hold that the Pocahontas story has had within a North American cultural consciousness, the reality is that

the real Pocahontas was likely no older than fourteen when the middle-aged John Smith wrote his fabricated account of their supposed romance in what was probably a ritual adoption ceremony (Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by English colonial authorities to force her father into political negotiations, finding freedom only through conversion to Christianity and marriage to another colonist, John Rolfe.)

Romanticized versions of her story sit at an intersection between a disregard for the gravity of colonial history and a trivialization of the sexual assault of young girls and women. The statement by UBC’s First Nations Studies program asserts that

combined with the earlier rape chant, the use of the stereotyped Indian Princess version of Pocahontas as a frosh mascot demonstrates just how deeply sexism permeates anti-Aboriginal representations in popular culture, as such figures are routinely used to exoticize and eroticize colonialism through debasing Indigenous women’s bodies. The [anti-Indigenous] chant is not disconnected from the rape chant; they are not isolated incidents, but are instead intersected and mutually reinforcing issues of violence…

Let us also not forget that the anti-Indigenous/Pocahontas chant came to light on the same morning of Vancouver’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, the same morning that UBC students had the day off school in order to educate themselves on residential schools, colonial violence, and the legacy of such violence on Indigenous communities. The irony that the chants, which highlight a lack of education and thoughtful engagement, surfaced on a day dedicated to such engagement is suggestive that there is still so much missing from education on colonial history and Indigenous issues.

(for more information about learning opportunities, check out the First Nations Studies Program’s event page)

Finally, let us decide that we are not okay with the coverage provided by UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey, which could have benefited enormously from a more thoughtful and informed discussion of the chants. The anti-Indigenous chant is only mentioned as a side note in an article covering the “YOUNG” chant – it never receives serious consideration on its own. Further, consideration of the “YOUNG” chant itself suffered from a lack of critical engagement. In an editorial published in the Ubyssey and written by Saint Mary’s University professor Mark Mercer, Mercer claims that

No one was harassed by the chanters. That is, the chanters didn’t chant at anyone, and they didn’t follow anyone around while chanting at them. No one said to the chanters, “Stop it, you’re bothering me.” Since one is unable to culpably harass another before that other signals that the behaviour is unwelcome, no one was culpably harassed. The chanters did not discriminate against anyone. All present were welcome to join in. No one was given the cold shoulder, certainly not on account of sex, race or religion.

This argument stands because it clings to a thread of thin logic based on dredged up “technical” definition of harassment. Would it be too much to ask for a more complex discussion of the ideas of harassment and discrimination so that we might see how the existence of the chant operates to harm and intimidate victims of sexual violence in real ways? Where is an understanding that the responsibility to say “Stop it, you’re bothering me” should never have to be on the shoulders of first-year students in the first place – where is an account of the potential for peer pressure to coerce affected students into silence? The Ubyssey staff goes on to assert in another article that money donated by the Commerce Undergraduate Society that is intended to fund a sexual assault counsellor at the UBC Counselling Centre is

a worthy mission, but UBC already runs a well-staffed counselling services program. So does the AMS-funded Sexual Assault Support Centre… it’s not like [receiving sexual assault counselling] is something students weren’t able to do with the services already available.

What the Ubyssey fails to mention is that the UBC Counselling Centre currently doesn’t have any staff members who specialize in sexual assault support and that the SASC, while doing incredibly important and invaluable work on campus, doesn’t have the funds required to hire a registered counsellor. Not to mention, even going out into the community to receive support is a difficult process for students given that chronic underfunding of sexual assault support organizations results in lengthy wait-lists for counsellors. Furthermore, this understanding of sexual assault support fails to understand that counselling is not a preventative solution to rape culture. Adequate counselling options are important to help many survivors in their recovery, however, promoting counselling as the primary response to sexual violence works to individualize rape by placing the responsibility to respond to violence solely on the victim. What gets lost is the reality that preventing rape requires a cultural shift and a commitment to ending sexism, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ablism, and other forms of oppression. 

Colonial and sexual violence are not punch lines to be mobilized for a “good time”. Disapproval of the “inappropriateness” of the chants is not enough when there are so many conversations about education, cultural acceptance, and respect that need to continue being had. Because of that, I’m not done talking about the chants at UBC and you shouldn’t be either.

*Update: As I was finishing this post, it came to light that a 3rd sexual assault has occurred at UBC in the last 3 weeks. These assaults and the chants are not separate issues. As we continue to have conversations about sexual assault at UBC, let us be thoughtful, critical, and aware of the rape culture in which we all exist and let us collectively understand the paramount importance of ending sexual violence.

**Update: In my original post, I made the mistake of referring to the editorial by Mark Mercer as an article written by a Ubyssey staff member. It is important to note that, although it was published in the newspaper, it is not an article written by a Ubyssey journalist. This has since been corrected.

6 Comments on “I’m not over it and here’s why you shouldn’t be either”

  • NK

    Hi there, I really appreciated your piece. I just wanted to point that one of the articles quoted (“No one was harassed by the chanters…”) that you state was written by a Ubyssey writer was in fact an opinion piece (not an news article) mailed in by Mark Mercer, who philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Prof Mercer is not a Ubyssey writer.

    I completely agree with your critique of Mercer’s argument, but just feel it is somewhat unjust to credit that flawed argument to a Ubyssey writer or consider it “coverage” of the Rape Chant event as it was not written by a journalist or as a news article.

    Thanks for engaging with these important issues. Keep it up.

    • Caity Goerke

      Thank you for pointing this out!! While I do think it is fair to include this article in my critique, as the Ubyssey did choose to publish it, it is absolutely important to note that the article was a mailed in editorial and not something written by a Ubyssey journalist. I apologize for this error and have since corrected this within the post in addition to adding a note acknowledging my mistake.
      Thank you also for your positive feedback! It is much appreciated.

  • Hey there! The consent image was used without consent from the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre at UBC! Please remove or check in for permission to use. Thanks!

    • Caity Goerke

      Hi! I actually did obtain permission from Katie Zalazar, the creator of the image! Please let me know if this changes anything or if I still need to get permission from SASC.

  • Hey again,

    The image was created as part of Katie’s employment at the SASC so is therefore the property of the SASC and the AMS. Thanks!

    • Caity Goerke

      Whoops!! Sorry about that. I have removed the image :).

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