A name change is not enough to hide SFU’s institutional whiteness

Petter’s statement lacked acknowledgement of Black student activism

Courtesy of SFU Athletics

by Victor Yin, SFU Student

Former SFU President Andrew Petter released a statement on his decision to change the name of SFU Athletics’ varsity teams after an “an extensive stakeholder engagement process.” Petter’s statement, which does not recognize any Black student organizing, activism, or petitioning, seriously undermines the physical and emotional labour of student activists and disregards Black trauma and oppression.

Black students and Black athletes mobilized and pushed for this name change. Not acknowledging these efforts is an insidious way of disarming and suppressing Black power while also minimizing the impact and importance of student activism. Othniel Spence, a Black student-athlete who fought for the name change, expressed that he was “brought back [into the discussion] by Petter’s lack of acknowledgement for the students that were involved in this name change; especially students of colour that placed themselves in vulnerable positions.” Even from the beginning, radical student activism has played a key role at SFU, and choosing not to acknowledge student organizers, like Spence, downplays the ability of their activism to change systems of oppression.

In addition, although SFU has made strides with Indigenous reconciliation — such as with the construction of the First Peoples’ Gathering House — Petter’s statement appears to completely disregard indigeneity by using the university’s Scottish and colonial heritage in defence of the original name. Marie Haddad, a student who also fought for the name change, voiced that “there was a greater priority to recognize Scottish heritage and hold its legacy at SFU than it was to equally speak on the North American POC/Black history behind ‘The Clan’ name.” Colonization is not an acceptable excuse to keep a sports team name, and certainly goes against the university’s apparent commitment to reconciliation.

This leniency towards whiteness and white privilege in academia is not a new issue. Petter’s response hints at disturbing institutionalized systems of racism and colonialism embedded in the university and within the community. According to the SFU 2019 Diversity Meter, Black-identifying employees, who are underrepresented in faculty, reported lower feelings of  inclusion compared to other racialized groups. This shows that there may be a gap related to diversity and equity perceived by Black-identifying employees working at SFU.

Instead of performative lip service, the university and its leaders need to begin proper reconciliation. As Spence stated, Petter’s response “didn’t acknowledge the trauma and pain this name caused for black student-athletes.” A good way to start doing this would be by recognizing the efforts of Black SFU student organizers and allocating mental health resources specifically for Black, Indigenous, and POC student athletes.

Entertaining that a name change is enough is “specifically harmful and compliant to the racist systems that are embedded in our educational institutions,” as Haddad expressed. More work needs to be done by SFU to recognize institutional structures on inequity, and the student labour done against them. Although changing a name is a good start to making amends, recognizing historical marginalization and the significant efforts of Black student activism would be even better.