McGill student’s ‘micoaggression’ apology over Obama image is the real offense

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

Remember when a joke was allowed to just be a joke? Nowadays it seems like everything is offensive to someone, regardless of its obviously innocuous intentions. And if it’s not offensive than it is a little bit offensive, and that can be just as bad.

Take a recent incident on the campus of Montreal's McGill University, where a student politician was forced to apologize after circulating a .gif image of U.S. President Barack Obama kicking open a door.

According to McGill's student newspaper, The McGill Tribute, Brian Farnan, a vice-president in the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU), distributed an email in October that included a link to the image.

The images had been taken from a doctored video that first aired in a segment on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show as long ago as 2010.

[ Related: Calgary couple faces murder charges in emaciated son's death ]

The .gif has made its way around the Internet, because there is something amusing about a usually reserved president storming out of a press conference and nearly knocking a door off its hinges.

There is also apparently something a little racist about it, because it is a black man shown acting aggressively. A complaint was filed against Farnan and, under SSMU's equity policy, he was forced to apologize for perpetuating a microagression.

For those who have never heard that term, microagression refers to insensitive comments or actions made against those of a different race, culture or gender. These aren't outright incidents of racism, but the tepid and often accidental moments and comments that just don't sit right. By definition, almost anything could be considered an act of microagression.

Apparently, posting an image of Obama kicking down a door fit the bill. Had it been Stephen Harper kicking down that door, Farnan might have been in the clear.

The issue has captured the attention of online blogs and international news groups since then. Because there's nothing more universal than allegations of accidental racism; but there is nothing more Canadian than apologizing.

[ More Brew: Looking for the best chance at a high-paying job? Go west ]

A copy of the apology posted to Facebook reads:

The inclusion of the .GIF image was intended to bring a humorous tone to the email and use President Obama’s frustration with the press conference in question to mimic the frustration students feel when confronted with midterm examinations.

...

Oppression, as outlined in SSMU’s Equity Policy, means the exercise of power by a group of people over another group of people with specific consideration of cultural, historical and living legacies. The image in question was an extension of the cultural, historical and living legacy surrounding people of color—particularly young men---being portrayed as violent in contemporary culture and media. By using this particular image of President Obama, I unknowingly perpetuated this living legacy and subsequently allowed a medium of SSMU’s communication to become the site of a microaggression; for this, I am deeply sorry.

Thankfully, Farnan's apology has received the derision it deserved.

According to The McGill Tribute, SSMU could review its equity policy following the backlash Farnan's apology received. And a letter posted in The Bull & Bear, a campus magazine, at least one student found the apology more offensive than the .gif itself.

"I am offended that he thought I would naturally associate the visual of President Obama kicking down a door with the racist stereotype of a coloured person being angry," Ameya Pendse wrote. "If anything, he should apologize for promoting racism and its living legacies by pointing it out. I can say with certainty that most in the McGill community did not make this association until we read the email. Isn’t it racist that GIFs of people being angry should only be of white men?"

Here, for the record, is the Students' Society of McGill University's equity policy. Not included is the addendum noting all Jay Leno segments as clinically unfunny.

To be fair to Leno, the editing work on the Obama clip is pretty impressive. And moreover, Leno never felt the need to apologize for the bit. Was his original segment fueled by microagression, or was it just amusing to imagine a frustrated president booting down a door?

Want to know what news is brewing in Canada?
Follow @MRCoutts on Twitter