Posted on March 31, 2010

Sumo Suits Instruments of ‘Oppression’: Queen’s Student Government

Joseph Brean, National Post (Toronto), March 29, 2010

Sumo suits, the plastic novelties that can transform a skinny sports fan into a comically unstable sphere for the delight of a stadium audience, are racist and dehumanizing instruments of oppression, according to the student government of Queen’s University.

They “appropriate an aspect of Japanese culture,” turn a racial identity into a “costume,” and “devalue an ancient and respected Japanese sport, which is rich in history and cultural tradition.” They also “fail to capture the deeply embedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced.”

The Alma Mater Society on Monday published a two-page apology letter, and cancelled a foodbank fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday, which was to feature two sumo suits. The letter scolds the student government’s own executive for “marginalizing members of the Queen’s community” and failing to “critically consider the racist meaning behind [the fundraiser.]”

It also vows to discourage other campus groups from using the suits, owned by the school’s athletic department.

“We recognize racism as the systemic oppression, both intentional and unintentional, of individuals and groups based on racial or ethnic identities,” the letter reads.

Given the quick apology, which came in response to complaints registered on a Facebook page promoting the event, the racism of the Queen’s “SUMO Showdown” seems to have been unintentional, and not an effort to belittle Japanese people.

Brandon Sloan, communications officer for the Alma Mater Society, suggested “white privilege” had blinded the student government, which is largely but not entirely white, to the seriousness of the issue.

Likewise, the owners of the two suits have never imagined they could be considered offensive.

“It’s the first time we’ve heard of [the racist aspects],” Mike Grobe, a spokesman for Queen’s Athletics, which uses the suits at football and basketball games for half-time shows, when people run obstacle courses in them. “They’re just big puffy suits. They’re pink. . . . No one’s complained.”

They come with a helmet shaped like a head with a bun of hair, like a sumo wrestler, but nothing overtly stereotypical. They are new this academic year, and are often loaned out to student groups. They were even loaned out to the Ontario Hockey League for its all-star hockey game.

In the past, professional sumo wrestling in Japan itself has been accused of racism for excluding foreign-born wrestlers, although non-Japanese wrestlers have had notable successes, even rising to highest rank of Yokozuna.

For its part, Queen’s has a proud tradition of inclusivity. It was the first school in Canada to graduate a black man, Robert Sutherland, who became a prominent lawyer. Its student pub, Alfie’s, is named for the son of a runaway slave who became a football mascot. And it continues to receive generous donations of art and real estate from chemist-turned-philanthropist Alfred Bader, a refugee from the Nazis who was turned away from McGill because its Jewish quota was filled.

But Queen’s today has an awkward relationship with political correctness, exacerbated by its reputation for drawing its student body from the privileged neighbourhoods of Toronto and Ottawa.

In a report last week on racism in Ontario universities by the Canadian Federation of Students, one Queen’s student reported that “white privilege” permeates the “walls, books, classrooms and everything that makes Queen’s what it is.”

That aspect of the controversy is mentioned in the apology letter, which says “some of us [AMS leaders] . . . do not have the lived experience of someone who is oppressed due to their race. We recognize our privilege in this circumstance.” It then vows “a series of discussions” about oppression.

“We would never want to host an event that would offend some members,” Mr. Sloan said.

Last year, in a story that made national headlines, the Queen’s administration appointed six “dialogue facilitators” to promote discussion of social justice, partly by intervening in conversations when they overhear offensive speech. The resulting scandal led to the appointment of an expert panel, including a former head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which cancelled the program as “incompatible with the atmosphere required for free speech.”

The student government was to meet last night to discuss another fun activity as a replacement for the sumo suits, Mr. Sloan said.

Also on Monday, the nomination period closed for the government’s Anti-Oppression Award, given for exceptional achievement in counteracting oppression both in and out of the classroom.