A Spurr in all our sides

The public/private divide is irrelevant, argues Tom Joyner.

Welcome to big school. Welcome to big school.

Barry Spurr has never taught me personally, but I have been a student of the English Department now for three years. Reading revelations on Thursday of his senseless remarks sent a cold shiver down my spine. All of a sudden, I felt like the kid in the school play who finds out, behind the bright lights and music, the audience has been mocking him the whole time. Needless to say, my initial shock soon gave way to anger, and that anger hasn’t subsided.

It’s only been six months since LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling faced a public backlash following the airing of a private conversation in which he chided an ex-girlfriend for “associating with black people”. Sterling was famously banned for life from the NBA for his comments, a measure that stirred indignation among some observers, who argued he had done nothing wrong. Perhaps in some ways, they were right. But, as others tried to show, they were missing the point.

For me, Thursday’s revelations hit closer to home as a person of colour. Like other targets of Spurr’s email diatribe, I have to wonder if my place at the University is seen differently because of my race. But there are other pertinent questions that emerge: what dim view does our education system really take of Indigenous students? Is it easier for a white, native English-speaking student to gain access to USyd based on the colour of their skin? Are international students treated like a number to be exploited for revenue?

Whether or not Spurr apologises (as he has shown no indication to do so far) is immaterial. After all, his emails were never intended to be made public. His suspension by the University sends a strong message about the gravity of his offence – and has temporarily removed his deranged evangelism for a ‘racially-pure’ society. But it does not alter the uneasy realisation that Spurr, like Sterling, is hardly an anomaly – Spurr was just unlucky.

The truth is that racist, sexist and elitist remarks like Spurr’s are not a cause, but a symptom. “Private” comments like his are the tip of an institutional iceberg. Similar to Sterling’s case, we had been shown, long before Spurr’s emails emerged, the ideological and prejudiced bents of those colleagues of his in similar positions.

While published emails, like videos of racist attacks on public transport, provide more shocking and certainly newsworthy evidence of bigotry, they obscure the real issue. Institutional racism unfortunately doesn’t make for digestible headlines or quotable soundbytes; it seeps insidiously into the foundations of entire establishments and corners of democratic process.

I am still furious that for two years Spurr would have harboured such disturbing views of the very students he was presumably teaching during that time. To me, the line between what Spurr has said, and what he actually believes, is insubstantial. Public or private, broadcast or hidden, racism and sexism are toxic, but more so when they are propagated by those with power at an institutional level.

Whatever the implications of Spurr’s emails, there are thankfully those still on campus who value university as an inclusive environment for students of marginalised backgrounds. It makes no difference to me if I was or was not personally taught by Barry Spurr. His words have chipped away at the decaying edifice that somehow our educational institutions and systems are accessible equally by all.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

Michael Spence

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