Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: We Are All African

We Are All African
by Derek Kaill

Christopher diCarlo. Photo by Brian Clewley.

Dr Christopher diCarlo is a philosopher and an educator. His job is to teach such courses as Critical Thinking and the Philosophy of Medicine. Dr diCarlo, who received his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Waterloo, is a charming and challenging man. A strong mind and a sharp wit help make him extremely well-suited for his profession.

Recently, while performing the very duties that define his occupation, Dr diCarlo became involved in what many would consider an unjust controversy. In fact his position, and future, at Wilfrid Laurier University may be in jeopardy.

It begins with a shirt — a unique t-shirt designed by Dr diCarlo himself — which states in eye-catching print ‘We are all African’ (diCarlo, it should be pointed out, is a Caucasian man).

Last June, I attended a Humanist Association of Canada conference entitled ‘Humanism Now!’ held in Ottawa and featuring the presentation of the HAC Humanist of the Year award to the highly-deserving Evelyn Martens. Dr diCarlo was one of the many intriguing and thought-provoking speakers at the conference. It was there that I heard the story of this shirt, and its intended anti-racist message of the shared ancestry of humankind. He told how his message was perceived by some, in a disturbingly contradictory twist as both racist and, due to its foundation in scientific methodology, Eurocentric.

I had the opportunity to speak to Dr diCarlo, both at the conference and a few days later over the telephone. When I first called, he was in the middle of making lunch for his sons, Jeremy and Matt, so I phoned back a little while later. My first question was about his original reason or reasons for having the t-shirt printed. He explained:

“I think philosophers, and academics in general, need to be more, rather than less, vocal about issues which affect all of our lives. The shirt was printed to generate a forum for discussion. It’s not so much, ‘Look at me, I’m right. Hear what I have to say!’ but rather it’s an avenue for dialogue.”

At the Ottawa conference Dr diCarlo had mentioned that he’d worn the ‘We are all African’ shirt while in Texas. I asked him why he had gone there, and whether or not he’d received responses to the t-shirt.

“The Human Behavior and Evolution Society was meeting in Austin. What better place, I thought, to introduce the concept that we all have a common lineage, than in the buckle of the Bible belt. I did get some bad looks … the worst was from a police officer in the Alamo. It was what you’d call a sideways glance — sort of stared me up and down.”

Discouraging certainly, but not all of his shirt-related encounters in Texas were unpleasant. He tells me of another incident in San Antonio:

all evidence clearly points to a common ancestry, from Africa.

“Now, I did have a great response from an African-American woman. She said, ‘I love your shirt! And I want to thank you for wearing it.’ She wanted to know where I’d bought it. I told her that I’d made it myself. I would have given it to her if I had another shirt to wear at the time, but we were quite a distance from our hotel.”

Considering fossils, migratory patterns, tool and material manipulation patterns, and the National Genographic Project, Dr diCarlo says that all evidence clearly points to a common ancestry, from Africa. During one lecture in his course on Critical Thinking he was explaining this to his students. An aboriginal woman was firmly opposed.

Here is how Dr diCarlo remembers the exchange:

“How do you really know that?” she asked him. “Some people say that, others refute it. Carbon dating is flawed. And now there’s evidence that there may have been people before then … My people don’t believe in what you’re saying.”

After recognizing the validity of a portion of the student’s arguments, Dr diCarlo spoke to her final statement:

“I understand that some of your people do not — would not — accept this, and I would maintain that they’re wrong.”

Considering the fact that he was teaching a course on critical thinking, Dr diCarlo then made a suggestion that nicely illustr-ated what the course was about:

“If you will accept evidence, then I will bring in the evidence that I have now, and you could bring in your evidence, that counters it, from an Aboriginal point of view. Then we could put it all on the table, and this would be a great basis for debate.”

The tone was not sarcastic but, rather, a sincere attempt to perform the function for which the University employs him — to teach students about critical thinking. The woman never returned to his classroom. Instead, she complained to the University, along with two other students who were opposed to his “religiously insensitive” position on evolution. The objections apparently focused on Dr diCarlo’s comments on religion and evolution, but also indicated concern about fair grading and “talking about sex in class.”

Dr diCarlo told me about being called into a meeting with the Associate Dean, where he was confronted, in what he calls a “vague manner,” about the students’ complaints. The concern about his talking about sex during a lecture baffled him. “I knew I was being pulled for something pertaining to religion, but what was this talking about sex about?” Later, while talking about the incident with a colleague, it came to him, “I think he must have been referring to homosexuality.”

Dr diCarlo had explained to his class that evidence seems to suggest homosexuality to be, in part at least, a genetic propensity, and that this could possibly provide a better understanding of this aspect of human nature — that it is not a ‘life choice’ but inherent, and therefore should not be considered morally problematic.

The meeting with the Associate Dean ended without any explicit details at all. The three students also wrote letters of complaint to the Associate Dean.

As the person at Wilfrid Laurier with seniority teaching the subject, Dr diCarlo is a suitable and deserving candidate for the currently-available position of full-time Professor of Critical Thinking. He had been previously short-listed for such a position. Under normal circumstances, he would be a very strong candidate. But he is no longer. As it stands it seems he is to be passed over, apparently because of the complaints. Although the Administration denies that the letters from the three students affected their decision, the Union became involved and the matter is now the subject of a grievance under the Collective Agreement.

And so this educator and author of How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass awaits further word on whether or not his career is to be hindered for the crime of being a strong-minded and free-thinking teacher of philosophy.

Socrates was the same sort of pain in the ass, as were/are Galileo, David Hume, Rosa Parks, Noam Chomsky, Henry Morgantaler and of course, Charles Darwin, whose pioneer work in the field of evolutionary theory has helped us to learn that we are all of a shared origin. Some day the name Christopher diCarlo, or perhaps someone he taught, could belong on that list.

He deserves the support of all humanists.

Derek Kaill, President of the Humanist Association of London and Area, is an orthodox agnostic and father of one.

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