One of the most heartening outcomes of the recent federal election was the fact that Canadian voters for the most part rejected the overt racism and xenophobia of “dog-whistle” politics. Rather less heartening, however, was the realization that so many of our government leaders did initially believe that race-baiting strategies could actually work for them — and that a sizable minority of voters does indeed see the world in divisive terms of “us” (so-called “old stock” Canadians) versus “them” (those who can be isolated and set apart as “not us,” especially by means of racial and/or ethnic difference).
Then, another wakeup call. A month after the election and just days before the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report on Aboriginal residential schools, the CBC was forced to suspend public comments for its online news stories involving indigenous peoples, due to the overwhelmingly “ignorant, ill-informed and objectionable” feedback such stories were generating.
Damaging statements and actions that target racialized minorities and indigenous peoples are evidently all too common in the public sphere, and show no sign of disappearing anytime soon. If anything, racism is a growing problem in contemporary society, and we ignore or deny it at our peril.
Denial is a more subtle, but still hurtful, means by which even well-intentioned community members may respond negatively to the problem. For example, by asserting that race is not really an issue so long as overt aggression is not in evidence, or that racism is only caused by a few “bad apples,” or that we can in any case make it go away by acting as if we are “colour-blind.” Good intentions are important, but they are not enough when racialized colleagues, students and neighbours still experience discrimination that is real, ongoing and systemic.
The fact is that Canadian university and college campuses are themselves by no means free from racism and its effects. Sometimes these can be overt and even violent. More often they are less immediately perceptible, perhaps even difficult to identify and react to. But over time, the stress of living with everyday microaggressions can take a devastating toll. From thoughtless passing remarks and social isolation, to differential workplace treatment and exposure to the occasional threatening message communicated via anonymous student evaluations or bathroom graffiti — these are stressors that cause real harm to some, and it is a harm that is compounded when others are able to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Dramatic events south of the border, at Yale and the University of Missouri among others, are important reminders of just how bitterly race-based systems of privilege and marginalization can fester unacknowledged for generations. And while the demographics of racial difference may function differently and even facilitate denial on some Canadian campuses, the underlying problems are similar. We too have a problem. We need to talk about it and seek out ways of taking collective action to address it.
Academia, thankfully, remains precisely a place where we can critically examine bigotry and racism in all their forms, identifying them for what they are and exploring their roots in order to improve future practices and outcomes. Many of us consciously do what we can to bring anti-racist concepts and practices into our research and teaching on an individual level. But we can do still more collectively. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations challenge us to consider how curricula could be changed to better educate students about the history and present situation of Canada’s relationship with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. We would do well to embrace that challenge, and even to extend it, in our ongoing academic efforts to serve the public good.
Institutional changes must also be explored. Through collective bargaining and legislation, we have already begun to press our employers to make serious commitments to employment equity and workplace safety, and to more fully recognize community service commitments that fall disproportionately to under-represented groups. We must continue to make equity a top priority for our unions and academic staff associations, building a campus environment that is not only inclusive, accessible and representative, but also fair and non-discriminatory. Racialized colleagues — and students, some of whom will one day be our colleagues — must be not only welcomed and represented, but also actively heard, and their experiences positively acknowledged.
Racism cannot be ignored, or blamed solely on the ugliest of bigots; nor is it simply a “minority” problem that only concerns a few affected individuals. It is also a systemic injustice that demands the recognition, attention, and commitment of our community as a whole.