Racism exists on our campus and in our city

Racism exists on our campus and in our city

Understanding hate speech and working towards a better future

In 2015, black students at Guelph, acting in solidarity with protestors at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and across North America rallied to protest racism on campus, in the community, and across Western society.

The Facebook event for that protest (“Black on Campus Guelph: Solidarity Action with Mizzou and Yale”) — easily found through the Guelph Black Student Association Facebook page — provides a valuable document about bigotry in Guelph and the resistance to it.

At the time, many black students shared personal experiences of racism using the hashtag #BlackOnCampusGuelph. Organizers also posted screenshots of some of the more vicious online responses to video of the protest, which was shared on sites like LiveLeak.

While it is tempting to chalk these comments up to the poisonous discourse of certain online communities, they highlight the hatred that plagues people of colour in our society.

Slurs and slights

One of the #BlackOnCampusGuelph posts states, “Having to see that stupid email at the beginning of [the] school year.”

In the coming months, in what feels like a sordid tradition, Guelph students may receive “that stupid email” from the President of the University noting that some sort of hate activity has occurred on campus.

Although hazily detailed, these incidents presumably involve hate speech and slurs, which may reflect the tendency among young white people to toss around racist terms like any other curse words.

Whether slurs are spoken with truly hateful intent or merely a careless will to provoke makes no difference.

Slurs may sometimes be positively reclaimed by the people they disparage, but when used by anybody else, they are simply hurtful and destructive.

Incidents of hate speech most dramatically highlight the progress yet to be made. But the problem of racism goes deeper.

Gabriel Broderick, who graduated from U of G in 2016, took part in the 2015 protest.

“A lot of the racism I encountered at Guelph was subtle and passive,” said Broderick. “Comments, sometimes directed at my intelligence, sometimes directed at the part of Toronto I was from, and sometimes directed at me being a former athlete.”

“Being told, after I mentioned I was double majoring in two social sciences, ‘Well, I wouldn’t expect someone like yourself to be able to handle a hard science.’ The form it often took was what I would call ‘the covert liberal’ brand of racism — ‘I’m not racist, but…’ — which I all too often heard echoed from other students of colour I worked with over the years,” said Broderick.

Broderick’s comments highlight the complexity of the issue. A majority-white culture reinforces racial inequality unconsciously — and studies show even individuals or organizations explicitly dedicated to inclusion and diversity may unknowingly discriminate.

Almost no one willingly identifies as a bigot, but toxic racial stereotypes shape impulses and behaviours. Microaggressions — like touching someone’s hair or asking “But where are you really from?” — subtly alienate and demean people of colour.

Cautiously optimistic

While we still need to work hard to eliminate slurs from our vocabularies and slights from our behaviour, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about progress at the University.

Shortly after the 2015 protestors presented the administration with their demands, Provost Charlotte Yates issued a letter detailing the University’s response. That letter is not readily available online, but a subsequent study entitled “Supporting the Needs of Black Students at the University of Guelph” appeared in May 2016, recommending such measures as “on-going diversity and inclusion programming” and “a new strategy for communicating with the campus community when hate activities occur.”

In April 2017, the University released a document outlining their inclusion framework, which is entitled “Fostering a Culture of Inclusion at the University of Guelph” — this document strengthens the institution’s commitment to addressing these issues.

Broderick, who completed literature reviews for the 2016 report, also described a gradual shift in campus climate.

“When I started I and the few other black students would joke that we all knew each other either directly or indirectly. But as I progressed throughout my four years, there was a subtle increase in the diversity of students both domestic and international. It got to the point where the same group of friends would joke that we found a new person of colour every day on campus,” said Broderick.

“Black on Campus Guelph” also had something of its intended effect.

“It took a somewhat aggressive protest to get people to listen. But I literally saw the conversation begin to form. Actual change, albeit painfully incremental. Great people who legitimately did not know or fully understand there was a problem actually wanted to help solve it,” said Broderick.

When asked about the University’s initiatives, Broderick replied: “Is it ideal? Of course not. But there are steps being made and planned for the future, which is more than can be said for many other Canadian institutions.”

For more information on the Guelph Black Student Association, please see the student resource guide.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Broderick