Tackling racism at Ryerson


There is an old saying that ‘a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.’ In the same way, racism so pervades our society that those who most benefit from it are considerably unaware of it in its full manifestation. That is why whenever studies on racism are presented, those who are privileged by this system of values respond with denials and reproach.

For that reason, if for no other, the defensive responses in reaction to the recent release of The Final Report of the Taskforce on Anti-Racism at Ryerson remind us why this kind of report matters in the first place. The report – a response to a number of racist incidents that occurred on the racially diverse Ryerson University campus in 2008 – has among other recommendations proposed structural changes that include targeted hiring of persons from visible minorities, diversity training for staff and a first-year course for students on inclusion and diversity.

There is still a prevailing notion that racism is strictly the use of racial slurs or overt individual acts of discrimination, such as denying a vacant apartment to a prospective renter who is Black. There is also the distorted perception that a person from a disadvantaged group who expresses race antagonism is himself a racist.

The authors of the Ryerson report, including Ryerson professors Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzi and Judy Rebick, went to some lengths to give a clear statement on the scope of the societal phenomenon of racism in order to place the university’s situation in context. In part, they note that racism refers to “a system of social structures that produce cumulative, persistent, race-based inequalities …that lead to differential outcomes for members of a particular group.” That “racialized outcomes often do not require racist actors”, and that within structural racism “prejudice and stereotyping are more than a matter of negative feelings (but) are rooted in power relations and group positions”.

As such, the authors explain that non-racialized groups often preserve a conscious racial dichotomy, seeing themselves as “highly positive and even virtuous” in comparison to Aboriginal people and racialized groups. Along the same lines, this difference is used to rationalize the gap in socio-economic status.

But part of why some mainstream reviewers of the report reject its advocacy is that many in the visible majority see themselves as being oppressed by social and economic unevenness and victimized by unfair treatment by their own. Others express fears that “they” are taking over.

Consequently, those who are blind to the more complex, subtle aspects of racism regularly denounce those among their own who benefit from it but who also have the insight to recognize racism and call it what it is. The report makes clear that racism is invisible to those who benefit from it, while being evident to those who are disadvantaged by it.

So there is little surprise that the report has drawn criticism. The reality is that the Ryerson campus, sitting as it does in the downtown core, and considered to be very racially diverse, has been labeled a “chilly climate” around the problem of maltreatment based on racialization.

The responses from Black and other racialized Ryerson students to the survey used to collect data for the report outline familiar concerns: Being singled out as representative of the communities they come from; being treated as though they fit a stereotype; faculty members not appropriately addressing issues of race, racism and religion when they come up in class; a consistently Eurocentric bias in the curriculum, the questioning of which instructors reject in the classroom setting.

Ryerson’s executive has welcomed the report. Given the suggested timeframe, we will watch with interest for the implementation of some recommendations, key of which is the creation of an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Ryerson led by a Vice President or a Vice Provost and increased staffing and stability in the Employment Equity Office to allow it to achieve its mandate.

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