In January, on Martin Luther King Day, racist graffiti scrawled on the door of the Black Student Alliance at York University read "niggers go back to Africa" and on the washroom door, "all niggers must die," inciting enough fear and anger in students to spark a volatile rally later that week.
Then, earlier this month, when Ryerson Student Union vice-president of education Heather Kere received an e-mail with the subject head "KKK - White Power," brimming with sexist and racist remarks and brazenly signed by third-year student and Conservative Club member Justin Morris, she went on record as saying she was disturbed, but "not surprised." The incident made the newspapers, radio stations and Internet sites. Other people, it seems, were surprised.
And though the moral crusade of the civil-rights movement has fizzled into the current atmosphere of polite tolerance and political correctness, the number of racist incidents and hate crimes within Toronto suggests that the city may still be landlocked by pervasive racism. While some think that recent acts of bigotry are isolated and progress is being made, others maintain that the bigger problem of systemic racism is still not being acknowledged.
"Universities are basically small cities," says vice-president of the York Federation of Students Gilary Massa. "York is a large university with 45,000 undergraduate students and over 20,000 graduate students. It has a diverse student body. It is definitely a reflection of the makeup of Toronto." She calls the graffiti incident in January a "violation of the space dedicated to black students as a safe place for them to express themselves and celebrate their blackness." But she says it's not just a problem on campuses, pointing to the Don Jail's black prison guards receiving death threats and Toronto city councillor Rob Ford's quip that "Oriental people are taking over."
When asked, "Why now?," Saron Ghebressellassie, vice-president of the United Black Students at Ryerson forwards from her campus computer a list entitled "Overt Incidents of Racism on Campus," which details more than 20 entries since she began to record them just over two years ago. Incidents include the apparently racially motivated beating of a Pakistani student and last month's burning of a bulletin board belonging to Ryerson's East African Students group.
"These things happen all the time," says Ms. Ghebressellassie, "but we're doing a better job of making it be known."
Ms. Massa agrees. "I think that a lot of times these incidents are painted as though they're just on a particular campus or that they don't occur on a regular basis. But the fact is, they are everywhere."
Not enough Progress?
Selwyn McSween, ombudsperson and director of human rights at York University, agrees that there are always individual overt cases of racism but doesn't see a lot of evidence of systemic racism.
"What's happening is that the campus is becoming more diversified. The demographic of the campus is changing so it appears to me that whoever is putting this graffiti out is offended by a very positive trend that's happening at York.
"You always have some people who are trying to turn back the tide. But that number of people is very, very small. The greater trend is toward a wider acceptance at York."
Carol Tator, course director at the department of anthropology at York University, has worked on and researched the anti-racism and equity movement for more than 25 years, and is currently co-editing the first tome that will explore what racism looks like in Canadian universities. She warns against looking at these incidents as isolated and time-specific. "Racism operates below the radar of most white people. We haven't been taught in our schools about racism all through our history so we're coming at it from a very shallow analysis, which results in all of us being horrified by these incidents. Everyday racism is much more subtle - but not to the victims. It's subtle to those of us who are white."
For her part, Ms. Ghebressellassie would like to see an acknowledgment that systemic racism is a problem, because, as she puts it, "You can't deal with a problem that doesn't exist.
"Traditionally, campus racism has been more subtle, such as in our Eurocentric curriculum, or the fact that there are only two black tenured professors at Ryerson. But I'd rather look at the bigger picture instead of one kind of crazy and rash expression of hatred. I want people to ask, 'What is it about the culture that allows this to happen?' "
Next week, the Ryerson University Task Force on Anti-Racism will be unveiled, at the behest of a coalition of students, faculty and staff that joined forces after the escalation of racist incidents last year. The task force endeavours to organize consultations and forums, and to conduct research so that it can effectively and constructively make recommendations toward change.
"One of the things that we have looked at is the extent to which racism does not stop at incidents, to which it relates to staffing," says Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzi, a professor in Ryerson's department of politics, who has just been named co-chair of the task force. "The student body is so much more diverse than the faculty or staff or administration," he says.
Visible minority tenured faculty at Ryerson was close to 28 per cent in 2007, compared to 23 per cent in 2002. Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy feels that "we're on the right track, but I don't want anyone to think this isn't a high priority for the university. I don't want to pretend that there isn't a lot of work to do."
Mr. McSween mentions that York has fielded similar complaints about its staff. "We have specifically set up an employment equity officer in the human resources department, for instance, who addresses this issue. Dealing with that is an area where York can make some progress. It's a slower process because it's tied into seniority, but it is something we're working on."
Call to awareness
Toronto hasn't experienced racial massacres or government-sponsored apartheid.
And the most prominent race riot was an isolated event between two gangs in Christie Pits in 1933. So where exactly does racism fester? Observers such as Michael Ornstein, who studies ethno-racial inequality at York University, say it's below the surface, in poverty figures and in a lack of representation in civic life. By 2010, approximately 51 per cent of Toronto's population will be people of colour. Yet, as he points out, 40 per cent of the members of African ethno-racial groups are below Statistics Canada's poverty-line cut-off. Dr. Ornstein insists that Toronto must "think outside the box, because the usual diet of exhortation and incrementalism doesn't work that well. This is a local responsibility, but cities are short on the resources needed."
Michael Inzlicht, an experimental psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough who explores how stereotypes and prejudice affect individuals, believes that racism has mutated over the past few decades. "Scrutinizing public opinion polls, it appears that since the 1960s, explicit racist comments and acts have gone down tremendously. So researchers wonder, has prejudice gone down or has it just changed forms? If, for instance, you look at how Jews were treated in Toronto in the 1930s, there was explicit anti-Semitism. Posted signs such as, 'Jews not allowed. Christians only.' And that has all but disappeared. People are now hiding their racist feelings."
Because it is no longer socially acceptable to express any antipathy toward any group based on any category, Dr. Inzlicht believes that we now have two types of prejudice: modern and implicit. "A modern racist is someone who hides their racism behind things like objections to social policies. But the deeper issue," explains Dr. Inzlicht, "is that there are some people who are prejudiced and have stereotyped views who aren't aware of it themselves. This is probably true for many, if not most of the people in our society. It is called implicit prejudice."
As to how to overcome this type of prejudice, Dr. Inzlicht calls it a "million-dollar question."
"Research has shown that mere contact with individuals from other groups leads to the lessening of stereotypes and toward the increase of inter-group harmony." However, he recommends that people need to become aware of their own biases. "It would be better if there was more interaction, more dialogue," he says.
"In the case of the city of Toronto, I would say in general it's this wonderful social experiment where we've got a mixture of probably every ethnicity on the planet represented here." Though he notes that it would be better if there were more interaction, more dialogue, Dr. Inzlicht says, "Even if you are in a class together or ride the subway together, just that contact alone will demystify that other group."
In an attempt to spark dialogue, the National Film Board of Canada's CitizenShift is hosting a public screening for Work for All, six short films about racism in the workplace, on March 25 at its headquarters on John Street in Toronto. Coming on the heels of Friday's International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CitizenShift's outreach co-ordinator Denise Hastings explains: "These films do a great job of exploring both systemic and overt racism, so my hope is that the screening and discussion serve as an opportunity to increase awareness on the issue as well as bring people together who wish to share solutions to the problem."
To Dr. Galabuzi, the current situation requires dialogue but also swift action. "We need to seize the moment and recognize that if we don't proceed with a vigilant approach to systemic racism, the likelihood is that things will degenerate. We haven't seen the bottom of this issue yet. It is a very unsettling time, not just on campus, but around the world. We need a master plan."
Special to The Globe and Mail