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Racism at Ryerson? Look carefully or you'll miss it

Ryerson University is one of the most diverse and welcoming universities in the country, if not the world. Visit its bustling downtown campus near Yonge and Dundas and you come across eager young students from dozens of ethnicities and backgrounds, studying and hanging out together in apparent harmony. But according to a new report, the university is shot through with structural racism and must make big changes to how it deals with diversity. Huh?

The Final Report of the Taskforce on Anti-Racism at Ryerson is one of those documents that make you shake your head in wonder at the nonsense people can come up with when they sit around the table in committee. The 12-member task force included students, staff and faculty. Its best-known member is Judy Rebick, the journalist and political activist who teaches at Ryerson. After deliberating for nearly two years, the task force has spit out dozens of recommendations on how the university of 28,000 should cleanse itself of sin.

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Ryerson, it says, should start collecting data categorizing students and staff by race; establish an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; step up anti-racism training for staff, professors and administrators; introduce new courses on anti-racism and non-Western "ways of knowing"; give the Discrimination and Harassment office the power to investigate racist incidents; and organize "inclusive conversations" about race, religion, gender, class and sexuality.

What the task force fails to say is why any of this is necessary. There have been no violent clashes between groups of students from different races. The task force produces no evidence that any student was held back or any prof denied tenure because of his or her race.

The task force finds only a smattering of incidents. A couple of years ago, the bulletin board of the East African Students group was set on fire. A group of students attempted to organize a "white-culture" group on Facebook. A white student was reported to have sent an e-mail to a black woman with KKK in the heading. And some Muslim students complained that their modesty was offended when a professor said that journalism was all about sex and beer (ah, if only).

After the task force presented its report yesterday, I asked member Salmaan Khan, a fourth-year student, if he had ever experienced racism at Ryerson. "Not directly," he said, but one student with an African background did tell the task force he was sometimes left out when fellow students organized themselves into study groups. "It's very subtle," said Mr. Khan.

So subtle that most Ryerson students don't think it even exists. One survey showed that 80 per cent of visible minority students said their professors were sensitive to racial issues. A big theme in student surveys was that, with so many students from so many backgrounds co-existing on campus, there was simply nothing wrong at Ryerson.

How naive! "This sentiment," sniffs the task force, "stems from an understanding that racism is only present if complaints about racism can be validated beyond any doubt or be shown to be intentionally caused by racist behaviour or attitudes." Even some learned professors, who should know better, argued that, aside from a few isolated incidents, racism does not really occur at Ryerson.

"These are discourses of denial that suggest a better need to understand the systemic and subtle ways that racism manifests itself," says the task force. In other words, if you don't agree with us that racism really is a problem at Ryerson, you're guilty of Wrong Think.

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This kind of thing is silly enough when it happens at other universities - and it's a plague at campuses across the country. But to see Ryerson, of all places, accused of complacency about racism is truly absurd.

Under president Sheldon Levy, Ryerson has bent over backward to celebrate and encourage diversity. The university already has active programs on employment equity, a special office to serve aboriginal students and a prayer space for Muslim worshippers. At the university's Ted Rogers School of Management, five of the 11 faculty hired in 2008 were visible minorities, just short of its target of six. Other faculties are striving to bring up their numbers, too.

But as many students told the task force, "If everyone is looking over their shoulder for systemic discrimination, they'll find it." Even at Ryerson.

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