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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The scourge of invisible racism Add to ...

If you think Canada's cities are diverse today, just wait. We're speeding toward the age of the visible majority. By 2031, according to Statistics Canada, nearly two-thirds of Toronto's population will be non-white.

You can get a taste of the future at Ryerson University, a vibrant downtown campus where the visible majority already exists. Racial friction appears to be negligible, and most students appear to believe they're treated fairly regardless of their background.

Don't be deceived. Beneath the surface, Ryerson is a hotbed of racism and discrimination, where "racialized" (non-white) students are subtly oppressed by a Eurocentric curriculum that refuses to acknowledge "other ways of knowing." A vast new bureaucracy and mandatory diversity education for all are urgently needed to foster an inclusive, racism-free environment.

So says the Taskforce on Anti-Racism at Ryerson. "Systemic racism" is pervasive, it concludes, and anyone who doesn't see the problem is in denial.

"I pulled my hair when I saw the coverage," says Kamal Al-Solaylee, an assistant professor at Ryerson's School of Journalism (and a former Globe theatre critic). "I've never worked in a more accommodating environment in my life."

Mr. Al-Solaylee is a brown-skinned Muslim who is openly gay. He thinks the entire exercise is a frivolous diversion. "There are things that I need from the university, but this isn't one of them," he says. "I need computers that don't crash all the time. I want students who don't have to hold bake sales to raise money for their graduate projects. There should be money for these things, not equity officers."

The task force's report is sprinkled with unsubstantiated anecdotes from students who've felt offended by this or that. A female Muslim student, for example, said a (female) professor had made her feel uncomfortable by asking students to "pretend they were having sex" for a voice exercise. Another student in the class, however, says that never happened. But that's beside the point. In a world infected by systemic racism, it's how people feel that counts.

Sensitivity to perceived discrimination is so acute these days that it can lead to perverse results. One instructor at the University of Toronto was told not to criticize foreign-born students for their poor language skills, even if they were unintelligible. Some aboriginal students say they shouldn't be evaluated by the same standards as everyone else, because they have different ways of knowing. Yet, as Mr. Al-Solaylee sensibly observes, his students will be working in an English-speaking, Eurocentric world. So they might as well get used to it.

The most bizarre revelation can be found in the report's fine print. Among the students, racism and discrimination scarcely register at all. Only 315 students (out of 28,000) bothered to respond to a task force questionnaire. Half the respondents were white, and half non-white. On the question of whether Ryerson treats students fairly regardless of race, the vast majority of both groups - more than 90 per cent - believed it did. Fewer than 30 of the non-white students said they had ever experienced discrimination. That's a 10th of 1 per cent of the student body.

Naturally, the task force has an explanation for this: People are too scared to speak out! That's the great thing about systemic racism. You don't need any evidence. Every negative proves a positive, and the absence of evidence just proves how bad things really are.

Ryerson used to be a vocational college with an inferiority complex. Maybe the administration figured that, now they're in the big leagues, they need to have their own alarming racism report like everyone else, to show how culturally sensitive they are. Or maybe (as I suspect) they simply want to do their best. Yet, to anyone who reads the fine print, the message is clear: The kids are all right. It's the adults who are out to lunch.

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