‘Everyday racism’ no less violent

Solidarity, awareness required to overcome ‘innocent’ prejudices

Dana Wesley, ArtSci ’09 and Shauna Shiels , MA ’09
Dana Wesley, ArtSci ’09 and Shauna Shiels , MA ’09

In September of this year, the “Cowboys and Indians” themed party that was posted as an event on Facebook using the Queen’s University network deeply disturbed many Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal allied) students, faculty and staff on the Queen’s University campus and in the greater Kingston community.

As the Queen’s Native Students Association’s executive members, we believe mutual respect is crucial to keeping our physical, spiritual, emotional and mental selves in balance. This mutual respect was violated when fellow students decided to support an event that perpetuated racist ideologies regarding Aboriginal peoples.

The reaction of the Queen’s University administration, Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, SGPS, Human Rights Office and AMS was prompt, appropriate and exemplified the serious repercussions that should follow racist acts being committed by Queen’s University students. Considering that more than 100 students were to be involved in this highly problematic event, the editorial written by Jeff Brown wasn’t only necessary but vital to ensuring the feeling of safety for Queen’s Aboriginal students, faculty, staff, and allied non-Aboriginals.    This event is indicative of the deeply embedded racist ideologies held by not only the student creators and supporters of this event, but also within the larger Queen’s University community. Issues of racism at Queen’s are often dismissed without further critical analysis. Why is this? Perhaps the general population of this University is uneducated regarding racism and the myriad of ways it manifests itself in everyday life. Firstly, race is a social construction and isn’t biologically based. The categories of race have been defined socially, politically and historically by the societies in which they exist. It’s important to note, however, that race as a social construction has very real implications on an everyday basis that often includes racism.

The public often conceptualizes racism only in terms of overt displays such as hate crimes defined by codified laws. However, “everyday racism” can be no less violent than overt displays of racism. Unfortunately, experiences of everyday racism often go either unnoticed or are dismissed as trivial because they are difficult to identify.

One of the ways that everyday racism is enacted is through the perpetuation of stereotypes through so-called “innocent” social interactions. A few examples of everyday racism include: asking to touch the hair of a person who is racialized as black; assuming all South Asian peoples identify with Bollywood films; assuming an Aboriginal person receives free education or has “Indian status;” using your privilege to stake claim to someone’s identity, culture, ethnicity or race because you have travelled to their country or participated in a cultural practice; homogenizing East Asian cultures as “all Chinese;” and laughing along with racist jokes. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

These so-called “innocent” social interactions are difficult to identify as everyday racism by perpetrators because they often do not understand the serious repercussions of their words and actions. It’s also important to note that perpetrators of racism aren’t limited to those who are white, as everyone has different experiences with racism and a different colonial legacy. That being said, people who are white must also understand that while they may experience forms of discrimination, racism is fundamentally different in that it’s accompanied by a violent history of colonization that has generational effects.

It’s precisely the precarious nature of everyday racism that makes it so hard to pinpoint and allows it to be perpetuated. People of colour and Aboriginal peoples are often the only ones who are able to identify instances of everyday racism because of a shared history of colonization and racism. However, it’s also this shared history that can create shame, internalized racism and even hate of one’s own people. This can cause people of colour and Aboriginal peoples to passively accept and even comply with racist ideologies.

There are no easy solutions to issues of racism. It’s only from a point of critical engagement that one can undo their prejudices and racist ideologies embedded within their daily lives. As a first step, people must begin to acknowledge their privileges, including race, class and gender, and work through non-constructive ideas of guilt, denial and anger. This is a lifelong project for everyone, but provides insight into how people can begin to work together as allies against racism.

Dana Wesley is the President of the Queen’s Native Students Association.

Shauna Shiels is the Vice-President of the Queen’s Native Students Association.

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