Own up to society's racist basis

Our contributor argues that we can only rid our culture of racism if we talk about it

Refusing to acknowledge racism makes it an elephant in the room.
Refusing to acknowledge racism makes it an elephant in the room.

Emily Wong, ArtSci ’15

Racism exists at Queen’s. Don’t think it’s an issue? That’s because you haven’t heard about it.

Discussions of race can make people uncomfortable. Nobody wants to be labelled a racist, and that fear might stop people from asking questions about race because they’re afraid of offending someone. It’s seen as a topic that is too loaded and dangerous to talk about.

But if we don’t talk about racism, we won’t know it exists, and as a result, we won’t take the first steps towards addressing it.

Racism exists here at Queen’s, as well as in Kingston, in Ontario, in Canada and all around the world. We need to have open, honest conversations in order to break it down.

Recently, a friend of mine was trying to describe someone to me and asked if she could mention the person’s race. Bringing up a person’s racial background isn’t necessarily racist, but this reflects the fear that many people have of openly talking about the subject.

One morning, I logged onto Facebook and clicked into the “Overheard at Queen’s” group. The usual posts were all there: funny quotes and squirrel pictures, but something I wasn’t expecting caught my eye. There was a comment thread with heated discussion on whether ”Overheard” was an appropriate place to have a discussion about racism.

We don’t all want to talk about race, and this is why platforms such as social media are so important. While there are people who scroll right past posts like this, there will always be people who stop to read, even if they don’t participate. That initial awareness is absolutely crucial — recognition is the first step in sparking critical thought.

A lot people expressed the idea that this Facebook group is meant for amusement and isn’t a forum for debate on social issues.

One of the suggestions was to create a page just for these discussions. Yet what’s significant about the placement of this comment thread in particular is that people who would otherwise be oblivious to issues of racism see that people are talking about it. A separate page for those discussions would only attract people who are interested, despite the fact that talking about racism is everybody’s discussion.

By refusing to talk about race, we are sweeping the problem under the rug rather than openly addressing it. We can’t break down racist barriers if the problem remains unacknowledged.

Too many people tend to think of racism as singular actions, like the use of racial slurs or hate crimes such as the attack on Muslim students here in Kingston a few weeks ago.

In reality, racism is an overarching institutionalized system that exists today but was established by a history of European colonialism, privileging people who are white over people who aren’t. For example, you’ve probably never heard a white person asked how white people feel about a certain issue — to speak on behalf of their entire race. But this is a common anecdote heard amongst visible minorities.

Misunderstanding racism in this way informs a lot of the reluctance to talk about race. People don’t seem to understand that you can be racist without racist intentions. “You’re being too sensitive” or “it was just a joke” are common phrases used to silence people who object to oppressive statements.

Similar to the way you might accidentally elbow someone in the face, that comment or joke you make could be racist even if it wasn’t meant to be.

If someone is offended by something you say because they perceive it to be racist, the most appropriate thing to do is apologize (the same goes for the elbow).

A friend of mine filed a human rights complaint after being repeatedly asked about their ethnic background by a Queen’s University staff member. The complaint was eventually resolved by a mediated discussion. After this, my friend said they felt the instigator understood why the comments were inappropriate after they were made aware of the issue.

We need to have more conversations like these because they help us deconstruct the ideas that perpetrate racism.

Some people claim they don’t see race (i.e, they purport to be “colourblind”). In doing so, they completely erase the historical and cultural racial contexts that our society is built on.

Nobody is colourblind; pretending not to see race provides cover for more subtle forms of racism, such as asking a visible minority where they’re “really” from, or the persistence of stereotypes. Instead of pretending to be “colourblind”, we need to acknowledge race. Recognizing that we are different allows us to address the inequalities some of us face due to those differences.

Ultimately, this will help move us toward more inclusive, equitable practices.


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