You can be unconsciously racist, McMaster expert says

Professor Ameil Joseph weighs in on recent discussion of racism on campus

Protestors gathered outside Robert Sutherland Hall before Tuesday's Senate meeting

“Denial of racism is also racism,” McMaster Assistant Professor, Ameil Joseph said. 

Commenting on the recent controversial events at Queen’s in an interview with The Journal, Joseph — an expert on cultural appropriation and racism — explained how the language used to describe ‘racism’ has evolved from an overt, violent history into something more subversive.

“Malcolm X has a famous quote, racism is always changing,” Joseph said. “‘Racism is like a Cadillac. They bring out a new model every year.’”

While the events of the past week on Queen’s campus have shown that racism isn’t always intentional or malicious, Joseph claims that these actions are equally damaging nonetheless.

“When we understand racism beyond the idea of personal prejudice … and come to appreciate it as a system or structure, this helps us have different kinds of conversations about how the intent of the individual is actually irrelevant,” he said.

He pointed out that it matters less whether an individual has racist intentions, and more about whether someone felt personally attacked or victimized by any actions taken. 

“If you’re participating in that stereotype ... that is attached to dehumanization and denigration, then that of course is a problem.”

Joseph also believes that regardless of personal sentiment, the onus lies on perpetrators and enablers of potentially racist actions, who must put aside their pride and respond accordingly. 

“It’s not about you feeling insulted because you feel you’re being called a racist,” he said. “The repercussions on those affected and what makes it ok for those who participate are what is actually important for learning.”

In a predominantly-white community like Kingston, Joseph said both those involved in the incident, and those involved in the ensuing online dispute, were simply oblivious to the impact of their words and actions. 

“Their particular obliviousness to all of this comes from a place where these experiences are foreign to them, and sustained by a system designed to ignore this or accept it,” he said. 

“It’s not about intent, it’s not about feeling that you resonate with some kind of hatred of any group, but understanding that it’s the how and the why … it’s the people who feel insulted by these practices that matters.”

After years of analyzing the changing landscape of racism, Joseph said the only way for the Queen’s community to move forward from the position they’ve found themselves in is to bridge the gaps between demographics, and stand up for the rights of all individuals as a collective.

This action must be taken on a positive note, however, without being ‘guilted’ into making a change.

“If we leave it on people of colour to constantly prove that racism exists, then we always start at that level of the conversation, that racism may or may not exist, that it’s a personal bias, and then that restricts us from engaging in more complex conversations,” he said. 

“We have to take responsibility and engage in our complicity with systems and structures of racism, and not get caught up in the discourse that has us focused on being insulted because you’re called a racist.”

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