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Insidious racism at Western University embedded within the institution: anti-racism working group

The gothic tower of University College at Western University, Dec. 4, 2018.
The gothic tower of University College at Western University, Dec. 4, 2018. Peter Spiro / Getty Images

The report from Western University’s Anti-Racism Working Group (ARWG), submitted to university president Alan Shepard on May 19, has now been made public.

Shepard has also released a response, which outlines the recommendations he is immediately committing to.

The world is at a turning point,” he wrote, “and at Western, we have opportunities to participate fully in that turning point.”

The publication comes just two days before a virtual town hall scheduled for Wednesday, which will further outline Western’s response to the report.

While the report struck a hopeful tone — outlining concrete steps for the school to take and commending the president for “his leadership in starting this important and overdue conversation” — it also stressed that the findings affirmed that racism is systemically embedded within the entirety of the institution and that there is currently little recourse for those wishing to address the issue.

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The working group was launched in response to incidents in October 2019, when a Black student was subjected to racist emails after she called out the professor’s use of the N-word during a lecture. That experience prompted a meeting between Shepard and several ethnocultural working student organizations, as well as a joint statement from the Ethnocultural Support Services, the African Students’ Association, the Black Students’ Association, the Caribbean Students’ Organization, the University Students’ Council and the Society of Graduate Students.

After further consultation, the working group was established. Members held open and closed listening sessions, collected confidential written statements, developed an online “campus climate” survey, and conducted an external survey of other universities for context.

The findings — systemic racism throughout campus

Examples of racism were found across campus — in public and private spaces, during departmental meetings and in classroom settings — suggesting that those who experience racism often experience it in multiple locations and incidents aren’t specific to certain places, according to the ARWG. The findings also suggest racism is perpetrated by “peers,” with 29.6 per cent of undergraduates experiencing racism via another undergraduate student, and 26.3 per cent of faculty experiencing racism from another faculty member.

The report also suggests that those who’ve experienced racism face a confusing and cumbersome path to report it, and that there are few repercussions for perpetrators.

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Specific to anti-Black racism, the working group found that the October 2019 incidents involving racist emails to a student were “not isolated or singular in nature,” but were part of “a deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy that remains pervasive—evident to those who live it, but hidden from, willfully ignored, or denied by those who don’t.”

The report highlighted the work of Western psychology professor Philippe Rushton, who propagated “epistemic racial violence under the guise of ‘scientific research’ in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

As Kharissa Edwards reported in the student newspaper, The Gazette, on Feb. 8, 2019, Rushton “believed that brain size and genital size were inversely related.” Edwards notes Rushton’s research was often funded by the Pioneer Fund, “an American organization whose founder is recognized as a Nazi-sympathizer.” The foundation has also been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The ARWG Report asks me to acknowledge and apologize for the deep harm that has been experienced by many members of the Western community and beyond as a result of Rushton’s work,” Shepard wrote.

“I do apologize sincerely for that deep harm that has been experienced. I acknowledge how divisive events of decades past can continue to impact the present. And I do so in the hope and conviction that Western has the opportunity to focus on the future, and to participate fully in building a better and more just world.”

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Confronting racism in Canada on National Indigenous Peoples Day
Confronting racism in Canada on National Indigenous Peoples Day

The report found that Indigenous students face racism “related to colonial assumptions and misperceptions about Indigenous peoples and ways of knowing.” The report found a chronic under-representation of Indigenous peoples among faculty and staff and a “systemic under-representation of Indigenous perspectives in curriculum content” that left staff feeling “undervalued and exploited” as they dealt with extremely high workloads.

The working group heard from Jewish students who reported that professors would call on them in class “strictly on the basis of their ethnic identity” or that they would minimize the impact of the Holocaust “by equating or comparing the actions and views of contemporary politicians” to Adolf Hitler. The report also noted an ongoing issue with swastikas being drawn in bathrooms on campus.

Additionally, ARWG found that the Jewish practice of keeping Shabbat “was mocked in class” and that students were “denied or struggled” to receive academic accommodation to observe religious holidays.

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Female Muslim students are commonly subjected to sexism, harassment and racial microaggressions at Western University, the report found. The Muslim Students’ Association reported that 50 per cent of first-year Muslim students “do not feel comfortable living in residence.” As well, the report found that there are an estimated 2,000 Muslim students on campus but only one prayer room with a capacity for 35 people. The report states that the University of Waterloo has five prayer rooms while the University of Ottawa has three, for comparison.

Additionally, the report states members of other racialized groups on campus shared stories and concerns. For example, students from Asian countries reported “hurtful comments related to the coronavirus” and “racial microaggressions associated with wearing hygienic masks.” Students from Middle Eastern countries, the report continued, shared stories about “being subjected to racist remarks by their peers and professors” in relation to stereotypes.

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Recommendations

The report makes 24 recommendations across all aspects of Western University, including policy, training, hiring, curriculum, communications and Western’s history.

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In Shepard’s statement, he writes that “all of the recommendations are helpful, and will be addressed as we move ahead.” However, Shepard highlighted specific recommendations that “can receive immediate resources, attention, and commitment to make them happen.”

Those recommendations include establishing a senior role at the university to lead equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts; establishing a council to advise on ongoing anti-racism and EDI work, including the collection and publication of relevant data and progress updates; conducting a review of existing policy for reporting racist incidents; carrying out an awareness campaign to combat racism; and committing to additional funding for anti-racism, equity and inclusion initiatives.

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