Quiet and polite manifestations of racism run deep in Canadian institutions, including journalism schools

To counter it, students must feel a genuine shift in mindset from faculty.

July 29, 2020

I’ll never forget the time my heart dropped when reading the title of an essay one of my Black journalism students submitted for a college journalism class titled “Why minority students are silent in discussions about race.”

My mind raced: Had I inadvertently said something problematic during our many classes around media coverage of race? Or had someone else said or done something that I hadn’t caught?

I was already feeling apprehensive about this particular senior year class. I noticed early on the students of color were noticeably quieter than their peers during our weekly discussions on responsible reporting practices around polarizing topics like race, gender, terrorism and climate change. Their silence disappointed me, partly because our discussions could have been richer and more diverse, and partly because a heavy portion of the final evaluation was weighted around their engagement in these discussions.

The following week, I asked the student if we could speak privately after class. I asked if anything had taken place in the class that prompted her to write on this topic.

She shrugged. Not necessarily, she said. Her choice of topic was simply a response to something she experienced her entire college program, particularly when sitting in classes that covered social justice-related topics: White students would often pipe up with their thoughts around racial injustices, while those with lived experiences would sit silent.

I pressed her. As a racialized instructor myself, I had a sense of what she was going to say. But I needed to hear it directly. Her observations were critical, and they needed to be communicated back to the college’s all-white senior faculty.

“Why would students who have experienced racial discrimination not want to contribute to discussions like this?” I asked. “Wouldn’t talking about this in class be a great way to better inform other students and give them a sense of what social injustice really looks and sounds like?”

“It’s the anxiety that comes with it,” she told me. When Black students speak up about race, she said, there’s a certain social pressure to feel like they need to represent everyone from their community. Then there’s the fear of being labeled overly sensitive, or for some, too “aggressive”, in front of other classmates.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this, just sad to hear the weariness in her tone. It seemed clear that while she felt strongly enough to write a thoughtful, well-informed opinion article on the topic, she also felt resigned that any actual change could come out of it: It was just the way things were, and of how they would always be.

It was also hard to hear because I felt somewhat responsible. I worried that I hadn’t done enough to make the classroom feel like a safe space to speak. This, despite being a visible Muslim myself and knowing the feeling of exclusion all too well.

A few months before that, another of my Black students, a woman who moved to Toronto from Jamaica to study journalism, submitted an opinion article assignment reflecting an incident that took place while she was interning at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most esteemed national newspaper. She had been sent out to get public reaction to one of the city’s most popular spring traditions — the emergence of cherry blossoms in peak bloom at Toronto’s High Park.

Any journalism student will tell you that approaching sources to interview — whether in person or cold calls over the phone — is daunting. Nervous but excited, she decided to approach the first people she saw, who happened to be an elderly white couple. She introduced herself as a reporter from The Globe and Mail.

“I noticed their smiles turned to frowns; their eyes began to search me from head to toe,” my former student described in her article. “You don’t look like a Globe and Mail reporter to me,” they said. “Do you have some sort of ID?”

She didn’t, of course. Student interns are not typically given (nor are normally asked for) identification. In her article, she recalled the moment: “I was now embarrassed and infuriated by her unwarranted request. The couple then looked at me with what looked like faces of contempt and walked off without uttering another word. It was then that I realized that the white couple’s judgment of me, though unpleasant, wasn’t far-fetched or inaccurate. The face of Canadian mainstream media is still predominantly white.”

She’s right of course. A 2010 study by researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto revealed the overwhelming whiteness of Canadian media industry leadership; fewer than 5% of board members and executives were people of color. Minorities are also vastly underrepresented among national newspaper columnists: 88% of them are white, according to a study released earlier this year. Until last month, not a single national newspaper had a regular Indigenous columnist. (The Globe and Mail recently announced that Indigenous author and journalist Tanya Talaga will begin writing bimonthly columns). These numbers are difficult to reconcile in a country that has become less white, according to Census figures. It’s especially problematic for a city like Toronto, where more than 50% of residents identify as visible minorities and the federal government consistently touts itself as being culturally inclusive.

Newsroom demographics must represent the demographics of communities they serve, journalism professors tell their students. But how can we control what our students experience during their internships and after graduation? I may teach my students how to report respectfully on issues within marginalized communities — including learning about the history of those communities in Canada — but who is going to teach those principles to working journalists?

And what happens when respected institutions in society peddle journalists who don’t adhere to these practices? When Massey College, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, chose to appoint Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente in a prestigious fellowship position last month, many journalists and educators were outraged. Wente has a well-documented history of plagiarism and inflammatory columns dealing with race. As Lisa Taylor, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, put it: “Going forward how do we convince journalism students that plagiarism is a career-ender when an institution like Massey College wouldn’t back down from honouring a serial plagiarist? How do we explain why Massey College ever chose to celebrate Wente’s dog-whistle screeds on race and gender in the first place?”

As a faculty member (and a part-time one at that, meaning I have limited power or influence to lead reform) I do what I can. Deeper conversations with faculty members yielded much sympathy, and a disturbing trend: Nearly all Black male students dropped out of the journalism program before the fourth year. No one seemed to know why.

But sympathy is not enough. My former student, now graduated and freelancing, tells me that she felt deeply put off from working in Canadian newsrooms after her internship experience. She recalls mentioning the incident in the park to her (white) editor at the Globe, who expressed surprise, with a tone of dismissiveness. “I could tell she didn’t really know what it was like, to be spoken to like that,” she said. Worse still, she felt the same cool silence from senior faculty members who had helped coordinate the internship — even after her op-ed was published on a college media site and became one of its most widely shared articles.

These are the quiet and polite manifestations of racism and white privilege that run deep in Canadian institutions. Based on the limited data available, people of color are likely to be given a seat at the table (though I would argue that this is the case more for brown and Asian people than Black), as long as they don’t push too hard.

Pushing “too hard” could include: Trying to implement concrete measures that genuinely foster equity (as opposed to mere discussion and polite expressions of sympathy) or calling out those who unashamedly oppose it.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the snaky nature of Canadian racism better than when political party leader Jagmeet Singh was suspended last month from the House of Commons for refusing to apologize after calling Bloc Quebecois Member of Parliament Alain Therrien a racist.

Singh made the retort after Therrien opposed his motion to condemn systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (something the RCMP commissioner herself admitted a week earlier). Singh’s motion highlighted the fact that “several Indigenous people have died at the hands of the RCMP in recent months.” It asked MPs to support a review of the RCMP’s budget, release all of its use-of-force reports and review its tactics for dealing with the public.

All the MP’s in the House supported the motion, except Therrien.

At a press conference after the incident, Singh explained himself. “It was this brazen act of one MP to not just say no but to say no loudly and to kind of gesture like this,” he told a press conference, waving his hand like trying to brush off a fly.

“In that gesture, I saw exactly what has happened for so long,” Singh said. “People see racism as not a big deal, see systemic racism and the killing of Indigenous people as not a big deal, see Black people being the subject of violence and being killed as not a big deal, and in the moment I saw the face of racism.”

How is it not possible to seethe over the fact that an elected politician of color — someone with lived experience of racism, unlike the vast majority of other Canadian politicians — is being punished for refusing to apologize for calling out a white politician on charges of racism, especially when those charges are undeniably accurate?

Therrien has consistently promoted anti-Muslim content on his Facebook page, including promoting a blog by a Université du Québec à Montréal professor known for controversial views, including characterizing Islam as a “cancer.” In 2017, when a white supremacist attacked a Québec mosque, killing five people, Therrien issued a public statement claiming he had no idea what motivated the killer.

The way Canadian media covered Singh’s suspension was also problematic. Instead of discussing the issue at hand — Therrien’s reasoning behind voting no and the fact that systemic racism exists within Canadian institutions — coverage focused on Singh.

In the days after, Black advocates like Elsa Kaka, a law school graduate and co-host of “The Ordinary Black Girl Podcast,” mused on how one of the worst things you can call white people now is racist. But how can being called racist be more offensive than racism itself? It’s a question liberal allies would do well to contemplate.

When I go back to the (virtual) classroom in the fall, I’ll be teaching journalism students who have witnessed mounting anger and pushback against homogenous newsrooms and college faculties. In academic institutions, there will be new commitments made to hire diverse faculty, include more material and examples produced by Black, Indigenous and other journalists of color and new courses that teach how to report responsibly on stories that affect Black Canadians. The thinking is that if more people are informed and willing to ask hard questions, equity will prevail. But will journalism instructors demonstrate a genuine shift in mindset? Will students feel the difference?

Producing critical thinkers — not just reporters who churn out daily news copy — is what gives me hope. In the words of technology and social media researcher danah boyd, I want us to contend with reality, not just the ideals that we imagine we could one day build.

Shenaz Kermalli is a journalism instructor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. She can be reached via email at shenaz.kermalli@gmail.com or Twitter.

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