The Complicity and Complexities: Realities of Racism conference in review

Article by Victoria Lansdown, Equity and Inclusion Office Communications Assistant

The Equity and Inclusion Office recently partnered with the Liu Institute, Office of the Provost and VP Academic, Vice-President of Students, and UBC Human Resources to provide a space for honest, discussions on real experiences with race and racism at UBC. The full day conference included presentations from faculty, staff, and students that showed the prevalence of current issues surrounding racism and the need for change. Read below for some key takeaway quotes from the dialogue and consider how you can further the conversation and start making a difference toward equity and respect.

The morning presentations discussed the influences of race and racism as led by Wendy Roth, associate professor, Department of Sociology; Antonya Gonzalez, a researcher in the Developmental Psychology lab; Dan Clegg, Counselling Psychology doctoral student in the Faculty of Education; and Henry Yu, associate professor, department of History.

Wendy Roth opened up the discussion by sharing the impact a genetic test result can have on one’s racial identity, and how genetic ancestry testing affects what people think about race. “Race is a social construct, not just genetic.” For example, Wendy explained that “Indio” is a term used among a range of intermediate level races, not just black and white. The same person who would be described as “Indio” in the Congo would be quickly regarded as a black person in a western city like New York. Clearly, race is a social construct, so societal ideals of race are the factors that need to be fundamentally changed.

Antonya Gonzales shared another take on the implications of race in society by discussing the development and presence of implicit race bias. Antonya explained how our implicit biases may be more noticeable to others than they seem to us: “There’s a difference between reported bias and actual bias behavior.” Further, Antonya also shared research that showed children report bias levels undistinguishable from adult bias levels; by the end of kindergarten, children have the same race views as adults. While considering what we can do about this prevalent implicit race bias, Antonya suggested that we target children around age 10 with educational efforts to fundamentally change their perspectives on race and equality.

Next, Dan Clegg discussed what it means to be part of healing education in ways that are dignifying to people living in pain and silence. When describing counseling as an education on the subject matter of life, Dan explained that he “grew up on the boarder of many cultures, with many world views; I learned a lot from the First Nations people about the nature of the land I live on.” Further, Dan explained that the most validating voices of life are those not accepted in academia; if ever there is a call for action, it would be the irony of the discrepancy between academia and honest, quality education.

Listen to Dan Clegg’s presentation:

Finally, Professor Henry Yu wrapped up the morning with his presentation that dissected the UBC mission statement to examine how each aspect of the statement shows who we are and the challenges we face. Henry explained, “We’re not generally cognitive of where we are or who we are and articulating that to ourselves, [which] limits our understanding of students here.” Henry asked the audience to consider “how much of our academic knowledge is shaped by history that extends beyond an academic context?” While facing the shocking facts that have been laid out in front of us, the truth of the matter is that “we are shaped by historical migration and practices that established our ethnic views and the way we live today.” Further, to address this key issue in cultural identity and discrepancy in academic historical knowledge, “we need more discursive spaces to discuss issues before the scandalous reactions blow up.”

As these presenters set the scene for an actionable and honest discussions, they formed a panel and welcomed audience members to ask questions and engage in the dialogue.

As the conversation started rolling, Dr. Annette Henry captivated the audience with her personal experience facing racism in the Faculty of Education. Dr. Henry’s presentation titled “We especially welcome applications from visible minorities”: Reflections on Race, Gender and Life at UBC discussed how “we [at UBC] are so adept to patting ourselves on the back for our diversity, when we are in a place that doesn’t talk about racism; the mere mention of race brings about tension even in a position of tenure.” Further, Annette pointed out how the denial of racism is convenient; people don’t know the diversity of racism in Canadian society. Notably, Annette shared her experience with racial micro-aggressions when sharing a story about a colleague commenting on Dr. Henry’s appearance, “Isn’t there something you could do with your hair? You know, to press it down a bit?” The silent audience was braced with barely audible gasps that epitomized the shock at this experience here at an institution that values diversity and equity. Concluding her presentation, Annette reminded us that “systematic racism is not just a UBC problem, it’s everywhere.”

Listen to Dr. Annette Henry’s presentation:

Afternoon presentations continued the conversation from a different perspective and exemplified the prevalence of racism in the day-to-day struggles of life as a student.

Syed and Marianne, representatives from UBC Hua Dialogues an UBC student club dedicated to providing a space for sometimes controversial, cultural dialogues – discussed the discrepancy of knowledge and respect between the Western world and China: “China understands the west more than we understand China.” Further, the western pejorative understanding of what a “foreigner” would look and sound like directly impacted Syed’s life growing up in British Columbia and learning Chinese at a university level for eight years. Not only did Syed face verbal discrimination by being labeled the “foreign friend” in the UBC Chinese Student Scholars Club, but his rigorous academic studies of China and the language didn’t stop the all-to-common comments like “you aren’t one of us and have no right to talk about us.”

Listen to Syed and Marianne’s presentation:

The next presenter Dominique Bautista, a recent graduate of the Asian Canadian & Asian Migration Studies Program (ACAM), told the story of UBC’s shared history of racist exclusion. After the start of World War II, Japanese students were marginalized and prevented from receiving their degree at UBC. For a long time their voices were unheard and the racism endured, until May 8, 2011 when ACAM presented a community graduation. The graduation ceremony that finally gave 76 of these marginalized voices a set at a table. “Stories of graduates have been lost at UBC; we have a responsibility for dark pasts,” Dominique explained as she invited us to take action and take responsibility for the past by remembering to take the extra step every day, to create a more inclusive and equitable environment among your academic and social peers. Learn more about the Japanese Canadian Student Tribute.

Listen to Dominique Bautista’s presentation:

The final afternoon presenter, Hussain Khan, a Geography major at UBC, wrapped up the second set of presentations by taking a geographical approach to race and racism in his presentation The Middleeasteriszation of Pakistan. He discussed the history behind the western world considering Pakistan to be a part of the Middle East. He recounted the long history of cultural appropriation and exoticization of South Asian culture – for example with henna which is popular with non-South Asian woman who consider it as sensual and decorative; “this is a direct line to south Asian immigration histories” and is a reminder of the importance of considering the impact of cultural appreciation and how we can show respect for cultures.

Listen to Hussain Khan’s presentation: