‘The silence is unnerving’: MRU community members call for action against systemic racism on campus
By Karina Zapata & Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Publishing Editor & Layout Editor
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown.
These are only a handful of names being chanted across the globe in a fight for justice against racism.
Over the last several weeks, people of all backgrounds have taken to social media, government officials, employers and more to express concerns about Black lives being lost at the hands of police officers. Thousands have lined the streets, protesting for a safer world for those who struggle to exist safely.
Abdi, a third year Broadcast Media Studies student at MRU whose last name will remain anonymous, compares racism to COVID-19. Like a pandemic, racism is all-encompassing, affects individuals across the globe and can be fatal.
“We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of many. For Black people, however, the coronavirus is just an extension to another pandemic we’ve been facing for decades: systemic racism,” says Abdi.
Among the many conversations taking place in light of these protests is the examination and reconstruction of large institutions that propagate systemic racism on their own community members by promoting white narratives and ideologies that only harm minorities — particularly the Black community.
Some of these institutions include the police, the justice system and schools. Mount Royal University (MRU), situated in a predominantly conservative province, is no exception.
Racist incidents at MRU
University president Tim Rahilly recognizes that systemic racism exists at MRU and that it’s embedded in the institution’s academic culture.
“I believe racism exists and that it does manifest itself in Canada, and no doubt in our own campus community. It manifests as individual acts and is embedded in longstanding systems and academic culture,” wrote Rahilly in his public message entitled, “What do I think about racism?”
MRU students are not new to various incidents of racism on campus. When the Muslim Student Association (MSA) held a peace rally at the university in 2016, anti-Islamic graffiti was found in the smoking area near Wyckham House and on its poster promoting Charity Week. It was September 2019 when ongoing geography instructor Mark Hecht published an anti-immigrant column that cites how many Western nations who promote immigration “ended up with a lot of arrogant people living in their countries with no intention of letting go of their previous cultures, animosities, preferences, and pretensions.”
Further, Rahilly mentioned in his public message that he has witnessed many acts of racism behind the backs of minority groups in his prestigious position as president of the university.
“As a white man, I can’t quantify the number of times people have made derogatory statements about racial minorities, women, LGBTQIA+ and other identities in casual conversation with me.”
Calling on MRU administration
Many members of the MRU community are calling on Rahilly and other MRU administrators to acknowledge racism and white supremacy within the many components of the institution and to dismantle these oppressive systems.
In an email to The Reflector, Rahilly wrote, “The issue of systemic racism has been on my mind, and on the minds of so many members of our campus community — students, alumni, faculty and staff. Many are feeling a great deal of outrage and concern. I recognize the collective desire of the MRU community to do more and do better.”
The Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition, launched in February 2020, is a group of MRU community members who are committed to anti-racist and decolonizing education and mobilization against white supremacy on campus and beyond. They began the coalition to address racism, which they say has existed for a long time and in diverse ways across the institution.
“We have been disappointed with MRU’s administrators’ tepid, and at times evasive responses and inaction,” says the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition, referring to administrators’ silence about racist instances such as anti-Islamic graffiti and anti-Indigenous propaganda circulating on campus. “The silence is unnerving and disheartening for students, staff, and faculty targeted by such hateful actions.”
Further, Abdi says racism is more complex than the covert acts of racism that have been made public at the university in the last several years.
“Even if you do not experience racism directly, as a Black person, you carry on the emotional burden of racism,” says Abdi. “Seeing endless videos of people who look like you mercilessly murdered by a system that is supposedly there to ‘protect’ you weights down on one’s psyche.”
This is why there must be change to challenge systemic racism and white supremacy.
What needs to be done
Echoing the famous words of Angela Davis, Abdi says, “It is not enough to not be racist, but rather we need to be anti-racist.”
To the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition, anti-racism looks like a broad scope of things, including speaking out about racism, listening to and working alongside students who experience racism and conducting research for reducing systemic racism.
It also looks like “committing to anti-racism and decolonization in our teaching and research practices in order to be proactive, rather than reactive. As educators, we have an important role in not only educating about racism but also speaking out against it.”
On the power of educational institutions, Rahilly says, “Universities are uniquely positioned to address systemic racism through dialogue, influence and deliberate change. Throughout the University, this issue is top of mind, dialogue is constant and organized action is starting.”
Beyond the classroom, the coalition says anti-racism also looks like advocating for broader communities by supporting the defunding of police, the collection of data relating to race and inequalities, more resources to support racialized students and fair working conditions for racialized staff.
As a Black student, Abdi is looking for sustainable changes across the institution. One moment of pride for him was taking a required course for all Broadcast Media Studies students called Diversity in Media, which helped him and his classmates understand systemic racism across the Canadian media.
“I would urge the MRU president to customize the course and make it a requirement for every program at MRU. Educating the future generations about systemic racism is a great way to help with the problem,” says Abdi.
Diversity in Media, soon to be changed to Media & Inclusion, was recently opened up as an elective to all School of Communication Studies students.
The Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition says implementing decolonizing syllabi and educational programs is only the beginning of anti-racism work at MRU. They say there also needs to be better representation across the board.
“It is crucial that our students see themselves reflected in the MRU faculty ranks and governance,” says the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition. “Currently, there are still many departments that do not have Black scholars, which has implications for student retention and success. Moreover, Black history and knowledge are often erased from scholarship.”
Abdi would also like to see more representation in sources of information chosen by professors and associates.
“As an institution, MRU should also urge the professors to integrate the works of Black philosophers and thinkers into their coursework rather than just having an abundance of white thinkers,” he says. “I believe the only way to stop the cycle of racism is through education and I believe an institution like MRU can help fuel the progress by having these hard conversations in classrooms.”
Further, on a more systemic level, the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition calls on the abolition of racial hierarchies at MRU — specifically tuition.
“It is essential that we advocate for lowering or elimination of tuition in order to create a less hierarchical management and governance structure within the university. We need to move away post secondary education that furthers capitalist interests, and therefore the interests of white supremacy.”
What has been done so far
Rahilly says there are many projects underway, pointing at the MRU Library’s commitment to anti-racism and the Department of Sociology & Anthropology’s statement on racialized violence in North America.
There is a collective desire from the MRU community for the university to do more and do better when it comes to anti-racism, Rahilly adds. But he also emphasized that “dialogue is the first step.” He hopes that compassionate and empathetic dialogue will be done on campus so that everyone at MRU can learn from each other’s lived experiences.
To make MRU a more inclusive and safe space, the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition believes administration and leadership must first “take an unwavering and clear stance against racism and discrimination on campus.”