On October 25, students flooded into the SSMU building, ready for an evening of Halloween debauchery at 4Floors. Amongst the kittens, superheroes, and Waldo’s, was, disturbingly enough, at least one student dressed in blackface, several costumes of sexualized indigenous women, and other ethnic stereotypes. What is perhaps even more troubling than the fact that students at our hallowed “institution of higher learning” thought these were acceptable costumes, is the aura of silence that surrounded their actions. These people were able to enter a described “safe space,” party to their heart’s content, and then go home without being questioned or confronted. Even worse, photographs of these students at the event were later posted on Facebook by a McGill publication without a second thought for the inherent racism involved in the act of costuming oneself as another race.
The belief that we live in a racism-free country is a naive one. Racism is expressed in Canada through covert and subtle acts. Outright acts of racism are no longer socially acceptable, and are easily condemned. This is racism that hides behind proclaimed innocence (‘It was just a joke, man’) and ignorance that is prevalent in Canada, and – as demonstrated on October 25 – our own campus. Silence often accompanies acts of covert racism – tell me you’ve never been in this situation before: your friend makes a derogatory joke about another race; you feel distinctly uncomfortable. Do you speak up? Or do you laugh and move on, knowing their response will be, ‘Relax, I’m only joking?’ Perhaps at 4Floors, a student felt disgusted with the person who attended in blackface, but hesitated to say something, knowing they would receive a response similar to the one outlined above. Through silence, covert racism gains power by contributing to the myth that if ‘it’s only a joke’ or ‘it’s just for fun’ then it’s acceptable.
After graduating from high school, I came to McGill with the innocent belief that university represented a bastion of free-thinking and intellectual debate, free from prejudice and ignorance. Coming from my predominantly white high school, it initially did seem a more diverse and accepting campus. However, it is this facade of multiculturalism and understanding that covers the more insidious forms of racism, by masking structural racism and student apathy. It’s easy to be principled in theory – to do a reading for a class, or read an article, such as Tiffany Harrington’s “A haunting disguise indeed!” (Commentary, October 25, page 6) – and agree. Yet, when it comes to applying these concepts to student life, there seems to be a barrier. The prevailing thought is, ‘Well, I’m not racist, and this is just a joke (costume, for fun, et cetera).’ But our actions matter. When “Pocahontas” is your Halloween costume of choice, you are contributing to the stereotyping of Aboriginal women. You are normalizing the idea that Aboriginal women are somehow sexually deviant and available to anyone. This racist perception contributes to the chilling reality that indigenous women have to live with: three times as many Aboriginal women have suffered violence than non-Aboriginal women.
As a white person who grew up in suburban Calgary, Alberta, I cannot pretend to know the effect that racism has on the conscious self. I will never know what it feels like to have a collective history of oppression; I will never know what it feels like to be harassed by the police force because of the colour of my skin; and I will never know what it feels like to walk into a Halloween party and see a fellow student on my campus caricaturing and demeaning my skin colour. To feel empathy is not enough, however. Covert racism will only be recognized if we all first acknowledge our own roles within the perpetuation of this oppression, myself included. If we remain silent when we recognize an act of racism, then we are just as guilty and ignorant as the person who made the joke, or the comment, or dressed up in blackface. So speak up. Call people out on their derogatory remarks. Let’s all make each other accountable for our actions.
Victoria Lessard is a U4 Art History and English Literature student and a Daily Culture editor. The views expressed her are her own. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.