In each of the past three months, at least one racially charged event has made local headlines, from the ‘alt-right’ posters in November to the swastikas spray painted onto the escarpment Rail Trail earlier in February. With that said, student groups on campus have made it their prerogative to combat harmful rhetoric through research, consultations and education.
On Feb. 22, the McMaster Equity and Inclusion Office published a report called “Challenging Islamophobia on Campus Initiative Report”. Written in response to the violent backlash against Muslims following the 2015 Paris attacks, this report outlines the research carried out by the office and their recommendations from their findings.
“The backlash created a climate of fear within the Canadian Muslim community including here at McMaster,” said Raihanna Hirji-Khalfan and Khadijeh Rakie,the staff members tasked with the initiative, alongside the release of the report.
Through roundtable discussions with Muslim students and faculty, the report found Islamophobia exists on campus and intersects with other identities and poses a unique experience for racialized students on campus.The report noted jokes equating Islam to terrorism, discomfort surrounding the portrayals of Muslims in media and the silencing of voices when speaking against Islamophobia as some key issues.
The report also discussed the unique experience of Black Muslims on campus.
“During the roundtable discussion, a Black, visibly Muslim student shared that following deadly attacks attributed to Muslims and Islam there was an expectation for her to speak up in class and denounce the attacks,” the report noted.
The report recommended creating better resources for marginalized students as a way to limit the percolation of Islamophobia on campus, as well as recognizing the threat of Islamophobia. It made note of the Islamophobia they received while conducting their research, particularly from professors emeriti who circulated a newsletter denying the existence of Islamophobia while the researchers ran workshops.
The report also discussed the need for institutional mechanisms to address Islamophobia on campus. The report argued for the implementation of clear punitive measures in the face of hate crimes in order to create a safer campus.
Many groups on campus have echoed the points made by the report in their past work. The McMaster Womanists, in collaboration with the McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, McMaster Muslims for Justice and Peace and Solidarity For Palestinian Rights (McMaster) held an anti-racism action initiative in November.
This meeting asked students and Hamiltonians to discuss what steps the community should take in order to combat racism both on campus and within the city.
The meeting’s executive summary made many points, most notably arguing for more accountability of those who commit hate crimes and allowing marginalized groups to participate in decision making to ensure their voices and concerns are heard.
Other activist groups are currently working to bring injustices to light, such as the aforementioned MMJP. MMJP is currently advocating on behalf of the deceased Soleiman Faqiri, a Muslim man with well-documented schizophrenia, who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances. They have created a campaign called #JusticeforSoli, and ask the public to not only ask questions about the suspicious death but also question the treatment of racialized individuals and those with mental illness within the prison system. Their work has created a dialogue around his death and has been discussed in other media outlets such as CHCH.
While their work has received positive attention, student activists are often met with safety concerns, from having their personal information shared to receiving death threats.
Lina Assi, a Palestinian student activist, has had her information shared online without her consent and regularly receives death threats in response to her activism work.
“The issue of security is that there’s no protection for student activists, there’s no outreach for us with respect to legal matters to protect ourselves from harassment from the community,” said Assi.
Within the McMaster Students Union, anti-racism work is often facilitated through Diversity Services, a service meant to support racialized students on campus. Diversity Services currently offers Anti-Oppression Practices training, which is meant to introduce students in leadership positions to concepts relating to race and inequality, and how to maneuver these concepts in their roles within the union. Currently, only other services which request AOP training receive it.
“Through the training, people engage in thoughtful discussions about complex topics relevant to their positions. The goal, then, if for them to bring the ideals they’ve learned and employ them in their job, volunteer positions, and everyday lives,” said Ryan Deshpande, director of Diversity Services.
Deshpande uses AOP training as a way to better educate students on issues pertaining to race and each session proves to be a different experience.
“Facilitating [AOP training] is not easy – it’s emotionally draining, and many times me and my co-facilitators find our identities and experiences under attack when challenging people’s notions of oppression,” he said.
Desphande hopes to see AOP training become more formalized to increase the number of facilitators and make it more accessible to the student body.
While xenophobic acts have occurred on campus, it is clear that many groups on campus are working together to educate and create a more inclusive future. For anyone who has experienced or seen bigotry on campus, contact the Equity and Inclusion Office, whose office is located in the McMaster University Student Centre, room 212.