* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
At first, everything seems normal in the basement of the Wallberg building at UofT. I, as a self-proclaimed ‘artsy,’ feel excessively out of place amid the painted concrete columns, the gawking self-conscious adult males and the students studying between neat piles of garbage on the metal tables. The ‘Pit,’ as the engineers call it, is truly fetid – it’s a cowboy themed Friday night, and some students are intermingling amid the bales of hay and loose leaf papers, casually sipping warm beer out of red Dixie cups. A country song by The Band Perry is being blasted out of hastily set up speakers on a plastic table. It is a surreal experience.
“I didn’t know engineers had fun,” I whisper, laughing, to my engineering friend who brought me here. She is staring at a group of boys (adult males – but really boys) clad in plaid, playing soccer on the second floor.
“Sometimes we do,” she replies back, a tone of humor in her voice.
“It almost makes me want to be an engineer.”
“These events take away the pain of the schoolwork,” she laughs, “Sometimes it’s nice to forget how tough university is.”
There is a lull in our conversation, and I look around again. I pause, realizing something.
The three students serving beer in the back corner are white. The boys in plaid on the second floor are white. The girl sitting, taking a snapchat of herself in between the speakers, is white. The boy awkwardly leaning against the wall in a cowboy hat, is white. The girls chatting, nonchalantly taking sips of their drinks, are white.
“Wait, Liz*,” I hiss at her, nudging her with the tip of my toe, “Why are they all white?”
She giggles at me, under her breath, and then explains to me that the Asians go home to study. That the white kids, the white commuter kids, upon entering the engineering program, have an advantage because of their race. That the ‘popular’ engineers are largely the white ones. That the white female girls have a sexual advantage because of their skin color. That the Asians do well in school, but the white kids organize the social events.
I nod my head. I let loose a laugh. I accept this hierarchy of race with a nonchalant blink of my eyes. Everything that she is saying is what everybody talks about on campus, albeit slightly hushed, albeit slightly self-consciously. This is, after all, UofT.
From the moment that you step onto the St. George campus, the race division is so clear it might as well be set in stone. Herds of Asian students crowd the Chinese food truck in front of Sid Smith, the Arts and Science building – there is practically a set division between groups of students because of their skin color. White kids pour out of Humanities classes; Asians flock into the Sciences.
The racism is so deeply enrooted in the university culture that it is accepted as mainstream. A friend of mine laughs as she comments to me that she “doesn’t do Asian friends.” In my second year English class, there are maybe ten multi-racial students in comparison to the seventy white ones. At the main library on campus, Robarts, I watch two white students giggle and take photos of an Asian boy sleeping on top of his books. One of the girls flashes the peace sign as she sticks out her tongue behind him, the other girl stifling chuckles as she snaps a quick photo of them, the Asian boy oblivious, passed out on a textbook. Nobody does anything. I don’t do anything. I go back to reading Yeats. Everyone makes fun of Asians sleeping in libraries. This is ‘normal.’ This is, after all, UofT.
“Do you think they’re actually smarter than us?” I ask a friend from class, when we’re walking across Queen’s Park together, “I mean, all those stereotypes. That Asians are naturally smarter than white kids.”
He shrugs. “Probably. They’re like machines. Honestly, they probably just have a better set of genes or something. They gave up their souls for their grades.”
The girl walking beside us bursts into loud, raucous laughter.
Upon learning that a female friend of mine won a scholarship to attend graduate school in the Humanities, I call her up to congratulate her for her incredible achievement. Over the phone, she lowers her voice.
“I don’t know if I can even go.”
“Lucy*, what are you talking about? You’re one of the most intelligent people that I know!”
“Tamie, it’s not that. I feel like a fraud.”
“I mean – I’m studying the Humanities, but I’m Asian.”
“Lucy, that has nothing to do with this.”
“It has everything to do with this. If I am a different ethnicity from these authors that I am studying, who could possibly respect me as a scholar?”
I’m flabbergasted. I don’t speak for a couple seconds. When I reply, my answer is short: “That’s dumb.”
In the 2001 Census, 42.8% of Toronto’s population reported themselves as belonging to a visible minority group in comparison to the ‘white’ majority. The GTA is lauded as being arguably the most multicultural cosmopolitan area in the world, with groups from South Asia, the Filipines, Africa, and Latin America flocking to our city. In 2006, Toronto was noted as being home to 30% of all recent immigrants to Canada; in 2006, the percentage of visible minority groups grew from 42.8% to 47%. I have no doubt that the visible minority group has easily surpassed the ‘majority’ population by the present date in 2014.
Despite Canada’s famous penchant for incorporating immigrant communities like a ‘salad bowl’ rather than the ‘mixing pot’ of our neighbours down south, the top institution in Canada presents a completely different picture: ethnicities are so blatantly ostracized from one another that racism is mainstream and accepted, rather than hidden. The turf war is not physical, like what our Canadian ancestors experienced during the anti-semitic Christie Pits riot of 1933, but verbal. The fists and bats wielded between the Harbord and St. Peter’s clubs have been replaced, 41 years later, with a murmuring discontent that is knowingly accepted and seeps into the bones of all UofT students with a pulse. To deny this racism exists, is to accept.
I grab coffee with a friend at the Tim Hortons at Bedford and Bloor, and the table next to us is occupied by a group of young, loud, cheerful Asian students speaking in their native tongue. My friend sitting across from me tilts her head towards them and rolls her eyes emphatically, before lowering her back and arching towards me with a dangerous whisper.
“I don’t understand how they can come to study in Canada, and still not learn the language.” She lets loose a series of guttural sounds meant to imitate the Asians beside us, and then leans back. “Like, come back when you can speak English, okay? So annoying.”
A white boy sitting in front of us turns around and flashes her a sympathetic grin.
It is not simply the white students, however, who are the aggressors in this underground racism. Hanging out with an Asian acquaintance at Kelly library, she sits across from me and starts discussing her Calculus homework. She’s in first year, and I reach across the table and show her how to differentiate one of her problem sets. Her jaw drops.
“How did you know how to do that?”
“I’m a transfer student from Western. I studied science for a year there.”
Her eyebrow arches. Her lips purse. I can feel the hidden assumption rumbling underneath the table between us: I must have dropped out of science because I’m white. Because everyone knows that white kids aren’t as good at science as Asian kids. She lets loose a giggle, and then the words I fear drop out of her mouth like bombs.
“But you’re just so … white!”
I clench my fists. I do not punch her across the face like I want to. I do not explain that I could have stayed in science if I wanted to, that I left because I needed to find a passion and chase that for the rest of my life. The words would make no difference.
Let me tell you the truth, even if it is not easy, even if it is not what you want to hear. Let me tell you the truth, even if you say that I am exaggerating, that I am wrong, that there can be no remnant racism in an institution as inclusive as UofT. Let me tell you the truth, even if you disagree, even if you scream, even if you say it is just my friends, it is just my experience, it is just my problem. Let me tell you the truth – that at the University of Toronto, the racism is so thick that it sticks to your shoes when you walk through the buildings. Let me tell you the truth, that when the always controversial Mayor Rob Ford blurted out that the Oriental people were slowly taking over, that they work like dogs, that they sleep beside their machines, for a second I felt a strange new feeling bubbling up in my stomach, for a second I wondered if he was right, for a second I wondered if everyone was right. Let me tell you the cold hard truth, that when I walk past herds of Asian students on campus, I wonder why they don’t ever seemingly talk to white kids. Let me tell you the cold, hard, brutal truth – that Toronto’s status as multicultural does not automatically deem it devoid of racism. That there is a horribly deep, entrenched status divide between the Asians and the whites at the University of Toronto. And that I do not know how to fix it.
Sometimes I worry that because of this culture that I am assimilated in, that I am racist by default. This worry keeps me up at night. Some might say that is silly, that I care too much – I agree. I do care too much. I am an English Major. It is my job to care too much. I catch myself sitting in Humanities classes and assuming that the Asian boy sitting in the corner on his laptop is a science student who is taking ENG202 as an elective. I worry that I associate the Oriental populous with maths and sciences, and I worry that because of an individual’s skin color, I instantly judge them as a certain type. I worry that the majority of my friends are white. I worry why I am not worried that the majority of my friends are white. I worry that my success – academic, professional, familial – will not be due to my personal prowess at a subject, but because of white privilege. I worry that as a society, we are too scared to talk about race and ethnic and gendered identities because we fear being denoted as racist, as sexist, simply by virtue of identifying the problem. I worry, constantly, that nobody will talk about these issues. More than that, I worry that if I talk about these issues, I will be villanized by virtue of speaking the truth.
“Why do they always hang out together,” Susan* bemoans, laughing a little, as we walk together past another group of Asians huddled in front of the library.
I think about her question, and realize something, turning to her with a bit of shock.
“Well I mean,” I reply, slowly, pulling on the straps of my backpack, “I guess we hang out together a lot too.”
She is quiet, and turns to look at me for a second too long.
“I guess,” she replies, before turning away.
There is no easy solution. I do not know if there is a solution. But silence is not the answer.