The Guardian (Charlottetown)

Systemic racism exists at university, McGill professor says


MONTREAL — A McGill professor says systemic racism exists at the esteemed university, which bears the name of slave owner James McGill.

As one of only 10 Black permanent professors at McGill, Charmaine Nelson says the university needs to address the underrepre­sentation of Black and Indigenous people among a faculty of more than 1,700.

“These are disturbing numbers. In 2020, we have 0.5 per cent Black faculty and 0.6 per cent Indigenous faculty. I think that’s unacceptab­le,” said Nelson, an art history professor.

“If McGill was in the U.S.A. with these numbers, in many cases, the state would have intervened and imposed a (hiring) quota on them. That’s how bad the numbers are. They would have said, ‘You cannot be trusted to diversify on your own if you can only hire 10 Black people out of 1,700 positions that are permanent’.”

Asked if systemic racism exists at McGill, Nelson replied: “Of course. What do you think it feels like to be me or to be one of my nine colleagues who are Black professors?

“The world for the students then is that they’ve become accustomed to looking at the front of the classroom and it’s almost always a white man looking back at them. What that does to them is condition them to think that embodied knowledge looks like a white man.”

Nelson, who has been at McGill since 2003, does not feel welcome on campus.

“It’s not a safe place for people of colour,” she said. “As someone who is so underrepre­sented, it takes on an extra burden of having to be able to create an environmen­t in order to make myself feel safe.

“McGill does not even acknowledg­e the fact that we are having a different experience at the institutio­n and there is no specific support in place for us.”

Nelson and a group of her students recently released a report outlining James McGill’s slave-owner past, as well as the challenges facing staff and students who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour on campus today.

Although research found McGill had multiple slaves, Nelson said the report’s recommenda­tions stopped short of asking the institutio­n to change its name in time for the university’s bicentenni­al anniversar­y in 2021.

“We felt like the name change would be something that people would too easily dismiss because of a legal document. James McGill’s will stipulated that $10,000 go to the building of a higher educationa­l institutio­n which had to have his name on it in some capacity. So why fight that fight? We have bigger fish to fry.”

However, she is in favour of removing McGill’s statue from the lower campus.

“I’m an art historian and I don’t believe in censorship, but the problem I have with statue is the way it is placed now: in an outdoor public space with a plaque. It is meant to be an object of reverence in the name of James McGill. So if you move it into museum and give it another type of critical context, the statue can be a teaching tool.”

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