In academia we tend to talk about our individual success. Mental health is often treated as individual illness. When someone can’t afford food, the common explanation is that that individual is poor.
The “Social Justice and Human Rights” panel at UVic on April 5 encouraged participants to look beyond the individual to the structures of society that are granting or limiting their opportunities.
The panel was part of a day-long conference titled “Intersectionality of Health: Connecting the Dots.”
UVic Human Rights Education Advisor Moussa Magassa was one speaker on the panel. He was born in Senegal and immigrated to Canada.
“In Africa … they say, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’: you are not a person without others, which means that an individual is an individual but it is … not enough unless you look at them through the community, the system, and the whole,” said Magassa.
“We have … to challenge ourselves to move away from this habit of thinking [only of the] individual … Our Western approach is always [to] look at the individuals and forget the rest,” Magassa said.
“So many people who are impacted by food insecurity are those who are coming from a variety of marginalized backgrounds.”
Studying social justice moves us to challenge this Western approach, said panelist Margo Matwychuk, Director of the Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Program in Social Justice Studies. Without a systemic understanding we get stuck applying “band-aid solutions,” she said.
“We have to do the things now that address [the] problems that result from inequality, but ultimately what we’re wanting to do … is address the problem of inequality [itself],” said Matwychuk.
Matwychuk illustrated her point with an image.
“You’ve got the tap open in the bathtub and you’re scooping water out but there’s still more water coming in,” she said.
“So it’s shifting that perspective: where do we need to put our time and energy into dealing with this issue?”
Undergraduate student Alexandra Ages spoke on the panel about her work “scooping water” as the coordinator of the Food Bank and Free Store. As a band-aid solution, the Food Bank feeds anywhere between 300 and 500 students on any given week.
“I don’t want the Food Bank to exist because it shouldn’t have to exist. We are an exceptionally wealthy country and it’s ridiculous to see that food is not considered a basic human right.”
Ages has observed that certain social groups use the Food Bank at higher rates.
“So many people who are impacted by food insecurity are those who are coming from a variety of marginalized backgrounds,” she said. “The reason why they can’t [afford food] is very often … due to these systemic barriers that students are facing.”
Matwychuk calls these barriers “structural violence.” That is, the “structured ways of doing things within society that systematically injure or harm individuals or groups of individuals.”
Islamophobia — the prejudice, fear, or hatred of Islam and often Muslims in general — is a form of structural violence that became more widespread after 9/11. If left untempered, it can give way to horrific tragedies.
It is dismantling these structures that will help us turn off the tap, Matwychuk said.
Structural violence can take many forms. She listed a few of them: “Elitism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, classism, racism, sexism, nationalism, ageism, colonialism, ableism, and all those other ‘isms’ we can think about.”
Magassa said he had felt the effects of structural violence firsthand.
“When I was young, many years ago in Paris, I was beaten, badly beaten, in a coffee shop,” Magassa said. “The reason was because [a person] called me ‘nigger; and I tried to stand up to him. I woke up in a hospital.”
There were 29 adult bystanders in the room. No one defended Magassa, nor offered to be a witness. The assault went unsentenced.
Being Muslim, Magassa has also felt the impacts of Islamophobic discourse. Islamophobia — the prejudice, fear, or hatred of Islam and often Muslims in general — is a form of structural violence that became more widespread after 9/11. If left untempered, it can give way to horrific tragedies, Magassa said.
“We see [Islamophobia] everyday on TV, and we never turn that TV off. We hear it from our politicians and we still vote for them … It creates and encourages those [violent acts] like the Quebec mosque attack. It creates the Christchurch attack. It creates the synagogue attack [in Pittsburg].”
But to demonize the people perpetuating these attitudes can just lead to more violence, said Magassa.
“What I want is to get rid of racism, not to get rid of the racists,” he said. “The question I ask myself [is] how do we deal with racism?”
“As a [racialized] individual I would say that we first need to decolonize our mind and bodies. [What] I mean by that [is] that we need to deconstruct our powerful, unexamined … negative ideas of ourselves that was inculcated to us by the racists. We should see ourselves as human — fully human.”
Matwychuk also pointed to self-reflection as a crucial act for those individuals who benefit from structural violence.
“[Social justice practice] requires self-reflection, critical reflexivity about one’s own positionality and privileges … [One] must act strategically from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice,” she said.
“Muslim people are continuously stereotyped … in the classroom, on campus, in the curriculum, in the instruction, the teaching, the university system, and in the community.”
However, all panelists agreed that just as we need to look beyond the individual to analyze the problem, we must also do so to find the solutions to structural violence.
Magassa pointed out that looking beyond the individual includes looking at the very institutions within which academics are studying these issues.
“Islamophobia … is pervasive and systemic, and Muslim people are continuously stereotyped … in the classroom, on campus, in the curriculum, in the instruction, the teaching, the university system, and in the community.”
Ages agreed that, as an institution, the University of Victoria has a long way to go in walking its talk of breaking down structural violence on campus.
“While UVic and other institutions do a lot to get students in the door, once they get there there is so little support in place,” Ages said.
“We’re seeing … first generation [immigrant] students, … Indigenous students, … [and] racialized students come into this institution being told that they’re going to be supported … and then having to constantly face being on the brink of going hungry, or being kicked out of their house, or any number of issues,” she said.
Ages pointed to the fact that these barriers in academia create a feedback loop, reducing chances of success even further.
“Looking beyond even the basic health problems that come from not having access to food is the fact that if you’re constantly going hungry, how on earth are you supposed to … succeed in academic institutions?”
As the panel came to a close, an ardent applause swept through the room. When the ovation abated, however, the audience was left with the sobering reality that the water in the bathtub was still running.
Sitting for a moment, listening to people reflect with their neighbours on their positionality and the systems around them, the room felt full not of individuals but of a community, and the weight of turning off the tap couldn’t help but feel lighter.