June 28, 2016

Confronting a culture of silence

Queen’s made headlines two years ago for its ‘whiteness.’ Has anything changed since then?

Frances Henry says the term “culture of whiteness” isn’t unique to Queen’s.
Frances Henry says the term “culture of whiteness” isn’t unique to Queen’s.

The first time Enakshi Dua realized she wasn’t comfortable at Queen’s was during a trip to Toronto in December of her first year living in Kingston.

Dua, now a sociology professor at York University, taught at Queen’s from 1994 to 2001, when she was one of the first faculty members of colour to leave the University because of discrimination.

“In December I came to visit Toronto and I visited IKEA,” Dua said. “I start walking in IKEA and after about five minutes I’m smiling and I’m thinking, ‘Why am I smiling? I hate IKEA!’ What I realized was subconsciously, two things were happening. I was surrounded by people of colour, but more importantly no one was staring at me. I wasn’t standing out. In the previous three months I stood out and people noticed me in a different way. I t started becoming embodied in me unconsciously. I started to relax and smile in a place where I rarely smile. It’s not easy always to point out what’s happening, but it’s constant in your life. You walk into a restaurant, in the classrooms in Mac-Corry, you overhear conversations between colleagues and other people where they’re talking about people of colour in stereotypes. All of this made me feel like I was standing out.”

In 2001, former Vice-Principal (Academic) Suzanne Fortier asked the Senate Education Equity Committee (SEEC) to commission a study looking into the experiences of visible minority and Aboriginal faculty at the University. The report, written by Frances Henry and called “Systemic Racism Towards Faculty of Colour and Aboriginal Faculty at Queen’s University Report on the 2003 Study, “Understanding the Experiences of Visible Minority and Aboriginal Faculty Members” was completed in April of 2004 and has since become known as the Henry Report. It attracted attention when it was released for its use of the term “culture of whiteness” to describe the climate at Queen’s.

Dua, who participated in the study anonymously, told the Journal she constantly felt uncomfortable during her time at Queen’s.

“I found that there was such a culture of whiteness within my workplace—and that extended to teaching, it extended to my committee work, my daily interactions—that it was constant,” she said.

Dua said issues related to racism often get pushed under the rug.

“There’s such little understanding of racism that when people do speak publicly they become attacked.”

Dua said she faced incidents of racism throughout Kingston.

“I would go into stores and be followed around because people would think I was going to steal something,” she said. “I would go into stores and not be served.”

Dua said the cultures of whiteness at Queen’s and in Kingston reinforce each other.

“There is something systemic … that allows these instances to continue to be reproduced,” she said. ”It’s happened since I was there and I was one of the first five women of colour to be hired at Queen’s. … The same things are happening 13 years later.”

Dua said she feels much more comfortable at York.

“It’s much better. It’s like night and day, to use that racialized language. There are far more faculty of colour, the student body is very different, the living conditions are very different.”

***

In March of 2006, SEEC presented its recommendations on the Henry Report to Senate, which included five major themes: leadership, education, recruitment/hiring/retention, reward systems and strengthening institutional culture.

Joy Mighty, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and then-chair of SEEC, said most of that meeting was devoted to discussing the study.

She said SEEC performed a consultative review of Henry’s report before it made its recommendations to Senate. They compared Henry’s recommendations to an earlier report, written by Queen’s psychology professor John Barry in 1991. That report—known as the Barry Report—concerned not just faculty, but staff and students as well. The Henry Report said very little had changed since the Barry report more than a decade earlier.

One of the recommendations SEEC made to Senate resulted in the appointment of the University’s diversity advisor, Barrington Walker. A couple of weeks later, the Queen’s Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Diversity (QCRED), which includes students, faculty and staff, was formed.

Mighty said local and national media picked up on the report’s now-famous term “culture of whiteness,” and interviewed her, as well as Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane and then-AMS President Ethan Rabidoux. When Mighty’s photo was printed in the paper, she received hate mail from Canadian white supremacist movements.

“It’s a threatening kind of thing,” Mighty said of involvement in such a campaign. “It’s dangerous work.”

Mighty said it isn’t just the University administration that needs to respond to issues of discrimination on campus.

“We all need to be much more proactive and much more responsive to these issues as they arise.”

But others would like to hear more from the administration.

SGPS President Jeff Welsh recently asked what body within the University is suited to prepare a progress report for Senate regarding the University’s plan to meet recommendations made in the Henry Report and SEEC’s response. The question was deferred to the Nov. 27 Senate meeting.

Welsh, a TA for an interdisciplinary course on race and racism, said he thinks part of the delay has to do with a lack of framework in which to work. Administrative focus on high-profile issues such as Homecoming and Principal Hitchcock’s resignation may also have pushed the Report to the backburner, Welsh said.

“It’s politically explosive, just to put it simply,” he said. “If people are being hired and being driven away, that’s a very serious issue. ... It’s not to say the University hasn’t done anything to address these issues; they have. But they haven’t come up with a systemic approach to deal with the issue and recommendations made. The fact that they haven’t even come up with a process yet in the last two years is, in my view, negligent.”

Adnan Husain, an associate professor in the history department who has been SEEC chair since September, said getting more information from the administration regarding follow up on the Henry Report is a key item on SEEC’s agenda this year.

“I have the suspicion that not a lot actually has really been done,” he said.

Husain said SEEC will also ask the University for specific information on what kinds of resources and programs it plans to dedicate to combatting racism on campus at the upcoming Senate meeting on Nov. 27.

“I think the problem here is we have historically approached these things very reactively,” Husain said. “A few small things are done to kind of deal with it but there hasn’t been kind of a proactive sense that, well, Queen’s has a challenge here and the best way to meet this challenge is put in some programs and strategies now to deal with future incidents and lay the groundwork for improving the climate and changing it.”

Last year, when a female faculty member was forced off the sidewalk and subjected to racial taunts by a group of male students wearing engineering jackets, faculty members formed the Queen’s Coalition of Anti-Racist Faculty. Husain, a member of the coalition, said it has provided feedback on issues of Islamophobia on campus, as well as discussion about what can be done to improve the University environment.

Husain said there seems to be a five-year turnover among faculty members of a visual minority. But because there are few who identify as a visual minority to begin with, he said, it’s difficult to establish major statistical trends. He said issues at Queen’s are known to faculty members elsewhere.

“Colleagues in Toronto, Montréal, Ottawa … people have an impression of Queen’s that they’ve gleaned from their colleagues who work at Queen’s and that’s a real problem.”

***

Geography professor Audrey Kobayashi, who chaired SEEC when it commissioned the Henry Report in 2001, said she isn’t surprised the report hasn’t been well-received by the University because of the implications of the term “culture of whiteness.”

She said the Henry Report found the problem is not necessarily overt discrimination, but a lack of awareness for many faculty members.

“There was an overwhelming lack of understanding on the part of white colleagues of their experiences—a great deal of denial. This is not only from colleagues that might have problematic discriminatory attitudes. This is from ordinary colleagues who actually think that they don’t have a racist bone in their body, but nonetheless do not understand the experience of the faculty of colour.”

Kobayashi said the University hasn’t done enough to help close the gap of cultural understanding.

“This has not been helped by the fact that the University just wants to celebrate diversity,” she said. “The general white culture needs to be educated. They need to understand that diversity doesn’t mean just adding a few non-white faces, they need to understand what a culture of whiteness does, and they need to get past the denial and hypocrisy that are so much a part of the environment at Queen’s.”

Last year Kobayashi helped a group of students conduct a survey of their peers modelled on the Henry Report. The survey received more than 2,000 responses and found many of the issues faculty spoke of were present in the student body.

Kobayashi said she’s heard of students of colour facing discrimination from both fellow students and professors, but it would be ethically inappropriate to share their stories.

“If I could tell you some of the things that professors have said to students, you would find it shocking,” she said.

Although there have been advances made in anti-racism at Queen’s, there’s a long way to go, Kobayashi said.

“People no longer just unthinkingly participate in the culture of whiteness, they either deliberately attempt to change it or they deliberately oppose change.”

Frances Henry, a leading expert on academic racism and the author of the 2004 report, said University administrators need to provide support in multiple ways when it comes to dealing with discrimination on campuses.

“One of the things that research on racism at the level of the University has demonstrated is that to improve the climate for racialized and Aboriginal faculty and students, the main ingredient, if you will, is the full financial and emotional and psychological support of the University administration.”

Henry, who is retired and doing research in Toronto, said she hasn’t done another study like the one she did at Queen’s, but there’s a large body of literature on racism in American universities.

The term “culture of whiteness” is used in subfields of social sciences that deal with whiteness studies and whiteness theories and isn’t specific to Queen’s, Henry said. Still, Queen’s differs from universities in large urban centres.

“It’s not nearly as heterogeneous as universities in Toronto or in Vancouver,” she said.

Henry said she wouldn’t alter any of the recommendations she made in her report. She also said it isn’t necessary to look to measures taken by American universities to deal with racism.

“There is enough in my report and in the subsequent recommendation that emerged that went to the Senate … to provide a sufficient model to begin the process of change,” she said. “I don’t think we need necessarily to look at American models.”

Henry said student organizations at Queen’s have played a key role in trying to move initiatives forward since the release of the report.

“They acted far more quickly in terms of their engagement with the issues of academic racism than did … the remainder of the university,” she said.

“[The University has] got to provide a workplace environment for faculty and staff that is free from harassment and where people are welcomed and feel comfortable and where their work is valued.”

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