Racism alive but subtle at Queen’s

Black students report experiences of microaggression and an alienating student culture

Top left to bottom right: Chioma Odozor, Brandon Pryce, Paighton Newmarch, Evelyna Ekoko-Kay, Antonia Akinwumi, Yema Quinn, Jessica Wayner and Peju Kazeem.
Photo: 
A timeline of events in black history at Queen's.
Credit: 
Graphic by Michaella Fortune

In her first week at Queen’s, Toni Akinwumi was approached by an intoxicated female student who said, “Oh my God, there’s a black chick. Oh my God, that’s crazy. I have no black friends — be my friend.”

Akinwumi, ArtSci ’15, said she felt their motivation for hanging out with her had much less to do with her personality than the colour of her skin.

That evening, she went out with her floormates and the intoxicated female student. When they realized her opinions and interests didn’t align with their own, she said, all of them left her.

“I wasn’t a good enough black accessory,” Akinwumi said.

In 2013, 2.1 per cent of undergraduate students who registered at Queen’s were black, according to Queen’s voluntary Applicant Equity Census. The census is administered to all students applying to undergraduate and graduate programs at Queen’s, asking prospective students to voluntarily indicate if they’re of a visible minority.

For many at Queen’s, black or otherwise, the low numbers come as little surprise.

Seven of the eight black students interviewed by the Journal for this story said they were constantly made aware of their minority status, which they said has often led to feelings of alienation and exclusion.

From intentional and unintentional racist comments made by students to Eurocentric course content to University resources that miss the mark, black students said Queen’s and their peers have made it difficult to feel a part of the community.

Akinwumi said she has faced this awareness since she moved to Canada at the age of seven, after living in Nigeria and Tanzania.

The film studies major said she finds that no matter what she does, people find a reason to comment on her race.

“People still question my blackness because of how I act,” Akinwumi said, adding that she regularly hears comments like, “you’re not that black” or “sometimes I forget you’re black”.

“Because I can speak properly people think ‘oh, you’re white’. Since when is speaking properly a white thing?”

Yema Quinn, ArtSci ’16, also reported similar experiences. She said when she went on a date last Tuesday, her companion called her “the prettiest black girl”.

Quinn said that “awful” experience is an example of a microaggression — “unintended instances of rudeness, embarrassment or systems of power” — which have become “everyday occurrences” for her.

She said other examples include when someone would ask to touch her hair or ask if she was able to wash it.

“[When] I, as black woman, get passionate or animated about something, people will say, ‘Oh, calm down, Shaniqua’,” Quinn said, adding that the people who make these comments often find the situation funny ­— even though it can be incredibly harmful.

Quinn is currently the education co-officer of the African and Caribbean Students Association (ACSA). In a previous interview with the Journal, she said each of ACSA’s 80 or so members had experienced microaggressions in some form.

All of the black students the Journal interviewed said they have experienced microaggressions.

Chioma Odozor, LifeSci ’16, said a notable example is the way that students change the way they speak around her, at times “dumbing down” their language.

“They’ll start saying, ‘hey girl’,” said the Toronto-born student. They’ll also call her “sassy” instead of assertive, and some individuals start snapping their fingers at her, she said.

Odozor said she hears comments like, “you’re the whitest black girl I know, or you don’t talk black”, on a daily basis. While the comments are meant to be compliments, Odozor said she isn’t flattered.

A homogenous culture

All students interviewed, including Odozor, said these “compliments” are often a result of misunderstanding on the part of Queen’s students.

71.5 per cent of undergraduate students who registered in 2013 weren’t visible minorities, according the Applicant Equity Census.

These homogenous demographics are matched by a homogenous mentality, according to some black students, which they reported is one of the root causes of racist behaviour on campus — intended or otherwise.

Brandon Pryce said he picked up on the homogenous mentality in first year.

“If you’re a minority, you’re aware you’re a minority,” Pryce said. But students who aren’t part of minority groups often don’t accept “that Queen’s might be a little racist or a bit exclusionary”, he said.

Pryce, ArtSci ’16, said Queen’s pride in Scottish traditions made the culture apparent to him as a first-year student.

“Not every student here is Scottish or from the U.K.,” he said. “[But] those are the practices you have to engage in as a Queen’s student.

“I don’t identify with any of them,” Pryce added. “It’s not a part of my culture or my background.” Like Pryce, several of the students interviewed said they felt they were expected to be happy with how things are. Many said when they or other students have attempted to challenge Queen’s traditions and mainstream conceptions, they experienced backlash or were disregarded by the people around them.

Evelyna Ekoko Kay, ArtSci ’17, said she’s repeatedly been met with backlash when she has pointed out student’s use of racial language.

In her experience, white students — especially males — have often used fetishizing language towards her and other people of visible minorities she knows. When students find out she’s of a mixed race, they say things like “I want to have a mixed race baby”, she said, adding that she has found people will touch her body without her permission to inspect or comment on her skin.

She said she takes issue with this type of language, because it sets up the person using the word as normal and the “exotic” as abnormal.

Once, while on the Facebook group “QueensU Confessions”, Ekoko Kay read a post submitted by an anonymous user that described a prospective student using the term “exotic”.

She said she commented on the post and asked members of the group not to use fetishizing language. After this, she said, members of the group repeatedly referred to her as “exotic”, and another individual called her a “spicy Latina” to mock her.

“It’s very dehumanizing,” she said.

With a Cameroonian and Polish mother and an Irish father, Ekoko Kay said her appearance is highly ambiguous, which has often lead to white students questioning her blackness and playing games to guess her race, instead of letting her define her own racial heritage.

“A lot of people want to know, but not want to accept the answer I give,” Ekoko Kay said. “There’s this desire within whiteness to categorize and control people’s identity.”

Ekoko Kay said she has found that white women will assume she’s white because they get along with her — but once they realize she’s of mixed race, they become defensive and make comments like, “Oh, you look practically white. You look so normal.”

Reactions of white students

Seven of the eight black students interviewed by the Journal said they generally don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences with white students — and some avoid it entirely.

Most said they found that white students would become defensive and deny their experience when they tried to share incidents of racism they’d been subjected to.

After moving from Sierra Leone to Nova Scotia at the age of “three or four”, Quinn said she became aware of racism in all its forms. When she came to Queen’s, she was shocked to find the majority of students didn’t believe racism existed in Canada.

She attributed this ignorance to the “GTA bubble”. Students from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), she said, often believe the rest of Canada is as accepting as their own multicultural cities.

Like Quinn, Daniel Quainoo attributed the ignorance to Queen’s demographics — though he said this attitude stems from the portion of Queen’s students hailing from small towns.

“There’s a tendency for people who haven’t been exposed to a lot of cultures and different ethnicities to come to [Queen’s] and to then be exposed to them for the first time in a closed environment,” he said.

When these students then try to communicate the differences they see in black students’ physical appearances, he said, their comments, though “innocent”, can come off as racist.

Unlike other students, Pryce said he hasn’t experienced outright denial when he shares his negative experiences with white friends, but instead has seen a desire to isolate the incident as abnormal.

“They’ll see it as … just a bad apple, rather than that bad apple being indicative of a larger exclusionary attitude at Queen’s,” Pryce said.

The majority of the students who shared their experiences with white friends found that even when the responses they got were supportive, they were still limited — often because white students haven’t experienced racial prejudice.

“Usually they don’t see it, they can’t see it, and I can totally understand that,” Pryce said, comparing it to the lack of understanding he experiences when female friends bring gender-related issues to his attention.

“I can empathize or I can try to sympathize,” he said, “but you won’t really understand it.”

Like Pryce, Ekoko Kay said she has found that most students will try to listen and understand, but they often miss the mark.

In her experience, white students often interject to share their own experiences — ones they say are similar. But because their experiences have nothing to do with racism, the comparisons only reduce the seriousness of the incident, she said.

Homogeneity in the classroom

According to students interviewed, Queen’s homogenous culture leaks into the classroom.

Quinn, a biology major, said she has found course material to be highly Eurocentric and reflective of oppressive ideals, which has left her feeling disillusioned after three years of study.

She said she finds that her class curriculums have little to do with her, and when they do involve black individuals, black history or culture is present only to reinforce white history by comparison.

“I’ll be a special topic in lecture for 20 minutes when we explore ‘foreign things’ and ‘special additions to the course’…but never the main content of the course,” she said.

Pryce, an economics major, took issue with the way curriculums are taught. In his experience, professors teach white culture as though it’s the culture and background of all students. When the course’s focus turns to other cultures, the perspective shifts, and students examine the culture as though they’re on the outside looking in.

Pryce said the perspective should almost always be from the outside.

“If you’re studying white history, if you’re studying black history — it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You should study it objectively, and not put yourself in the position of that group.”

Ekoko Kay, an English major and gender studies minor, said she has found that her courses feature “a lack of [content on] racism beyond the customary lip service.”

She said the lack of minority representation within Queen’s staff is one of the contributing factors to the treatment of race.

Quinn, Pryce and Ekoko Kay’s claims of Eurocentric curricula and lack of diversity in Queen’s faculty are nothing new.

Between 2003-04, a survey was conducted for the Henry Report, with the purpose of understanding the experiences of visible minority and Aboriginal faculty at Queen’s. 270 members of Queen’s faculty responded to the survey — nearly two dozen of whom said they were treated differently at Queen’s because of their ethno-racial status.

Frances Henry, a professor of emeriti at York University, authored the report at the request of Queen’s then-Vice-Principal (Academic) Suzanne Fortier in 2001.

When the report was completed in 2006, it concluded that “white privilege and power continue to be reflected in the Eurocentric curricula, traditional pedagogical approaches, hiring, promotion and tenure practices, and opportunities for research” at Queen’s.

Resources for black students

Despite Queen’s history of having a predominantly white population, students said they’ve seen improvement in the number of black students over the years.

When Iby Jumbo began her undergraduate studies in 2008, she said “you could count the black people on your hand.”

Across two degrees, Jumbo, LifeSci ’15, said she has seen a change in the University’s demographics, with an increase in both black and international students.

Despite Jumbo’s perception, only 3.4 of undergraduate applicants in 2013 were black, according to Queen’s Applicant Equity Census.

Odozor said the number isn’t high enough. The low number of black students applying, according to Odozor, is partially due to the University’s inadequate communication with black high school students on Queen’s resources for black students.

She said she thinks the University should focus on advertising bursaries, scholarships and resources, and better connect students with role models and mentors, so black students feel comfortable coming to Queen’s.

Odozor is a recipient of the Robert Sutherland-Harry Jerome Scholarship, awarded to black students who have shown academic excellence.

While the number of recipients depends on the funds available, only one or two students typically receive the award each year, according to the Office of the University Registrar.

Odozor said the award has connected her with past recipients, who can serve as positive role models for black students.

Some students said they’ve found Queen’s current resources to be well intentioned, but ultimately ineffective.

Peju Kazeem, ArtSci ’15, said Queen’s often misses the mark — mainly because resources function without an understanding of the needs of black students. She said the current resources appear to be “made up by people who don’t understand the struggle or what’s going on in the diversified community,” such as feelings of marginalization.

Quinn also said the individuals providing the services are ill-equipped to address the needs of black students.

In Queen’s health services, she said, there are few people who can properly assist and support students who are experiencing cultural issues.

“It’s relegated to a couple people, and they’re overwhelmed with students who need help,” she said. “I think it would beneficial to take on more staff or to train the staff that’s already present in things like critical race theory.”

Quainoo, the current co-president of Queen’s Black Academic Society (QBAS), said that while Queen’s support hasn’t always been “efficient”, the Human Rights Office (HRO) and Equity Office have stood out to him as noteworthy.

He said the HRO has done a “great job” in reaching out to different groups and organizations to identify needs and promote discussion.

Stephanie Simpson, the HRO’s associate director, said there’s still “a lot of work to be done” to make the campus welcoming to all students.

Simpson said one of the HRO’s primary concerns is attending to the needs of individuals who come in with concerns regarding harassment or discrimination.

Although several students interviewed said the daily microaggressions and indignities they’ve experienced from strangers aren’t things they can report to the University, Simpson said students can come to the HRO to share any incidents of harassment or discrimination, regardless of whether they wish to file a formal complaint or not.

She said the issues people come to her with are diverse, from overt incidents to general feelings of marginalization and isolation.

Students may find it helpful to sit with someone who has expertise in what they’re experiencing, she said. Even if individuals aren’t going to file a formal complaint, Simpson said the office can equip students with strategies to manage day-to-day microaggressions.

“Some people are very, very happy with their Queen’s experience — but there are just as many or more who have concerns that they are not fully welcome,” she said.

“Queen’s can always do better and do more.”

Overt racism and racism in LGBTQ communities

Overt Racism at Queen's

Every month, Quinn and her fellow ACSA education officer organize a presentation for “Soul Food Sunday”— a gathering organized by ACSA. Their presentation topic right before Halloween was blackface.

Quinn said she saw students in blackface on Halloween — and it came as little surprise to her.

“One of my friends got thrown out of Pita Pit for standing up to someone who was wearing blackface,” she said.

“It’s tough … to know you’re sharing a campus with people who see you as less than human, and view your culture as a costume, because they can just wash that make-up off later and then have a laugh about all of the offended sensitive black people — but it really hurts.”

One day, while Kazeem was walking on campus with a group of friends, a man in a passing car shouted, “I’d fuck every one of you except for the black one.”

This was one of three instances where Kazeem experienced racial slurs in her second year. She said the racism she’s experienced during her four years at Queen’s has been both overt and covert.

The incidents of overt racism have always come from men running or driving away from her. A male jogger once greeted her with “hey, blackie” while running past, and on another occasion, a man in a passing car shouted “hey, nigger”.

Kazeem said she usually just “laughs” it off.

Pryce, who has a Jamaican father and a Canadian mother, said that while he’s never been overtly discriminated against in person, it’s a different story online.

“If you’re on Tinder, if you’re on Grindr — any [dating] app like that — it’s very racist, overtly racist,” he said.

Race and the LGBTQ Community

Ekoko Kay, who currently sits on the Board of Directors of Queen’s Pride, said she has found there to be a lot of racism within the LGBTQ community, and has experienced microaggressions within Queen’s LGBTQ groups herself.

Ekoko Kay identifies as queer and is of mixed race.

As a member of two marginalized groups, Ekoko Kay said she has to fight to be heard in both the LGBTQ community and the wider community.

“[There’s] a lack of awareness within the LGBTQ community of racial issues … [and] a lack of willingness to challenge racism,” she said.

She said the LGBTQ community tends to focus on issues facing white, queer individuals, while issues facing groups such as transpeople or visible minorities are left neglected.

“People want to focus on marriage equality, but not on queer homelessness or anti-trans violence, which predominantly affects black trans women,” she said.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.