Diversity at Queen’s

Society has to ask ‘uncomfortable questions’ to become more multicultural, says dean of student affairs

The coalition for Racial and Ethnic Diversity will host a cultural awareness day in September for anyone to attend.
The coalition for Racial and Ethnic Diversity will host a cultural awareness day in September for anyone to attend.

When Darcel Bullen came to Queen’s in first year, she said she felt out of place as a student of colour, and pressured to “tone down” her difference.

“I always had to be conscious of my presence as well as other people’s,” she said. “Things like clothing and music and food–this experience is hypersensitive because you’re doing all these things in front of others.”

Bullen said the atmosphere of residence in first-year put more pressure on her to fit in.

“I was being very conscious about how loud I was, not wanting to be an angry black woman,” she said. “I’m really glad that now I don’t care anymore.”

According to a report released by the Senate Educational Equity Committee (SEEC), Bullen isn’t the only person with this experience.

In 2001, former Vice-Principal (Academic) Suzanne Fortier asked the SEEC to conduct the survey to better understand the experiences of faculty members belonging to a visible minority. She was prompted to do so following the resignation of a faculty member who cited racism as the reason for her resignation.

The Henry Report, written by York University professor emerita Francis Henry, was released in March and identified a “culture of whiteness” at the University felt by several members of the faculty.

The University administration then launched several programs to address this “culture of whiteness.” Jason Laker, dean of student affairs, said he’s working with students, faculty and staff to coordinate campus initiatives promoting diversity.

“My office is trying to do anything we can to support any efforts on campus that will foster thoughtful conversation on the subject, and I invite people to that conversation,” he said.

Laker said he thinks a culture of whiteness does exist at the University.

“White people, often through our socialisation, don’t really think of ourselves in racialised terms,” he said. “There are any number of affirmations to obscure that term for us that we participate in, and it’s not because we’re bad people.”

Laker said whether incoming students find the University more or less diverse than their own home community, they still should be engaging in safe conversations that challenge their perceptions of race and racialization.

“I differentiate between safe and comfortable. ... Many of the subjects that come up in conversations about identity push a lot of personal buttons,” he said.

“In order to really move a society closer to a truly multicultural one, it’s necessary to engage in some very uncomfortable conversations.

“In order for that to happen, there has to be a fundamental trust that people will stay in the conversation and see it through.”

Laker said if the University community doesn’t make its members challenge their preconceptions and push their boundaries, faculty and administration are “wasting our time.”

“We can’t be a learning and teaching environment without making each other uncomfortable within the foundation of safety,” he said.

“While it’s human nature to avoid discomfort, if we don’t push our students, really challenge them to be in situations and conversations that are uncomfortable, then we are not meeting our ethical mandate.”

Laker said the need to confront the culture of whiteness is more urgent at Queen’s than elsewhere.

“When you have a demographic profile that Queen’s has, then it makes it all the more difficult because one can go through school for four years and not ever have to do that,” he said.

“That’s where people like professors and staff really have an ethical duty to push that to occur, and that’s uncomfortable.”

Bullen is a volunteer with the Queen’s Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Diversity (QCRED), a body formed after the Henry Report to address concerns about racism at the University. QCRED is working on student and faculty mentorship programs to aid adjustment to the Queen’s environment, as well as organizing inclusive space and positive space programs.

One of the events the coalition is planning is Cultural Awareness Day, planned for some time in September.

Bullen said the coalition hopes to bring people like Deepa Mehta, Saul Williams and Stephen Lewis, as well as members of the Queen’s and Kingston communities, to speak at the event to raise awareness on issues of racial and ethnic diversity.

Bullen said she’s working on workshops aimed at promoting inclusive space on campus, which she hopes will be mandatory for all AMS services.

The workshops will be open to everyone, and will probably take place weekly during September and October.

Emily Cheung, ArtSci ’07, said she was surprised at the University’s comparative lack of diversity, compared to her hometown, Markham.

Cheung said her overall experience however, was positive.

“Thankfully, I have joined clubs since first-year, and I really thought that joining clubs is a really great way to get to know people, especially upper-years,” she said, adding that upper-year students she met through clubs like the Queen’s Cantonese Debating Society were able to answer a lot of the questions she had as a first-year student.

“I guess [it’s good] for ethnic minorities to first get in touch with all the student clubs that are available on campus,” she said. “I think student clubs are a really great support for ethnic minorities,” she said.

Right now, Cheung is involved with the Empress, a Chinese-English publication on campus.

AMS Social Issues Commissioner Allison Williams said resources for students of minority groups include the Committee Against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination (CARED) and the Education on Queer Issues Project (EQuIP), both of which tackle issues of diversity and human rights.

Williams said it’s difficult for students from different backgrounds to feel at home in the Queen’s and Kingston environments.

“There is a mosque, but apparently it’s fairly far from the University, which is really difficult for Muslim students that choose to come to Queen’s,” she said.

“I’ve also spoken with Jewish students, too, who say that when they’re making their choice to come to Queen’s, if they want a really strong Jewish community, they’ll stay in Toronto or choose Western.”

Williams said the lack of diversity at Queen’s is something that becomes cyclic.

“We don’t have a great reputation for being diverse, so we don’t really attract a lot of students from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

Students, faculty and staff at the University who feel they have been harassed or discriminated against have the option of approaching the Human Rights Office, said the office’s director, Irène Bujala.

Bujala said the office deals with issues ranging from disability, gender and sexual orientation to faith, class and racial issues, including ethnic background and national origins.

People who feel they’ve experienced discrimination speak first to an advisor about the issue, who can talk it through with them, discuss the options and try to arrive at a solution.

One option is for the individual to file a formal complaint with the Human Rights Office, but Bujala said this is more of a last resort.

“They want some assistance, they want to know that there’s help there and that the University supports them in resolving this issue,” she said. “They just want to get advice from people who have experience.”

Bujala said it’s important that the University examine diversity at Queen’s, but acknowledged that issues of discrimination encountered here are ones that exist elsewhere in society.

“I think the University is examining whether the supports they have in place are enough, and what they can do to make sure those supports aren’t needed,” she said.

“Even within a very diverse situation, you’re going to meet up with racism and sexism and homophobia.”

Bullen said she doesn’t want incoming frosh to feel pressured to conform.

Laker said he hopes incoming frosh are ready to confront issues of diversity and identity at the University.

“We’re doing it either way, mind you,” he said. “But I hope they’re ready for that.”

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