A brown face in a white place

Diversity at the university is being addressed - but not well-enough.

Being a woman of colour in a primarily white school like Queen’s is incredibly daunting.

When I first received my offer of admission, I was ecstatic. Out of all the schools I applied to, Queen’s was secretly the only one I cared about. When the email popped into my inbox, I cried so much my mom thought I was actually crying because something terrible had happened. 

I thought that Queen’s was going to be my second home: I was ready to fall in love with my school. Then I realized that wasn’t going to happen. 

Frosh Week was everything I wanted it to be, but it was underscored by a nagging feeling of “I don’t belong here”. I was one of three people of colour in my 15-person Frosh group. 

When people asked me where I was from, they weren’t satisfied with my answer of Toronto. What they really wanted to know was my heritage, because when they looked at my brown skin, they thought I was different. 

I was stubborn. I stuck with my answer because I refused to let people categorize me based on the colour of my skin. But it was obvious that I stood out. 

One time, I caved and said I was from Sri Lanka. The girl I was talking to had never heard of Sri Lanka. In fact, she asked me if I had made a mistake because she was sure that Sri Lanka was a place from Lord of the Rings.

Everywhere I looked during Frosh Week, I saw a sea of white people. For me, this was scary as I was used to the diversity of Toronto. Naïvely, I thought all of Canada was like my hometown. I was experiencing culture shock in my own country, and it was the most bizarre feeling in the world. 

When I spoke to my family about this, they asked me what I’d been expecting. There was a reason most of my minority friends didn’t come to Queen’s, and it wasn’t the distance that was stopping them. 

I made lots of friends in first year, and I loved my floor mates, but it was so hard to shake off that feeling of being “other”. I come from a different cultural, social and economic background than 90 per cent of the people I met in first year. One time, someone approached me and mentioned that I was the first brown person they’d ever seen. 

Micro-aggressions were everywhere. When I left campus, it was clear that Kingston wasn’t very diverse either. 

I felt so alone in first year. I considered switching out of Queen’s to a school that was more welcoming and had more resources for people of colour. I felt alienated in the place that was supposed to be my new home. Eventually, I couldn’t handle it anymore, so I left. 

I went home for a weekend to recharge, and dragged myself back with reluctance the next Monday. I made it through one day before I realized that I truly couldn’t stay at Queen’s unless it changed. I also realized that some of this change needed to come from me, so I did the only thing I thought would help: I contacted my residence counselor. 

It was one of the most difficult things I did in my first year. But it wasn’t the fact that I needed help that scared me. It was that I might go to a counselor who was unequipped to handle the situation I was in. 

I needed to talk to someone who understood what it’s like to live in an environment that tries to be inclusive but is still so ignorant. I needed someone who understood the implications of coming from the cultural background I come from. Basically, what I needed was to talk to someone who wasn’t white. 

The unfortunate thing is that I never found that counselor. The counselor I did find was great. They were kind and sympathetic, but they couldn’t empathize because they were white too. 

I won’t fault them for that. The advice I was given was good, but it became clear to me that the University wasn’t equipped to handle the needs of students of colour. 

I was told that a good resource for me was Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. In fairness, I was told Four Directions was a welcoming place that would always have a place for me if I needed to get away — but the fact that Four Directions, a safe haven for Aboriginal students, was recommended to me, someone who is very much not Aboriginal, is ridiculous. 

Four Directions shouldn’t be the best resource for students of colour. It’s supposed to be a safe space for Aboriginal students. It shouldn’t be used for all students of colour, because it isn’t fair of us to encroach on their space.  

I was also told that the Queen’s International Centre (QUIC) could help me. The problem with that, unfortunately, is I’m not an international student either. 

I also talked to the University Chaplain. Like my residence counselor, she was helpful, but it wasn’t enough. Unless one has experienced racism first hand, it’s hard to empathize. 

I say this with the utmost respect, but I don’t think either the chaplain or my residence counselor were properly equipped to talk about what it feels like to have someone call you a towelhead in class,  because they would never have been able to truly understand how worthless that slur made me feel. 

I want to make it clear that I don’t blame them specifically. They were incredibly kind and I will be forever grateful for what they did to help me. But they provided me with the best resources that Queen’s had to offer, which, for students of colour like me, isn’t much. I found solace in my extracurricular activities. I joined Queen’s Indian Students Association (QISA) — even though I wasn’t Indian — because they were about as close as I could get to my Sri Lankan roots, and they were incredibly welcoming. 

They provided me what I was looking for from the University: a truly safe space filled with people who sincerely understood my perspective. Cultural groups on campus are used as safe spaces by a lot of students. 

Raman Sawhney, ArtSci ’17, and current QISA Dance Team Executive, finds that there’s a lack of diversity on campus, and more so, compared to other Canadian universities. 

“I found that the Queen’s community overall lacked ... cultural awareness and acceptance amongst the overall student body,” she said. “But for me specifically, it was not a problem because I was able to find my niche [with QISA].”

Groups like QISA are crucial in creating a welcoming environment, but a group of university students isn’t the best place to go for counselling. Though QISA was a big part of what got me through the year, it shouldn’t have been my best resource. 

Queen’s provides a lot of support to its students, but it seems like the University’s concept of the average student doesn’t include students of colour. 

Maybe the University does have a counselor dedicated to helping students of colour. But if that’s the case, after a long search I couldn’t find them, and that isn’t okay. 

The University would do well to look into exactly how welcoming it actually is. It took only a few weeks for me to decide that I wasn’t going to stay. It took six months for me to change my mind, and it wasn’t because of anything the school did for me. 

My reasons for staying at Queen’s are complicated and varied, but it came down to the fact that I wasn’t going to let the lack of diversity drive me away from a good opportunity. 

I’m still not happy with the university. It’s unacceptable that there are students, especially first years, who feel like they don’t belong because of the colour of their skin. A skit in Existere isn’t enough to make us feel welcome. It needs to be obvious to incoming students that there are resources for them that are tailored to them.  

Now that I’m in my second year, I know what I’m getting into. I have always been vocal about my struggles with the lack of diversity on campus, but now I make a special effort to point it out, starting with this article. 

Since I couldn’t find space for me, I made my own, on campus and off. I live with someone who goes through the same thing that I do, and together we’ve turned our house into a place that will be as welcoming as I wanted Queen’s to be. 

My relationship with Queen’s will always be complicated. I’m still waiting to pass judgment on whether or not Queen’s is the school for me. 

I’ll cheer for the football team at Homecoming, but when my friends ask me if I’m happy to be a Queen’s student, there will always be a little pause before I answer. 

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