Students & faculty are responsible for addressing racism at Queen’s

Ignoring issues of discrimination ultimately puts racialized students in danger

Alysha Mohamed opens up about her personal experiences as a visible minority at Queen’s

Every year, the school is host to hateful acts that touch every person within our student body,  especially the racialized students they target.

Issues of race at Queen’s have always shadowed my experience here—an underlying reminder of otherness and misplacement, bringing on a feeling that I’m on borrowed time in space that isn’t mine.

As a visible minority, I haven’t been directly attacked with overt racism. I’m grateful to surround myself with friends and classmates who understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. However, in my time at this school, I’ve witnessed many racist events and actions that continue to surface every few months, which force our student body to collide with the threatening and terrifying nature of prejudice.

In November of 2016, Queen’s University was the centre of public scrutiny when photographs from a racist costume party surfaced. The pictures depicted mostly white students dressed in offensive costumes mimicking damaging cultural stereotypes, including a few incidents of yellow-face.

Although intentions may have been innocent, the costume party highlighted the blatant ignorance of the Queen’s student body. Appropriating the stereotypes of specific racialized groups while glossing over the nuance and complexity of culture is racism. It’s inexcusable to wear a culture as a costume for a night out when you’re afforded the privilege of waking up with white skin and privilege the next day. When I learned about the costume party, I felt anger for the lack of education and cultural sensitivity held by the students in the picture.

I don’t believe their intentions were malicious, but they were misinformed.

However, I could swallow that ignorance at the time, as I expected change and training would become a priority for the University. My tolerance wavered when intentionally hateful statements and vandalism appeared on campus shortly thereafter.

Last April, anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-Semitic notes were plastered on buildings across campus. The racist slogan “13%=50?” which relates the Black population in the United States to the overall homicides in the country, was spray-painted over the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, which featured the work of Indigenous artists calling for decolonization.

The context of the vandalism makes the act heartbreaking to even conceptualize. Indigenous artists had created a safe space for a call towards decolonization, and then a racist remark was plastered on the outside of the very same building.

In the same week, my skin crawled as I heard a group of white males say the N-word multiple times in a derogatory conversation while walking home. I prayed they didn’t notice me or the colour of my skin.

All these instances of racism seem to culminate in the most recent atrocity at Queen’s: a racist and homophobic note taped to a common room door in Chown Hall. The note contained horrific language and slurs directed towards Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students, suggesting threats of violence.

I can’t imagine the absolute terror the targeted students must feel. When I first heard about the note, I felt heartbreak, resentment, and embarrassment for the school I chose to attend.

I felt an overwhelming sense that I could never truly belong at Queen’s—at least not in its current state.

Moreover, I started questioning the extent to which I perform my race and ethnicity, and how things may shift if I chose to wear a hijab or dress in cultural clothes on campus. Perhaps I would be more likely to be targeted.

This brought up fears that I might be whitewashing myself in an attempt to homogenize my appearance, stopping myself before bringing up cultural references in fear of isolation and hateful speech.

In the days following the note, minorities across campus were once again reminded that an attack is always just moments away, invited by the colour of our skin alone.

Racism at Queen’s is dipped in white privilege and decorated with a smile. It’s often so covert that it’s almost impossible to call out until outbursts of obvious racism plague the student body and suddenly, momentarily matter, like the three events outlined earlier. I don’t understand why we must wait for another minority student or group to be targeted and dehumanized for change to take place.

Speaking openly about race still feels unnatural to me. The University has made progress in terms of acknowledging Indigenous culture on campus, but no great strides in terms of representation have truly been implemented.

The majority of staff at Queen’s look nothing like me or any other visible minority, and instead look like the stereotypes of homogeneity and whiteness associated with our university. Only 14.2 per cent of Queen’s faculty self-identify as part of a visible minority. I was so excited to have an Indian professor last year that every time her accent bled through into the English words, I silently hoped my peers wouldn’t notice.

This lack of representation can move into students’ social lives as well. I can count on one hand the number of friends of colour I have here. This could be due to the lack of outreach Queen’s offers for prospective students of colour, the stigma surrounding the university in terms of representation, or the lack of financial accessibility provided for students of colour to access post-secondary education.

We need representation at Queen’s. We need to be able to look at professors and see ourselves in order to feel like we belong. We also need to be able to see that diversity reflected in the student body.

Queen’s must take concrete action in prioritizing diversity, inclusion, and representation, or it will continue to uphold the external perception that this school is for the white elite.

This is your problem. This is our problem. It’s the problem of every white student and professor at Queen’s to address the injustice lurking in the walls of the beautiful Eurocentric buildings and castle we listen to lectures in.

I implore you to talk about race and racism with an open heart and a willingness to learn. I implore you to care. Allowing racist undertones across campus to fester and bleed into Queen’s culture will only allow for more dangerous incidents targeting minorities. 

Dissociating from the racism happening on campus dares it to continue, thrive, and cut the few minorities we have down at the knees to threaten them into isolation.

Let’s shift the narrative of racism at Queen’s by openly addressing it and talking about it—or else we won’t have a chance to combat it at all.

Alysha Mohamed is a second-year English and Politics Major.

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