Finding a safe space in a white & straight place

Queer BIPOC individuals at Queen’s struggle with finding social and institutional support

Six students and a faculty member detail experiencing exclusion and apathy in and out of the classroom.

This piece uses “Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)” to refer to the experiences of racialized students. We acknowledge this term is not universal. 

Kelly Zou, Comm ’21, is frustrated with having to censor her views and experiences when discussing race and queerness at Queen’s.

“I don’t care what white people think of me anymore […] or about what white people think of my equity efforts,” she told The Journal.

Other students interviewed by The Journal hold similar feelings. They recount having to hold back expressing their concerns about discrimination when it comes to issues of race and queerness at Queen’s.

Being queer and BIPOC at Queen’s

All six students interviewed by The Journal said they don’t feel Queen’s is a safe space for queer BIPOC students.

Reflected in incidents like the note left in Chown Hall last fall, BIPOC and queer-identifying students have experienced various acts of violence toward them.

While Finn Huang, ArtSci ’21, contemplates whether Queen’s is helpless to prevent such incidents, he doesn’t “really trust Queen’s to be able to handle [them,]” citing the response to the 2016 costume party, which didn’t result in material consequences outside of the University's condemnation of the party.

Huang didn’t recall seeing any concrete steps taken by Queen’s at the time to hold students accountable or address the wider student culture.

Following the incident, the University released a report outlining initiatives that would be taken to further diversity and inclusion at Queen’s.

Brooke Robinson, Comm ’20, shared similar sentiments. A first-year student at the time of the incident, Robinson said she hasn’t felt a visible change in how the student body appeared to respond to incidents that followed, like the Coronavirus-themed party.

“The school’s shocked, but then everyone gets over it in like a week.”

Students also recounted experiencing direct discrimination at Queen’s.

Robinson remembered an incident in which she left a house party after friends of her housemates joked about the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, making fun of the clothing he wore when he was murdered by police.

Robinson recalled looking to her housemates for support, but instead “feeling like a fly on the wall.”

While there have been institutional efforts to address oppressive systems at Queen’s, none of the students interviewed perceive these efforts as being backed by radical action.

Professor Houghtaling, undergraduate chair of the gender studies department, echoes the sentiment.

“The fact that the racist, homophobic, transphobic incident at Chown Hall speaks volumes about how perhaps there are some safe spaces and good groups, but [the University] is sure as hell not safe.”

In the lecture hall

Queer BIPOC students told The Journal that pressure to accommodate feelings of guilt and fragility in the classroom is often apparent.

Sara*, an undergraduate student, said she frequently feels burdened to introduce race into conversations where it’s relevant.

While she embraces her queer BIPOC identity, talking about it in the classroom remains difficult.

“I feel like the girl that’s gonna bring up race again because nobody else will.”

Zou spoke similarly of the classroom environment.

“The comfort of white students is put above the comfort of BIPOC. Always, always, always.”

Reflecting on the Commerce curriculum, Zou recounted that “Commerce is extremely anti-Chinese. There’s criticism that’s valid, but the way China and its people are talked about is extremely, violently racist.”

Zou referred to students in the classroom frequently speaking insensitively about Chinese people, and professors neglecting balanced conversations.

"Smith School of Business is committed to equity, diversity, inclusivity and indigeneity, including anti-racism," Lori Garnier, executive director of the Commerce program, wrote in a statement to The Journal. "What [this student] describes is inconsistent with those values and commitment." 

Garnier also said she was "deeply concerned" about the issues raised by Zou and wants to take appropriate action as soon as possible.

Wendy Li, ConEd ’21, and Huang emphasized the importance of seeking out courses taught by professors who are doing the work to be allies to avoid being subjected to discriminatory sentiments.

Houghtaling said she sees the importance of challenging racism and colonialism in queer spaces.

Where possible, she has incorporated readings and course materials that highlight BIPOC voices, updating her curriculum frequently to reflect the work of contemporary scholars.

However, Houghtaling said she struggles getting students to meaningfully engage with content that challenges the uncomfortable realities of their social positions.  

“When you point out privilege, it’s hard for many students to absorb.”

Houghtaling added some students will ask why they’re learning about racism within gender studies.

“It makes it clear how some students will separate out issues [of race and queerness,] and how gender studies has been quite whitewashed in the past.”

Carrying on the work of BIPOC activists

Sreya Roy, current board member at the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre, feels the University over-prioritizes placating student guilt associated with having some form of privilege.

"The university's main priority is white affluent students, then white queer students, then eventually when and if they get around to it, they care about the safety of Black and Indigenous and POC students," she said.

The Levana Gender Advocacy Centre began as a group which provided relief to marginalized female students, once known as the Women’s Centre at Queen’s.

Today, according to its website, Levana is “committed to creating and nurturing a radical community of Kingston students and residents devoted to fighting gender oppression and advocating for broad ideas of gender empowerment (for those of any or no gender).”

Roy said there’s a perception the University is being gracious when it gives resources to equity-seeking groups.

“These are things that [Levana] has had to apply for. [Resources] weren’t allocated magically.”

Roy feels that, while the University will point to organisations like Levana in times of crisis, she doesn’t feel anyone is asking whether campus equity groups have adequate resources to address these needs.

Roy is sympathetic to the staff who have fought to make Levana’s story known at the table. However, she feels it’s important to note that the only reason equity-seeking groups and commissions on campus exist is because, at one point, “people went to U&U and protested for it.”

Within campus activism, there are currently no groups or clubs specifically for queer BIPOC students. Recently, the University announced a virtual meeting space for students who have experienced anti-Black racism, and is in the process of securing a Black counsellor. 

As a member of the Education on Queer Issues Project (EQuIP), Huang said he rarely sees Asian people come to the club.

He’s unsure how to engage more BIPOC with queer groups but noted there’s no formal network that currently exists to connect all equity-seeking campus groups and encourage collaboration.

Zou thinks campus groups, overall, cater to privileged students. When engaging with campus equity groups, Zou said she feels pressured to police herself to make herself accessible to white audiences.

“There’s a white acceptable version of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion that doesn’t allow us to speak down to white audiences.”

Moving forward

In the development of growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement by campus groups—particularly during Pride month—the question remains about how students can ensure they carry anti-racism through their day-to-day lives, both on and off campus.

Recognizing that the anti-colonialist framework present within Gender Studies is a rarity, Houghtaling suggested Queen’s needs more queer and racialized scholars on campus.

“Some of the best work I’m seeing so far is coming from our students and from our grad students. We can learn from them and listen to their voices.”

While students said it’s difficult for queer BIPOC students to find a safe pocket at Queen’s, many mentioned various initiatives and individuals that are making campus a more welcoming environment.

Zou noted that groups like Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Queen’s Collage Collectives (QCC) have helped shape and inform her activism. She said she’s also found comfort in the space created by the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC).

Houghtaling appreciated the work being done by her peer, Professor Catherine McKittrick, who is currently working to introduce a Minor/General in Black Studies at Queen’s, which will be available in September 2021.

Robinson praised the work of Professor Kate Rowbotham, who teaches the Diversity & Inclusion course offered to upper-year commerce students at the Smith School of Business.

Roy emphasized the solidarity work done on campus comes from the work of BIPOC organizers in Kingston, and that students should also look off-campus to find radical political spaces. She credited the AKA Autonomous Social Centre in helping to positively shape her experience as a queer BIPOC student.

Robinson suggested students take personal responsibility for ensuring their queer BIPOC peers feel safe at Queen’s. She said by being cognisant of the unique experiences of one’s peers, incidents of intolerance can be prevented.

“I want everyone to be more aware of the people that surround you,” she said. “Think before you speak or think before you decide on a party theme.”

*Name changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.

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