Queen’s must do more for its BIPOC students than lip-service politics

The challenges of being minorities in predominantly white spaces

Is Queen's really honouring Robert Sutherland's legacy?
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In 1849, Robert Sutherland was the first Black Canadian student at Queen's. He graduated alone during an unsupportive era with an honours degree in Classics and Mathematics. As the first known graduate of colour at a Canadian University, Sutherland later became the first Black lawyer in British North America.

In 2020, Queen’s students at the School of Policy Studies learn in Robert Sutherland Hall, a building named in honour of his legacy, and a place home to unfortunate systemic racial inequality. It can be debated that Queen’s and its School of Policy Studies don’t honour Robert Sutherland, Black lives and voices, and the lived experiences of all Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) beyond lip-service politics.

We are two BIPOC Queen’s students who have stepped up to share our experiences as Queen’s graduate students and suggestions for creating a better future. Only true systemic support and changes can ensure future BIPOC students receive just treatment and are well-positioned to succeed.

Osivue

I felt marginalized coming to Queen’s. I often found myself being the only Black person in a classroom, bar, bus, or church. Having migrated from Nigeria in 2012 and settled in Toronto, I’ve always appreciated the diversity I was surrounded with. 

 Living in Kingston has made me hyperaware of the colour of my skin and my presence. On one occasion, two white individuals blurted ‘look, a Black!’ as I rode my bike down the street. As if I needed a reminder that I was a minority.

My Black identity has filtered itself into various facets of my Queen’s experience. It takes extra work to not feel alone on campus as a Black student. Finding safe spaces to share daily experiences as a Black person isn’t easy, and ensuring Black perspectives are represented is crucial.

With each passing day, and to quote Ruth Terry, I became better at the subtle and imprecise art of being Black in white spaces: performative, yet largely invisible to its intended audience. I was successful at code-switching, which is changing my appearance, behavior, and speech to accommodate the social norms of the settings I inhabited.

Black students shouldn’t need to ‘code-switch’ at an institution committed to supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion, as it leaves them ill-equipped to support their BIPOC peers. BIPOC students need accessible information about how to properly address racism and discrimination.

Fariah

I didn’t anticipate warnings when moving to Kingston to learn. After spending 21 years in a vibrant and diverse Toronto community, I sought my Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Queen’s. Unfortunately, I discovered my program to be colour blind and non-inclusive.

As a Brown woman from a working-class family surrounded by a world of different identities and ideologies, I expected to learn public policy from a critical framework that centralized anti-racism and decolonization. It’s sad that I can count on my hands the number of times I heard the words “race, diversity, inclusion” during my 10 months in this program.

My background in social work allowed me to become a supportive member of the BIPOC academic community at Queen’s—many of my peers struggled with racism and discrimination but lacked a means of accountability.

Still, I was often let down by my white peers. I was also trying to navigate a new environment where I felt racially excluded and uncomfortable. I saw countless opportunities for my white peers and faculty to be allies for BIPOC, but instead, we were met with silence, white fragility, and resistance.

Over time, I’ve found it difficult to remain optimistic for the pockets of BIPOC students within the larger influx of new students every September. There were many lonely days at Queen’s when I would lose hope. I realized I had run out of breath jumping through hoops to simply be seen and treated with dignity.

It’s imperative Queen’s shifts its culture of whiteness. The racist behaviours of white faculty and students must be interrogated and treated on the level of systemic racism.

These experiences are representative of life as a BIPOC student at Queen’s. However, before recommendations for improvement can be made, the decades of ongoing work by BIPOC faculty, staff, and students must be recognized—most of which continue to be ignored.

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Several studies on racism and equity at Queen’s have provided recommendations—recognizing the needs of all racial identities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and physical conditions—which haven’t been implemented or taken seriously. The 2018-19 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Annual Report said it best: “we have a long way to go.”

More comprehensive outreach efforts and decision-making processes are needed to ensure equitable admission of BIPOC students. BIPOC students must be provided with the formal space, systemic support, and financial compensation needed to lead their advocacy efforts. The role of white allies is to self-educate and be actively anti-racist.

Ensuring BIPOC students and faculty sit at decision-making tables will improve hiring practices and facilitate positive redevelopment of the curriculum. They can hold faculty accountable by ensuring hiring practices are conducted through an anti-racist lens.

As one-third of Canada’s population will be racialized by 2031, equity, intersectionality, anti-racism, and decolonization must be core components of a Queen’s education. BIPOC lived experiences and scholarly work should be embedded in the curriculum while existing/new courses should reflect how policy issues cause disproportionate harm to our communities.

In 2020, ignorance about how Canadian institutions are dominated by racist ideologies must become unacceptable. Curriculums cannot be white-washed and colour blind. BIPOC histories and the ongoing impact of white supremacy cannot be relegated to avoidable elective courses. This knowledge should be mandatory.

As conversations about anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism have received a recent spike in media attention, many white people have finally acknowledged the systemic and interpersonal forms of racism festering within society, academia, and the workplace. White privilege is having the luxury of time to learn about racism while others have experienced it their whole lives. 

We leave Robert Sutherland Hall knowing our MPA program has failed to shed light on policy issues that disproportionately impact BIPOC communities. We’ve taken action by laying the groundwork for an anti-racism committee within the School of Policy Studies, which will become an aid for all BIPOC students.

Ideally, there will be a day when Queen’s BIPOC students can hold their heads high and feel honored to be part of a school that amplifies BIPOC voices. In reality, not all who graduate from Queen’s will feel positive about their experiences.

There is a lot of work to be done.

 

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