Two years ago, my shoulders didn’t automatically hunch when walking down Union St., my eyes didn’t immediately trail to the ground, and I didn’t feel quite so alone when caught in a group of mostly white Queen’s students. Two years ago, I walked through campus feeling like this place loved me as much as I already loved it.
Almost two weeks ago, when photographs of the ‘Beerfest’ party surfaced and Overheard at Queen’s started flooding my Facebook timeline with fiery debate — one comment talking about “all the other universities you could transfer to” after a student of colour said she felt unsafe at Queen’s — I thought of my 12th grade History teacher.
I remember walking to her classroom with my Queen’s acceptance letter. I remember her hugging me excitedly. I remember the conversation a couple of days later, when she told me she’d heard rumours about the culture of whiteness at Queen’s and that she was worried I was underestimating the alienation I might face. I laughed and shrugged it off. It was nothing I couldn’t handle — after all, racists are just uneducated people, right?
Then I remembered a year later, sitting in a history class of at least 300 students, out of which a handful were visibly non-white. I’d spoken to the professor in her office hours before, so she vaguely recognized me in the second row. The topic of Indian civilizations arose and she looked me in the eyes, pointed to me and asked me what I thought.
“I’m not Indian,” I managed to say. “I just happen to be brown and in your line of sight,” is what I managed to withhold. It turns out racism materializes out of the best intentions and PhDs.
Then I recalled a conversation about Eastern literatures in one of my seminars a couple of months later. A girl tapped me on the shoulder as I was walking out of the class and asked me whether arranged marriages and honour killings were still a practice in South Asian families. I shook my head. I wondered if she was disappointed.
I could go on. But as I watch students of colour muster the courage to express their feelings of hurt and discomfort about a party that encouraged and normalized racial stereotypes, I’m thinking about my own feelings of disappointment at this place I arrived at two years ago, ready to call “home” — this place I’m now reluctant to call anything.
Many white students peeking inside the experiences of students of colour from the outside identify racially charged events as being isolated incidents. As a female, Muslim student of colour, the white casting of the canonically black Othello and the racist costumes at Beerfest and Trump’s xenophobic agenda are all interconnected.
All these things, when woven together, create a space — both immediate and in the larger world — in which young people of colour face continuous isolation. We’re made to face daily racism both overt and implicit, made to be the spokespeople of all people of colour when we’re the only
non-white people in the room, made to act as educators on matters of racism, while also navigating a space that proves time and time again isn’t made for us.
All these seemingly separate events act upon the lives of people of colour in linked, inextricable ways.
Just days following the night of the American election, my 13-year old sister was backed into a corner by a group of her white peers at her middle school. She was asked whether she thinks Canada will do the same thing to Muslims that Trump is planning to do. My dad, who left his job in New York City following 9/11, wonders whether the post-9/11 spike in anti-Muslim hatred will be felt once more by his children, a generation later.
That same week, panel discussions were being planned to discuss the controversy around the Othello casting, in which the creative directors casted a white female student as the canonically black, male protagonist. Students of colour in the Drama department were still reeling from the idea that the art produced in their department could easily overwrite them.
A few days later, photos surfaced of Queen’s students dressed in racial stereotypes at Beerfest. A group of girls dressed as monks, with bald caps, wide grins and solo cups in hand. Another group dressed in sombreros and prison jumpsuits. Another dressed as sheikhs.
That day, as I was sitting in class, my professor accidentally called me by the wrong name — the name happens to belong to the only other brown girl in the class, who sits across the large room.
To so many here, all these incidents seem separate. But in the lives of young people of colour, still grappling with who we are, as are most other people our age, incidents like these are unrelenting reminders that the spaces we hope to love often don’t love us back. Together, all these incidents create an experience that isn’t just angering or saddening — it’s exhausting.
If someone were to ask me how I felt at the beginning of this semester, I might’ve responded with some anger, some disappointment, or even some sadness. Anger at having to argue my right to fairness and dignity and love, time and time again. Disappointment that my younger sisters are growing in a world that questions the identities they’re still trying to figure out. Sadness that for every step forward we take, it seems we take a great many steps backwards — sadness that optimism is so difficult.
But now, after all that’s happened and after all these reminders that Queen’s is in dire need of a conversation it persistently resists having, I would say I’m none of these things as much as I’m exhausted.
As a student of colour, I want more than anything for the conversation about racism on and off campus to happen, regardless of how gruelling and difficult it proves to be. But to carry the burden of beginning this conversation in a place that denies it, the burden of educating my peers on racism while also trying to get an education, the burden of facing my everyday dose of racism while also trying to fix it — these are all tiring and debilitating pursuits. More than anything, I’m tired of working for change and waiting for it at the same time.
I don’t have the perfect solution. There’s no 101 guide for solving campus racism. There isn’t a handy, step-by-step toolkit to transforming this campus into a wonderful, accepting, equitable space for everyone. But report after report has been published in the hopes of furthering anti-racism practices at Queen’s, packed with recommendations that are later appended with the words “not done.”
We can start by committing to hiring more professors of colour into tenure-track faculty positions and more administrators of colour, granting them the power to back ambiguous goals with meaningful policies.
We can start by building and supporting resources meant solely to support students of colour. Where racialized students are trying to learn but are met with unique challenges on the side, resources beside the International Centre and Four Directions are required. These aren’t meant for all non-white students and shouldn’t face the burden of supporting much more than their resources allow.
We can start by realizing that commitments to “form an advisory group comprising students, faculty, and staff members to examine the issue of inclusivity at” have happened before, as mentioned in Principal Daniel Woolf’s blog post on recent events. We can start by holding those who promise change accountable — progress is in policies and permanent change, not just press releases.
We can start by allowing students of colour to vocalize their opinions. We can start by being open and encouraging them to share their experiences, but not expecting them to play the educator or spokesperson. We can start by allowing for anger — in the face of forces that erase, degrade and alienate them, anger is valid.
Above all, we can start by listening. These past few weeks, it seems all we’ve heard are voices talking over each other — specifically voices talking over students of colour at Queen’s, who happen to be experts on what it’s like to be a student of colour at Queen’s.
I’d like to think we attend a university with the ability to encourage and enunciate minority voices, not drown them out. As a brown, Muslim woman on a campus with a race problem, I’d like to think I will be able to call this place “home” again.
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