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Race Project attendance should be encouraged, not coerced

a/Opinion by

The implementation of Race Project, an extension of Rez Project that seeks to encourage discussion of race and colonialism in university residence, had a rocky start this semester as attendance was not as high as facilitators had hoped. In a recent article for the McGill Daily, floor fellows and facilitators were quoted as suggesting that attendance be incorporated into students’ lease agreements. This raises the question of whether forced attendance will positively encourage more students to discuss issues of racism and diversity at McGill. Widening the range of attendance has been a stipulated concern for facilitators, but such a measure would be an example of treating the symptom, not the cause of students not attending the workshop. In fact, student enthusiasm is often more stunted in these workshops by the format of the discussions than by whether the attendance system is lenient or not. If first year students are reluctant to take part in the first place, then compelling them by fear of penalty is not a positive remedy. To put it simply, forcing attendance for students that feel uncomfortable in these settings is counter-productive, especially for a project that seeks to create a more inclusive environment in residences.

Race Project is a necessary initiative at McGill that stresses the need for more open discussions on diversity. For students, racial and cultural uniformity among professors creates a narrowed exposure to different points of view. There is also a lack of diversity in the student body; at the moment, there are less than 200 Aboriginal students at McGill. In an establishment that should, in fact, educate people on the nuances of human cultures and perspectives, this is a worrying fact. Minority cultures on campus are drowned out by a curriculum put forth only by white professors and as a result, minorities become more and more isolated. If minority viewpoints are neglected in academics, then students are not prompted to recognize their value in everyday life. In this context, Race Project represents an essential site for students to express themselves on issues of racism on campus. But for this process to work, it is essential that they feel included and safe in the discussion; to this end, making it a legal obligation would be counterintuitive.

In a domain as introspective as race and identity, students should retain their right to decide to participate or not. Some subjects can be very difficult to broach and the exchanges that ensue might also be triggering. For some, this may be a window of opportunity—an outlet for minority culture where frustrations are expressed and assistance sought. For others, it is just another occasion in which they are spotlighted or, worse, pitied. Consequently, In order for the atmosphere in Race Project workshops to be propitious to a devoted discussion, the platform should be more open and comprise students who participate willingly.

Rather than making attendance mandatory in lease agreements, organizers should take more steps to improve the availability and accessibility of the workshops themselves. The program is, after all, in its infancy—now would be the ideal time to consider smaller steps to improve attendance before leaping to a more drastic measure. For instance, workshops could be held multiple times throughout the year. There is potential for one to take place in the Fall semester and another in the Winter semester; this would to help to create a sense of continuity and provide an opportunity for reflection. Talking about these issues once does not etch them into students’ memories. But taking steps to create a conversation will. As a result, the entire initiative could be made less formal and subtly introduced into rez life in a variety of manners. Floor fellows, who are already in collaboration with Race Project, could also be instructed to stir similar conversations during ‘Floor Tea,’ for example.

The need for Race Project is undeniable—it was developed as a result of student demand. But in ensuring that the project fulfills its purpose and lays the foundation for students to be critical and self-reflective members of the McGill community, it must grant students the choice of whether or not to partake.

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