Growing up, I always knew I was different. As a Bangladeshi citizen who was born in Indonesia, I was atypical. As someone who attended the same international school for 11 years—where international schools are notorious for the amount of year to year turnover they see in their student bodies—I wasn’t normal. In many ways, that was the point of going to an international school. Everyone was different, yet differences were celebrated and diversity enriched both the learning and life experiences I had as a child.
Despite this, I rejected the idea that I was South Asian. Throughout my childhood I wanted to rid myself of my Bangladeshi identity. I had never lived there and I didn’t identify with many of the things that made someone ‘Bangladeshi.’ I don’t have an accent, I act ‘westernised,’ and I have very few coethnic friends.
I came to McGill because, among other things, I wanted to go to an internationally renowned university with a diverse student body. Looking back on my decision to come here, I feel as though I wanted to recreate my experiences that I had while going to an international school. Each undergraduate student that attends McGill comes in with a certain degree of naiveté. I was no different.
McGill forced me to grow and understand that the world was not as simple as it seemed. While it lauds its diversity and prides itself on being the most international university in Canada, the administration and faculty don’t necessarily reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of students. The senior administration at McGill has a glaring lack of people of colour, and only 14.6 per cent of all staff surveyed in 2015 identify as members of visible minority groups. In 2009—the most recent time when demographic information on students was gathered—39.3 per cent of students surveyed said they were non-white. A recent report from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) shone a light on McGill’s shortcomings with regards to equity in the hiring of academic staff. The report found that in many ways, McGill is lagging compared to its peer universities.
Although students of colour often don’t see themselves at the front of the classroom or in positions of power at McGill, the university shapes their experience. Attending the university is a period of immense change and students grapple with their identities; however, not all students of colour see race in the same way or are affected by it in the same way. For Shurabi Srikaruna—who is ethnically South Asian and is from Toronto—the fact that she grew up in Canada as opposed to abroad shaped her experience.
“Because I was brought up here I [...] never felt different because of my race,” Srikaruna, U3 Arts, explained. “The difference was evident of people who were of different races that came to Canada and didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to Canadian traditions.”
Some students of colour, like Deanna Foster, U3 Arts, grew up in fairly ethnically homogenous hometowns. Foster, of Caledon, Ontario, is biracial—her mom is white and her dad is black.
“Growing up in Caledon I was the black kid in my class [...] but because I’m so light-skinned it wasn’t so salient to me,” she said. “But the sad part is that my sister and brother are quite a bit darker than me [...] and had a lot of issues with bullying [... and] ignorance [....] I just remember feeling lucky to be as light-skinned as I am. Now, at an older age I can appreciate that as being a pretty disturbing fact.”
Others grow up in relatively multicultural places, like Reggie Oey, who is of Southeast Asian heritage but grew up in Vancouver. He was taught that racial issues, especially in Canada, are a thing of the past.
“Growing up, I could tell something was different about me,” Oey, U3 Arts & Science, said. “I knew that I grew up speaking a different language and that I had a different culture than my friends. [But] before coming to McGill I wasn’t really aware of how race affected me or how it affected other people.”
Similarly, Élie Lubendo, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo but immigrated to Canada as a refugee during his childhood, noted that his views on race and ethnicity evolved in the latter half of his time at McGill.
“Coming to university I never thought that I would be involved with the black community,” Lubendo, U3 Management, explained. “Going from first year to third year it was really a big change, especially with all the things that happened with the Darren Wilson indictment, the death of Michael Brown, and the Ferguson protests.”
For students in first year who are living in residence, a new opportunity emerged to learn about issues of race earlier this Winter. Students participated in Rez Project: Race and Colonialism, a workshop that attempts to normalize conversations about race in students’ lives. It builds on the original Rez Project, which addresses issues of sexuality and consent; however, like Rez Project, Race Project only reaches students living in residence, which leaves half of the student population out of the discussion. Despite this, Oey, who is a floor fellow at Molson Hall, notes that even in its first year, Race Project has had an impact on students of colour and indigenous students.
“A lot of the feedback that we’ve received was really positive and I wish I had that experience to talk about race,” Oey said. “Hopefully having these sorts of projects will spur more conversations and encourage people to develop and learn in different ways.”
Issues of representation at the student governance level aren’t as prevalent as those at the university level. Despite this, issues of race do tend to become amplified. Lubendo has been heavily involved in student politics during his time at McGill, serving on First Year Council (FYC), SSMU Council, and the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS) council. Although he hasn’t sought to make his personal identity a part of his political identity, race has affected his experience at McGill.
“Just about in every year that I’ve been involved with student politics [...] there’s been a big event, whether that was Farnangate, Twerk Circus, or Froshafari for the MUS,” Lubendo said. “A lot of the race issues I dealt with in student politics had nothing to do with me but because I am a black person that could answer to these issues [...] I almost always had to. It did, almost in a sense, weaken my role sometimes because it’s hard to fight your own team when you’re working with them every day but you need to tell them [...] we have to address these issues on race.”
Foster, a member of the Martlet Rugby team, felt that in some ways coming to the university did impact her views on her identity.
“At a younger age you don’t really realize it as much, I was kind of ignorant,” Foster said. “Being at McGill and being exposed to different schools of thought and studying different things [...] it became more salient to me that my experience here was different than most other students.”
Although programs like Race Project and groups like the Black Students’ Network have attempted to create a conversation about race on campus, discussions can be oftentimes polarizing, divisive, and ultimately non-constructive. As such, conversations about race are often only had after major campus-wide issues such as Farnangate arise. Rather than becoming normalized on campus discourse, issues related to race are often either sensationalized or trivialized.
“I don’t think that people are racist, but I do think that people are misunderstanding the conversations or they aren’t taking it seriously because they’re not in an environment where it needs to be taken seriously,” Lubendo said. “It’s a subconscious issue that you have to deal with by speaking up, not only when race-based issues come up on campus, but by being actively involved in the process that shapes the campus.”
Although she doesn’t think that there’s a large race problem at McGill, Srikaruna would encourage a more holistic and dynamic understanding between people.
“You should be looking at people not for their race but [...] looking at an individual as a whole and not just by one part of them and assuming because they’re black or brown that they have these certain stereotypes,” she said.
Political correctness can also act as barrier to developing a constructive conversation on race. Oey dislikes the term and thinks that people should view race in terms of mutual respect and understanding.
“When [people] talk about being politically correct it’s about being censored or being told not to say something,” Oey said. “When I’m talking about race, I’m trying to think about how what I’m doing affects other people and trying to be empathetic in my actions and what I’m saying.”
Foster echoed Oey’s sentiments and highlighted that in many ways, students at McGill feel like they don’t want to disturb the status quo of “don’t speak, don’t tell” by talking about issues like race.
“I feel like at McGill [...] people feel like they’re walking on thin ice,” Foster said. “People are afraid to recognize differences or afraid to say their minds. I think I’d rather be faced with someone’s ignorance and have a constructive conversation than have things go unsaid and pretend [...] that things don’t exist.”
Additionally, the onus is often on people of colour to speak up or speak about issues of race. In situations when you’re the only visible minority in the room, it can often be taxing.
“In student politics, when you’re surrounded by people that you’re working with every day that don’t have the same views as you about race because they’re privileged by their identity and skin tone, it’s really hard for you to speak up,” Lubendo explained. “I didn’t get tired of talking about race, because I think that race is very important and that it’s not talked about enough. What I did get tired of was people more or less shouting at each other and not really coming to a consensus or not being able to compromise for the greater good.”
With an issue as personal as race, finding mutual empathy can be difficult. Oey has struggled at times to talk about race because of the misunderstandings that can arise.
“For me, it’s kind of hard to talk about race because I feel like my experiences will be invalidated or will be nullified,” Oey said. “Talking about race can be quite polarizing and can get people quite defensive [....] It’s hard because people think of racism as specific actions [...] and it’s not common to think of racism as systems that are entrenched in our society.”
Even if many millennials think that we live in a post-racial society, ignorance regarding race does affect people’s lives. I know, because it has affected mine: When I first started at McGill, many people were surprised to hear that I spoke perfect English, despite having only lived in Canada for two years. Last summer, a fellow McGill student told me to get a white name.
To some degree, I share these experiences with many students of colour at McGill. While racial tensions have not reached a boiling point at McGill like they did at Missouri, Yale, Harvard, and other campuses in the USA earlier this year, that doesn’t mean that issues of race are nonexistent. Although they are very different than at the aforementioned universities, such issues exist. The conversation on them, however, is fairly nascent, and, at times, uncomfortable. That shouldn’t be a reason to avoid talking about race. Students on campus must understand that being silent on issues of race or avoiding the discussion because it does not affect them, directly stifles progress on problems of diversity. Students should also know that when the discussion does develop, it will be essential to listen before talking. Just as we are all students at university, we are all different, coming from different backgrounds and having lived different life experiences. We need to embrace our differences, respect them, and learn from them, to ensure that during this tumultuous period at McGill, we all grow.