Commentary | Misunderstanding discrimination and diversity

On the need to address structural, not individual oppression

McGill recently surveyed a random sample of students on their experiences of discrimination at the university. The primary question of the “Understanding Diversity and Discrimination at McGill” survey, carried out by the Planning & Institutional Analysis Office, asks: have you experienced discrimination by McGill professor, teaching assistants, administrative staff or fellow students? These four questions are virtually the same as those in the 2009 Student Demographic Survey. It seems that little has been learned in the intervening four years, as once again the survey designers implicitly discount any forms of discrimination beyond isolated actions by individuals with malicious intent.

McGill states that in its 2009 survey, 36 per cent of students reported facing discrimination from other students and 28 per cent from staff (with the report stating a “vast majority” reported no discrimination), but neither this nor the 2013 survey can possibly capture any useful assessment of oppression when it overlooks discrimination ingrained at the institutional level. Individual acts of oppression do occur, both in the form of microaggressions (small but relentless words and actions which perpetuate hurtful assumptions), and in more overt shows of prejudice (such as McGill’s Chancellor referring to Native peoples as “sauvages”). However, a major form of oppression is institutional or systemic oppression, whereby structural inequalities perpetuate existing power disparities.

Consider single parents, particularly single mothers; the 2011 Canadian census found approximately four times more lone-parent families are headed by women than men. The 2009 McGill diversity survey says only 4 per cent of respondents reported having one or more children, compared to 22 per cent of all Canadians aged 15-34. While there are various reasons for this difference, among them are the extremely limited childcare facilities at McGill. If you’re a student parent trying to raise children while attending school, you need access to childcare; you need sufficient funding to cover your living expenses (funding that is more difficult to claim without the free time to build a CV); and you need a support network that allows you to work in your spare time without impacting your grades. Additionally, you have to hope that the stress of your situation doesn’t lead to anxiety or depression, because mental health services on campus are scant and overburdened. It’s entirely possible that you could be forced to drop out of McGill because you can’t support a family, manage school, and keep yourself healthy all at once.

The suggestion that the struggles of single mothers come down to time management and willpower is, frankly, either ignorant or dishonest. This is a major form of gender discrimination at universities. But which individual can young mothers identify on this survey as having committed an act of discrimination against them?

Or consider students of colour. A 2010 report to the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community found disproportionately low numbers of non-white faculty, who can often make a significant difference in such students’ lives by sharing a lived experience of racial or ethnic discrimination and proving that they too can make a career in academia. This lack of support can mean the difference between continuing in their fields, or leaving academia entirely. But which individual can they point to as making their time here more difficult?

This is why McGill desperately needs offices such as the Social Equity Diversity Education (SEDE) office, and why student associations need equity committees. These bodies recognize systemic forms of oppression, and need to be able to take or at the least advocate corrective measures. While the administration will write, as in the 2009 report, that “the fact that there is any [gender] discrimination is of concern,” it will also spend over a decade in court trying to avoid paying the equity payments required by the Quebec government for majority-female job positions, which are underpaid in comparison to majority-male positions. It is not a surprise that the same 2010 report found a “lack of awareness [or] commitment to diversity as more than [a] catch phrase” and a “lack of understanding of [the] opportunities and benefits of diversity.” McGill’s understanding of discrimination is severely limited by its view that discrimination is a discrete act, directed by a specific individual toward another individual.

Reading McGill student responses to news articles on this topic reveals a similar attitude among much of the student body itself. Many students only seem to recognize the obvious actions of individuals as oppressive (and even those are often excused as ‘unintentional’ or ‘humorous’). When we speak of the oppressive implications of tuition hikes, many McGill students seem to think that such things affect everyone equally. But, in fact, they disproportionately affect those already experiencing structural oppression. If McGill’s students and admin continue to view discrimination solely as a function of individual incidents, they will continue to fundamentally misunderstand why McGill is failing to create or maintain a diverse community.

Benjamin Elgie is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience. He can be reached at

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