Commentary | Whose campus? Our campus?

Life on campus and who fits in

My friend tried to go Thomson House the other day and they carded her!” exclaimed a friend of mine last week. “Can you believe it?”

Thomson House’s new mandatory policy of checking identification cards, to ensure that only postgraduate students enter, is an inconvenience for everybody. But for black students on a hostile campus, it can evoke a long history of discrimination, humiliation, and exclusion. “We need to make sure non-members don’t take space away from members,” I was told on an afternoon when I counted two other people on the entire ground floor. Apparently this exclusivity is more important than being a welcoming space for all grad students.

Although admissions guidelines no longer restrict the race, religion, or gender of McGill students, the structures of student life still make it clear who belongs and who doesn’t. “This is such a white scene,” another friend commented as Frosh attendees wandered across campus in screaming groups. The ability to be drunk and belligerent in public with few or no consequences represents white privilege: people of colour who get rowdy are much more likely to face prejudice and censure. Not to mention that spending your first few days in drunken oblivion, rather than preparing for the semester ahead, could suggest that you are taking your university success for granted.

Here’s what sparks the annual Frosh wars in The Daily’s commentary pages: For many people, the drinking, the chants, the sexual comments and “silly” themes are all in good fun. It’s traditional, they say, and if you don’t like it you can go elsewhere. For others, O-Week is our first reminder that if you’re a religious teetotaller or have a history of alcoholism, if money is tight in your household, if rape culture hurts you, if you had to fight to be at university rather than taking it for granted, then you don’t quite belong at McGill. Because costly, alcohol-based, rape culture-reinforcing events are not one small part in a large menu of options; they are the dominant Frosh experience. White upper-class straight men can have their obliviousness reinforced in comfort, while those of us who challenge that comfort by our very existence are forced to go out of our way to find alternatives, and told to shut up about it in the process.

None of this is a cruel plot masterminded by racist, sexist individuals. It is something much more insidious: decision-makers throughout the university are people who, due to their gender, race, religion, and/or socio-economic status, fit in with the rarefied culture of this institution, and they make decisions with less consideration for the fact that others’ experiences of the same structures is quite different than their own.

This exclusivity extends far beyond Frosh week. The curriculum we are taught revolves around the work of rich white Christian men. In fact, that identity is so tied to academic worth that when one professor in a large introductory Arts class was asked why his syllabus only included white men, he said there were no women or people of colour who were equally qualified. What does that tell a woman of colour in his class? Meanwhile, the physical spaces of the university were built on the assumption that people are able-bodied and binary-gendered. Have you tried getting to class in a wheelchair or looking for a bathroom that’s neither “male” nor “female”? Minimal accommodations are there, when they’re not broken and ignored, but the message that we don’t belong is clear.

Constantly feeling out of place is exhausting; it is no surprise that drop-out rates are much higher for people who are already marginalized. If we truly want a diverse and accessible university, we should begin by making decision-making more democratic and taking it out of the hands of a select few. More than that, to beat the self-perpetuating nature of exclusivity we must make an effort to listen to critical marginalized voices and sometimes take unpopular actions. It can be done. But in a world where “elite” still means rich, white, and male, will a university that prides itself on being elite rise to the challenge?

If it weren’t for their radical politics and unconventional gender identity, Mona Luxion would pretty much fit in on campus. As it is, they spend their spare time dreaming up ways to smash the glass walls that keep McGill inaccessible and unfriendly. They can be reached at m.luxion@gmail.com.


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