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Colouring the conversation

Students of colour at McGill talk about race

Many of us deal with racism on a daily basis; we are confronted with it permanently, on our campus, and in our interpersonal relationships. Despite its ubiquity, many students do not feel comfortable talking about race outside of the classroom. When discussing race with other students of colour at McGill, I discovered that although most of my friends have plenty of opinions – both positive and negative – about their experiences with interpersonal and systemic racism, they are reluctant to air them in public, even in more intimate social settings, many people seem reluctant to bring up the topic of race. Mentioning race seems to ignite an unspoken air of tension – in multiracial groups of students in particular – with people being wary of either overstepping boundaries or airing frustrations that might incite conflict or resentment. For all the rhetoric of a post-racial North American society, race still seems to be a highly sensitive issue in everyday life.

It is thus not surprising that when people of colour (PoC) publicly express their views, shockwaves are sent through the McGill populace, garnering strong and hostile reactions. Last year, for example, a number of articles about race and systemic racism, published in this paper, ignited firestorms of controversy, with some authors’ pieces even getting posted on white supremacy websites and attracting shocking online vitriol. Personal and ad hominem attacks were widespread, and readers started shooting the messenger, rather than actually listening to what was being said. After seeing the kind of response generated by Christiana Collison’s black feminism column in The Daily, it is not surprising that students are uncomfortable talking about race. 

Much of the criticism surrounding these past articles also centered on their form and writing style, which in turn served as a way to deflect their content and avoid honest engagement with arguments. Whether this was the case or not, this argumentative line implied that talking about racism was restricted to those with “better” communication skills. Truth be told, oppression is not aesthetically pleasing, and it is not always easy to understand. To combat racism is to engage with different types of discourse that denounce it, to acknowledge its numerous manifestations, and to realize how these shape people’s lives and forms of expression – including our communicational devices.

The following feature is a compilation of unedited statements on race by students of colour at McGill. My intent is to provide an anonymous public platform for PoC students at McGill to honestly and frankly express their thoughts about race – in their own terms and without fear of retribution or negative attention. Hopefully, in these conditions of anonymity, the testimony will speak for itself. 

* * *

“Do you ever feel, or have you ever felt, self-conscious of your race?” 

I didn’t really have a concept of race until I moved to Canada in 2008. I hadn’t really thought about it, which was remarkable given that my father worked on institutional racism in the UK. Within two years of moving here, I was black. I was apart. I’d spent my entire life in predominantly white institutions and I hadn’t even realized I was a minority. [But] I was reminded of my race nearly every day at the high school I went to. […] Whenever someone thought they were about to say something really racist against black people around me, they tended to just give me the side-eye or stop halfway through their sentences, allowing everyone to imagine the exact worst thing they could’ve said, hanging in the silence like a guillotine blade.

I think what has made me most conscious of my race at McGill is the fact that people keep getting me mixed up with my brother. While I recognize that he’s my brother, and we look a certain amount alike, I highly doubt that if we were more Caucasian, people would have such constant trouble [telling us apart] – we look pretty different, as people go. […] There was also the time my intro English Lit class read Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative… I found it interesting how many of my classmates would earnestly tell me how wonderful it was to be reading an “African author,” mostly people I didn’t really know. I hated that text for its colonialist apologism; they loved it because it was “different.”

I was also reminded of my race whenever people took me not attending the [student] protests as me disagreeing in principle when, as a landed immigrant, there’s a pretty long list of stuff that’d get me deported […] and, as a PoC, I am much more likely to be both arrested and charged. I’m reminded of my race whenever I see fear flash in people’s eyes around me, whenever I’m described by my race first. I’ve been in Burnside elevators several times and had people clutch their purses closer [when I got in], as though someone clearly coming from – or going to – class would have the time, or the need, to steal their purse in an enclosed space with cameras in it. […] There’s also the hair-touching thing. People do it without asking, friends ask me endlessly. It’s most of the reason why I hate my hair being longer than a centimeter. I get reminded and feel self-conscious of my race every day. It’s exhausting.

“Do you have an experience related to race, at McGill or elsewhere, that stuck with you?”

The whole McGill classes system is kind of one big micro-aggression. I mean, why are there so few courses that can be employed in an English Lit degree that deal with non-white authors? It’s well-established that many of the great writers of English literature had read work from large portions of the world. Large elements of other cultures had an input in the tradition of English literature and there have been plenty of PoC authors writing in English for  centuries. There are great authors out there now. They need to be included in the canon because right now the canon is as white as Tom Sawyer’s fences. Diversity of perspective can hardly be a bad thing, especially in lit.

Identifies as a mixed person of Pan-European, African-Caribbean, and Semitic origins. U2 English Literature & Economics.

* * *

“Universities are known for the fact that many students choose to self-segregate based on race. Do you have any comments on this phenomenon?”

I never intended to be segregated into an all-Asian friend group. It just happens. I think it’s just natural and more comfortable for us. We just drift together, as corny as it sounds; I find it may just be the culture we were brought up in. I have, of course, had the chance to make friends with non-Asian peers during the time I’ve spent in Canada both in Vancouver and at McGill. However, I find it’s a little hard to become very close friends with non-Asian people, as if there is a wall between us when we interact … I’m not really sure how to put it into words. It’s not exactly a cultural barrier or a language barrier, but just an invisible wall I feel like I can’t breach.

[…] I’ve also had many encounters in which I would walk on the streets of Montreal, and random white people would shout “ni hao” at me. I always thought it was just ignorant white people who assumed that all Asians are Chinese; however, my recent internship, in which I had to deal with hundreds of different people every day, changed my view slightly on this. I was mind-boggled as to how many Chinese people assume you’re Chinese if you look Asian. I’ve found that the majority of Chinese people that I interacted with each day assume you’re Chinese if you’re Asian… so perhaps it’s not just a case of racial insensitivity – or a kind of barrier – between Asians and non-Asians, but also among Asians themselves.

Identifies as South Korean. U3 Environment.

* * *

“Universities are known for the fact that many students choose to self-segregate based on race. Do you have any comments on this phenomenon?”

I just transferred to McGill after a year at a university in Northeastern America, and while I haven’t been at McGill long, I really appreciate the diverse and genuinely accepting environment that McGill has. The entire approach that most American universities have towards diversity – in deliberately encouraging it – is just so flawed. Even from the application process, the deliberateness and forcefulness of their efforts is really clear. When applying, I had to indicate my race, and for those unfamiliar with U.S. undergraduate applications, I’m what is considered an “overrepresented minority.” U.S. schools try to make every entering class as diverse as possible, so while nothing’s ever officially declared, it’s common knowledge that certain ethnic groups need higher test scores and better resumes than other groups, to prevent one group from being “disproportionately” represented.

When I arrived on campus [of the American university] last year though, it was clear that the school’s attempts to promote diversity didn’t work [the way they intended]. I actually felt like I’d stepped into that scene in Mean Girls where Janice and Damien introduce Cady to the various subcultures at the school. Despite the fact that the university consciously made an effort to gather as diverse and balanced group of freshmen as possible, it seemed to only make it easier for students to self-segregate, since there were more people of the same race to hang out with.

To top it all off, at the end of the year, the school sent out a “diversity survey,” asking 25 questions like, “How many times this year have you formed a study group or done an extracurricular with someone of a different ethnicity/race/creed/religious background than you?” And to encourage students to fill out this ridiculous survey, every hundredth student to answer would win a $25 gift card to the campus store.

[…] The uncomfortable environment created by the university’s attitude towards race is partly why I chose to transfer and come back to Canada. McGill is an actually diverse school, not through conscious effort, but just by being. Walking through campus, I really haven’t seen any of the self-segregation I’d witnessed last year. I’m not sure if these issues stem from a difference in school policy or if they stem from a difference between the treatment of race by American and Canadian culture in general, but it’s really, really nice to be home.

Identifies as Asian. U1 Psychology.

* * *

“How do you identify racially?”

I find that answering the question of what race I am is a difficult one. The cultural environment that I have been raised in is very different from the one that my parents have been brought up in, which in turn is very different from that of my grandparents. Personally, I identify with many different cultures, but when asked what race I am, I feel that it limits me to one that I may not necessarily share much in common with.

“Do you have any experiences related to race, either at McGill or elsewhere, that stuck with you?”

Since coming to McGill, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of people. Some have never interacted with people of colour before, and have no idea how to do so […] In my first year, I remember being called a “F.O.B.” by someone because I didn’t pronounce the word “vitamin” the North American way. And recently, I heard someone tell a [South Asian] friend that her hair – surprisingly! – didn’t smell of curry. I’ve had to listen to a McGill professor compare wearing burqas to wearing garbage bags. Another [professor], who said to my class that while the Japanese can’t drive, we shouldn’t “get him wrong” because this professor still admires their economic structure.

What upsets me is that these people feel that it’s completely acceptable to say something like this. And when our school’s impressionable first years are being told twerking jokes at a McGill assembly, this kind of racist attitude isn’t hard to come by. What I’ve come to learn my past few years at McGill is that these people are everywhere… and that reporting a professor for racist comments doesn’t actually get you anywhere at this school. But who knows? That could just be because of all the budget cuts.

Prefers not to identify with any particular race. U3 Biology.

* * *

“Do you ever feel, or have you ever felt, self-conscious of your race?”

A better question would be, “Do you ever not feel self-conscious about your race?” and the answer would be – fucking never. I feel self-conscious in classes. I reflexively worry about being ‘too Asian’ when responding to questions I know the answers to. I start to fidget and get uncomfortable when anthropological ethnography is discussed in my anthro classes, and PoC groups are put under a microscope and ‘analyzed’ in a really academic and othering way, treating their behaviours like that of animals because they’re exotic, different, primitive, et cetera.

I can’t help but feel self-conscious even in places where I want to feel safe, and actually believe that I am. When I’m hanging out with queer/trans*/feminist activists, I get uncomfortable if a lot of them are white, because any time privilege enters the conversation I feel like everyone’s eyes are drifting towards me as their token non-white person […] when really, I could give less of a shit about speaking up just to validate their feelings and interpretations of PoC politics.

As a trans*, queer PoC, I get really pissed off when supposed activists throw around the term “intersectionality” without it ever being a real problem or concern for them, as anything other than an abstract academic concept. I walk around with people reading me as a Chinese person, and often either a Chinese fag or a dyke – depending on the day, I guess. Every day. I see thin, white bodies and faces all over trans* and queer groups […] and within the groups of Chinese people I know, barely anyone even knows the word “transgender,” let alone understands any part of my actual identity. Yet here I am, feeling like a walking billboard of weirdness every time I step out my door.

As someone who spent a great deal of their life believing that white men were superior in attractiveness and desirability, I grew up feeling like I had to be attractive to them. That insecurity surfaces now even when I actively seek out non-white, non-male people in my romantic life. I worry about being ugly on a daily basis, as much as I try to believe that I am better than that.

Identifies as Chinese. U3 Biology.

* * *

“Do you ever feel, or have you ever felt, self-conscious of your race?” 

Being a one-and-a-half generation Pakistani immigrant, I’ve always been self-conscious of my race since arriving in Canada. There isn’t really a time that I can pinpoint to when I strongly felt my skin color to be inferior because there is always a lingering feeling.

Before I go on, I should mention that any feelings of inferiority – or comparisons to others – have always been in relation to the whites. It’s kind of inevitable that I consider them to be the ‘wild type’ [in the biological sense]. In my mind, being white was an accomplishment. It was something that I saw in a positive light back home, and so; in retrospect, it isn’t surprising that I always forced myself to align with and befriend people several shades lighter than me. It’s humiliating to admit, but I felt that if I hung out with people of my color – people who understood my culture, my lifestyle, religion or whatever – I would be getting the short end of the stick. I was obviously ‘better’ – more modern, better educated – if my friends were white.

Whenever an occasion arose for me to discuss my roots or my culture, I shied away and steered the conversation towards a more eurocentric route because I just didn’t think my world measured up to theirs. Like, I don’t ever recall mentioning Bollywood films or actors to any of my non-immigrant friends because to me it seemed like, “Yeah, I know what you’re going to say. I know it’s silly and that it’s so elementary compared to Hollywood. I don’t need you to mock it and silence me into humiliation.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that I intentionally try to assimilate rather than integrate because I don’t want reminders that I’m not their equal even though I have every right to be.

My feelings of racial inadequacy are no longer as profound as [in] my pre-university years, but it’s just a matter of time until the internalized sense of shame resurfaces. For example, when Mindy Kaling came on screen as the lead in her romcom brain child, I had to pause my stream and collect myself. I thought, “A brown woman is going to be the focus of this show and is going to be the romantic interest of all these good-looking white dudes? Really?” Part of it was because I felt that Mindy Kaling was carrying the torch for all us South Asian females, and I didn’t want to be there for the aftermath when she stumbled. I was very skeptical to believe that a self-assured, successful, and funny brown girl could be accepted and loved – as much as her white counterparts – by her predominantly white audience.

Identifies as South Asian. U3 Science.

* * *

“Do you ever feel, or have you ever felt, self-conscious of your race?”

Of course, especially with the way immigrants are looked at by the current Quebec government. People might also take a view of me that is probably false due to established stereotypes. I feel most self-conscious when I am travelling, or in a government institution; I always watch the way I act, what I say, and what language I choose to speak in certain situations. I often feel looked down upon in the more intolerant parts of the province, such as when I visit relatives outside of the island of Montreal, or in the States.

“How do you think McGill as a university fares at racial issues? Do you feel comfortable as a PoC at McGill?”

I think even if McGill wanted to manifest itself as a post-racial institution, it will never escape the internalized racism/fear of others among its student body. Personally, I feel comfortable as a PoC at McGill because of the people I surround myself with, but you can’t help that one racist comment by a student/teacher in the classroom, or the misconceptions people might have about your race/background.

Identifies as Arab/Middle-Eastern. U1 Middle East Studies.

* * *

“Do you want to tell me a story related to race that’s stuck with you?”

So you know the floods that have been happening in Calgary, right? Well, honestly, I’ve never been prouder of being Calgarian. After seeing all the kindness after the flood… it made me feel really happy I was from this city. Something I have never felt before. I almost forgot why I never wanted to go back. My parents have been donating a shitload of stuff too, to all the volunteers who have been helping clean up.

And then some white guy comes into their store, asking for cardboard boxes. My parents had already donated almost all their boxes to some people earlier that day, and explained that they needed the rest to run their business… and then [the man] leaves, angrily, saying “I would expect this from you people.”

“You people,” as in Asian. Honestly, my heart broke when I heard that. I almost forgot why I never wanted to go back. I just realized that, in their eyes, I will never be Calgarian.

It’s awful to realize that. I’m sorry.

Yeah, it’s kind of nice that happened though, in a way. It really made things clear. The saddest part though, is that that man thought that he was doing the right thing. All he wanted to do was help others who were affected by the flood, and when my parents couldn’t give him the boxes, he said it, the thing that his subconscious was thinking all along, probably – ‘these people aren’t my people.’

I don’t think racism has ever affected me this emotionally before… My dad has lived in Calgary for over 40 years. Once he retires, he’s leaving Calgary for good.

Identifies as South Korean. Graduated Winter 2013, Anatomy and Cell Biology. 

* * *

“I’m compiling people’s stories, comments, and experiences of race and racism. Do you have anything to share?”

So as I write this, a white, blonde-haired baby is glaring at me as if she just saw an alien prancing down the ramp of a UFO. Her mother holds her while chatting to her own mother about an interracial couple that they know, specifically about the “black” woman’s “tight curls.” And I’m sitting here, trying to write an anecdote about racialized experiences. Uncanny. The grandmother just said, “Their culture will set us back another 100 years.”

A 60 year old man that works at a marche aux puces comes up to me and tells me “tu es un beau garcon.” I know he’s 60 because I asked him when I was lying in his bed 2 days later. I had just come out of the bathroom at the fleamarket, so I guess he’d been waiting for me to exit. He gives me his number, along with an antique lamp from his stall. He offers me the ring on his finger, but I think it’s ugly and say no. I give the ring back, but gave him a ‘ring’ a few days later.

We met in a McDonald’s parking lot, and then drove to his house to have a beer. I knew it was weird, but I let myself try. I didn’t feel in any danger. But more honestly, I hadn’t felt any love. Next thing I know, we’re in his one bedroom apartment flooded with red light and his crackly radio playing pop techno. Dance remixes. Rihanna and Justin Timberlake going, he starts to slip his hand under my shirt. “J’aime ton corps,” he tells me. I ain’t feelin’ it, but again, I try. I start to get very physically repulsed, and when he starts to give me a blowjob I tell him I need to leave to have a cigarette. We have okay conversation about religion and travelling, but he’s clearly only interested in sex. I ask him from his balcony, “alors tu aimes les homes indiennes?” He says, “J’aime tout les immigrants.” I tell him I am frustrated with myself and I can’t do this but I still need him to drive me back to where my bike is. I’m scared that he’ll say no, but anyway he drives me and it’s fine. He also offers me $10 so I can eat dinner. I accepted; I was hungry. In his car he constantly keeps giving me eyes that remind me of when he was giving me a blowjob and I cringe. “Je t’aime,” he says as he rubs my thigh. I ride my bike, trying to find something I can crash into. So. That. Was. That.

Identifies as Indian/Brown/Person of Color. U3 Arts.