On the evening of Thursday, November 24, around twenty students gathered in the William Shatner Building to attend an event called “Campus Conversations: Race in the Academy,” which prompted discussion of racial issues in academia.
The event, hosted by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Equity, was open to students who identified as Black, Indigenous, mixed-race, and people of colour (BIMPoC) from all faculties.
The event examined McGill’s academic spaces and was accompanied by facilitators and trained active listeners to foster solidarity and a safe space. SSMU Equity hoped to bring forward the experiences and voices of racialized students.
The discussion focused on themes such as lived experiences of racialized classmates and decolonizing education and de-centering whiteness in the academy.
Two main themes were presented, the first regarding “departments and courses,” and the other regarding “the atmosphere of being an ethnic, or a visible minority on campus.” Participants were encouraged to contribute to the conversation as speakers and listeners.
Race in McGill’s academia
When participants were asked whether they were expected to behave in a certain manner at McGill because of their race, religion, culture, or ethnicity, one student claimed that they have become “disenfranchised” with their faculty.
“There’s a […] constant perpetuation of the difference between objective fact and truth, and what people who live in the experiences of neo-colonialism actually experience,” explained the student. “For me, it’s often difficult to sit and hear peers speak with a certain air of expertise of things that are far more nuanced than they are projecting them as.”
This was echoed by a second student who decided to leave the same faculty due to “the hegemonic discourses.” Microaggression was a prominent sentiment among students who felt that “certain people like to take up space.”
A third participant spoke of an instance where a classmate was told that they “speak really well for a Black girl.”
“How can your race just define your intellect?” that person asked.
“There’s a […] constant perpetuation of the difference between objective fact and truth, and what people who live in the experiences of neo-colonialism actually experience.”
During the discussion, some students mentioned that instructors have the ability to exacerbate marginalization when faced with a racist or sexist comment, especially “when someone in your class or conference says something clearly problematic, but the prof […] or TA […] nuances it, and [says] it’s fine.”
While students in the group participated in course evaluations, they questioned the effectiveness of these evaluations, as they were “dependent on the class size,” and held a “risk of identifying yourself.”
“How can your race just define your intellect?”
A fourth participant mentioned that they felt intimidated by that power dynamic.
“What we recognize is that professors […] have power over your grade,” they explained. “They hold this […] position of power [on] how to change your grade, [and] it’s a confusing complexity.”
“How do you correct it, […] when there is that power dynamic?” they asked. “I feel like as we come as that one angry person in the room, people know, when my hand shoots up, what’s coming.”
The group also discussed the lack of lived experiences in McGill’s academic curriculum.
“I was in class, […] and one of the topics that came up was [China’s] Cultural Revolution,” a fifth student began. “It’s a very emotional experience for them [those with firsthand experience]. I felt that the topic was very objectified in class.”
“As a student, I would have liked to see more lived experiences, stories that were integrated into that class,” they concluded, “because specifically, the professor isn’t even Chinese. […] I felt very threatened in that class.”
Participants shared sentiments regarding professors who are not representative of the identity group being studied in the course, such as a white professor with no Indigenous background teaching Indigenous studies.
“How do you correct it, […] when there is that power dynamic?”
A sixth student pointed out that “when professors who identify as people of colour (POC) teach a course that is relevant to courses with cultural implications, it really makes a difference for POC identified folks.”
A seventh student mentioned that McGill professors rarely seem to be conscious of that fact: “It’s so strange [..] except for two classes, maybe […] they [professors] never address the fact that they are white.”
Within the group, humility and open disclaimers from professors were discussed as potential solutions.
“I think that coming from a place of humility both in terms of engaging and in terms of problematic comments when teaching material from historically marginalized communities is so important,” the student explained.
“Coming from a place of being humble, accepting that […] you don’t know everything” was very important for them. They added that when a professor addressed the fact that he is white, they “didn’t expect it,” but was pleasantly surprised.
“When professors who identify as people of colour (POC) teach a course that is relevant to courses with cultural implications, it really makes a difference for POC identified folks.”
An eighth student echoed this statement, saying that: “It’s really important to come into it, I think, with that humility.”
“I found that […] also having profs who aren’t racialized who talk about race [and] feature racialized academics in their syllabus, […] when they come from it from a point of humility where we […] are […] engaging with the theory, that has been very meaningful for me,” the student continued, “because […] it’s also allowed me to explore […] ways of thought I was never introduced to before.”
“It seems like within the group, humility from the professors […] and […] an honest disclaimer from the class should be suggested collectively,” said the active listener.
One participant who attended the event said, “I think that there should be more spaces like this and opportunities for BIMPoC people to get together,” as marginalized students “find so much encouragement and solidarity” from open dialogue among students in informal spaces.
“I think that coming from a place of humility both in terms of engaging and in terms of problematic comments when teaching material from historically marginalized communities is so important.”
“There is a dire need for […] space for underrepresented voices,” said a final student.
*This event was a safer space for BIPOC students, so the participants asked to remain anonymous.