Commentary  Self-Awareness and Self-Location

A Response to "No Place for Queer Students"

I am currently a student in the Master of Social Work program at McGill, who completed the Qualifying Year (QY) last year. I identify as an able-bodied, cisgender female of East African and Indian origin. My parents came to Canada as refugees, and worked hard to provide their family with a safe and solid middle-class upbringing. I am the product of their hard labour, and I carry many socio-economic privileges as a result.

The article No Place for Queer Students, written by Hannah Forman, following their decision to quit McGill’s graduate Social Work program elicited a number of strong feelings in me, some of which still linger weeks later. I have written this in the hopes of sparking meaningful dialogue around the issues that Hannah has boldly brought forward, and to think critically about the ways in which we all seek to defend the rights of marginalized groups, within the School of Social Work and beyond.

I have listened on numerous occasions to students who identify as white bemoan the hopeless “whiteness” of the program, without even the slightest hint of irony or humility.

I want to start by saying that what Hannah experienced and wrote about is upsetting, valid, and important. I am deeply saddened that this is what they lived through, that their sense of safety was taken away, and that they and many of their colleagues in the queer community felt ostracized, mis- gendered, oppressed, and tokenized. Providing safety, as well as accurate and nuanced representations of LGBTQ people and issues, is an area that clearly requires immediate attention within the social work department.

I would also tend to agree with many of Hannah’s critiques regarding the curriculum, which can certainly feel outdated at times. The McGill School of Social Work is a far cry from the progressive, cutting- edge program that Hannah hoped for, and the article they wrote has likely sparked greater urgency for evaluating and strengthening course content within the program, for which I am grateful.

Where my approval started to waver was when Hannah asserted that they felt as though being in the QY program was like “stepping into a factory run by straight, nice, white ladies intent on producing straight, nice, white lady social workers.” Stating that they took a photo of an orientation exercise that featured “an entire row of fairly identical white women” was problematic to me for a few reasons. Mainly, to paint the exercise in this way would be to misrepresent the real diversity of people who were there on that day. Social location does not simply stop after “straight, white woman,” but goes much further to include class,
age, ableism, religion and countless other identities that should not be glossed over. To ignore the vast diversity of people and experiences in describing that orientation — which I should add was co-facilitated by an Indigenous professor, attended by numerous “straight, nice, white” faculty who are involved in some amazing community-based initiatives, and a number of people of colour (myself included) — draws strange parallels to the sweeping generalizations that Hannah argues are being applied in discussions about LGBTQ populations in the classroom.

I worry that advocating on behalf of BIPOC folks could be viewed with the same hesitancy as I felt, particularly if the person does not identify as a member of this group.

A second area of discomfort that I felt is in the critique of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) underrepresentation within the School of Social Work. While I agree with the critique itself, I worry that advocating on behalf of BIPOC folks could be viewed with the same hesitancy as I felt, particularly if Hannah does not identify as a member of this group. Specifically, if Hannah happens to identify as white, focusing almost exclusively on being “queer” would overlook the many privileges that “whiteness” still affords, such as greater accessibility to educational programs — often to the detriment of people of colour. And these privileges need not be flagrant; something as simple as a name can bring such advantages. We know for example that a person named “Zhang,” “Singh,” “Saleh,” or “Toukara” is going to be overlooked far more often in an application process (particularly in the context of employment) than a person with a more Western- sounding name (Thomson, 2017).

To be fair, this is not a critique of Hannah or their experience, as I don’t know them in the slightest. What I can say with certainty is that I have listened on numerous occasions to students who identify as white bemoan the hopeless “whiteness” of the program, without even the slightest hint of irony or humility. The reason for this peculiar phenomenon is unclear, but it could be related to what comedian Hannah Gadsby argues is an inherent need for those in power to convince themselves of their own “goodness,” which can be achieved by labelling others in their same identity group as “bad.” Whatever the case, this level of cognitive dissonance – which I also suspect in this case is linked to a form of deep-seated white guilt – seems to allow for students to completely cut off from their own complicity in the problem of BIPOC underrepresentation in a way that I find both subtle and troubling.

To sit in its heavy discomfort, and to be able to add that “I’m still here to help, if anyone will have me” is, in my opinion, a far more powerful statement of ally-ship than either heightening certain aspects of one’s (oppressed) identity or covering up aspects of one’s privilege.

As a refreshing counterexample, I recently attended a panel during the Social Work strike week where a white student very plainly located the multitude of privileges that he possessed as the son of two doctors. To state this outright, to sit in its heavy discomfort, and to be able to add that “I’m still here to help, if anyone will have me” is, in my opinion, a far more powerful statement of ally-ship than either heightening certain aspects of one’s (oppressed) identity or covering up aspects of one’s privilege, either out of shame or denial.

In speaking about conducting research within Indigenous communities, Absolon & Willett write about self-location as a critical element of clarifying who one does and does not represent, and say that it would be considered “arrogant, audacious, and disrespectful” to represent something that is not one’s own. They continue by stating that “as an anti-oppressive methodology, location brings ownership and responsibility to the forefront.” The takeaway here is that there is an important distinction between
working as a member of a particular group and working on behalf of said group, the latter requiring greater sensitivity and permission to do so in a respectful way. Sadly, this point often gets overlooked in our haste to advocate for others, despite our best intentions.

Self-location and intersectionality are not simply about identifying the areas in which we are oppressed, but also the ways in which virtually all of us wield power and privilege in certain contexts. In this case, to conflate grievances about LGBTQ safety with that of other minority representation can potentially be offensive to BIPOC students who may not necessarily equate their suffering along all the same lines as queer folks. But who knows; they may also be happy that someone like Hannah brought it up. The point is that when one decides to use a platform to advocate on behalf of others, permission is essential, as well as a willingness to locate oneself within a nuanced discussion of power and oppression. When we do not do that, we run the risk of slipping closer towards the oppressive ways that we so vehemently denounce.