Online School While Black

Or How the Pandemic Ruined My Student Experience

When McGill pivoted to online education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the institution’s teaching methods were considerably transformed – as was its racism. Although the 2020-2021 transition to online education already proved to be challenging for most students, it was particularly detrimental to Black students who were subject to new and increased expressions of racial humiliation. 

Mix online education with the fact that people feel more comfortable sharing their racist beliefs behind the safety of their screens and you get the toxic cocktail. These easily blocked attacks so typical of social media become benign when all of a sudden, virtual dehumanization now invades the only platform where you can access the education for which you pay thousands of dollars. Though large classrooms never stopped non-Black students and staff from making covert (and not so covert) racist comments over my three years at McGill, the private security of their home emboldened many to articulate racial hatred. Professors all too happy at any form of participation that animated the usually silent and dark screens on Zoom overlooked racism, from the eugenicist white feminist arguing that “women having too many babies” is “Africa’s problem,” to the guy typing the full N-word in the Zoom chat of my friend’s class. This cocktail forced down my throat for eight months quickly turned school into a nightmare.

Added to the intensified audacity of racists was the indignation of being doubly erased by a simple click in Zoom lectures. ​​I cannot count how many times professors disregarded my “raised hand” with my camera on but thanked non-Black students that interrupted class to unmute themselves unannounced and make their “contribution” – or how many times they only answered my question in the chat when a white student copy-pasted it (and if your camera was off but your hand function matched your skin tone, you could expect the yellow ones to take precedence). I am still furious when I think about the time a Political Science professor cut me off, dismissively ending the lecture with “Ok folks that’s enough for today” while I was in the middle of responding to a student who argued that Africa was suffering from a “resource curse” rather than the devastating legacy of 500-year-old Western colonial pillage. But I could not have imagined that these live lectures I stopped attending in order to stall the worrying deterioration of my mental health came to be the least damaging component of online school.

Indeed, it is ironically the attempt to make online learning easier – by reducing individual assignments and increasing group and participation work – that propelled what was by far the most harmful aspect of virtual school for Black students: our unprecedented exposure to whiteness. Whereas pre-pandemic courses usually consisted of a midterm, paper and final exam with the remaining 10 per cent or so left for participation, most of my classes now had at least one group presentation worth roughly 20 per cent, in addition to participation activities counting for up to 20, 30, and even 40 per cent of the final grades. While I used to be able to choose whether or not to engage with white students during lectures that occurred twice a week, I suddenly had no choice but to communicate with them up to five times weekly for mandatory projects and discussions. So just when I thought I could efficiently bypass students’ colonial propaganda in skipping their interventions in the lectures I exclusively watched later on MyCourses by the third week of school, this accelerated inter-racial exchange shattered all hopes for protection against racism.

My weekly meeting with six classmates who constantly started their monologues with “everything that happened this summer made me realize…” to strategically signal their racial “wokeness” was nothing compared to my friend’s conference where white students claimed the police attacked them on the Plateau, just days after the SPVM had shot Sheffield Matthews…The TA (Teacher’s Assistant) argued that officers on bikes seeming “more approachable than in cars” would result in fewer cases of police brutality, at the same time ignoring my friend who, on the brink of tears, pointlessly kept her hand up until the end of this debate on police reform. Another friend exhausted by conferences turned her camera off, only to witness students mocking Black women’s hair, not realizing a Black woman was on the call. I won’t forget the anxiety of scrolling down the google docs of weekly participation or the stress of the little red bell on MyCourses announcing someone’s response to my posts, both contexts in which I had contradicted racist stances in class discussion forums, for which students called me “hostile” and a professor said I was lacking in “nuance,” still under the eyes of an indifferent TA. 

To be clear, small group discussions were already hotbeds for white supremacist degradation long before the switch to virtual education aggravated their politics of erasure to a level I did not think possible. There was nothing I despised more than what Arts programs call “conferences”, these weekly discussions of course readings supervised by TAs who glorify students’ racist thoughts and ideas as their courage to “participate.” Interestingly, they always declare that “this is a safe space” where people from “diverse backgrounds” must respect each other’s “opinions.” In reality, non-Black students no longer intimidated by large auditoriums weaponize conferences as battlegrounds for bloody psychological warfare, clearly aware that anyone who denounces their outrageous takes on issues they know nothing about is instantly demonized (a friend told me a white boy angrily called Jamaicans lazy after a video they had watched exposed Ontario farms’ exploitation of Caribbean workers, and another one remembered the paralyzing terror of a TA saying white anthropologists would have helped colonizers grasp how “what they did” in Africa was “wrong”). Black students in other faculties know just as much about the racial trauma conferences instill when they take Arts courses as electives.

Yet, because our face-to-face interactions with other students prevented their dismissal of our physical presence, we could at least, to some extent, retrieve the humanity they stole on our own terms. For example, I once blew up at a student who casually said “Cecil Rhodes had the best interest of Africans in mind” after trembling rage followed my profound disbelief and disgust for the 40 people who did not even flinch at the overwhelming cruelty and bestial violence embedded in his words, unbothered. Over the next conferences, the energy of the room automatically tensed as soon as I raised my hand to defy a student who then instantly knew their time was up, while the TA panicked when I merely glanced at her. The message was clear. Similarly, my warning look was often sufficient to make racists’ cheeks turn red, stumble through their words, or fall into an embarrassed silence after realizing the absurdity of the colonial idiocy I had laid bare. My bond with the friend cornered by the talk on police reform was actually born out of our eye contacts as the only Black people in a conference moderated by a TA who continually repeated that all students should feel “comfortable” speaking their mind just seconds after our challenge of students’ crass judgements made her feel uncomfortable. When she caught one of our knowing smiles, she hesitated to make this remark over the rest of the semester. I could likewise protect myself from brutal disrespect by just walking out of the room without the fear of compromising my participation mark barely worth a tenth of my grade. 

In contrast, online education terminated any potential for self-defense. Because screens could not accurately communicate our emotions and heavily oversimplified human interaction, students neither confronted the impact of their words nor the serious implications of our open resistance that Zoom meetings rendered distant and inconsequential. As such, their superiority complex remained untouched and none of our desperate attempts to escape it worked. As when I assumed I had doubly flipped the script in opposing my professor’s refusal to let me speak by also unmuting unexpectedly to contest Africa’s “curse,” my friends respectively believed that raising her hand to protest against a ridiculous conception of racial policing and turning her camera off to disengage with the harm she knew was coming would help them stand their ground. We were all duped, unable to fight back. The draining effect of this total powerlessness in the face of incessant aggression sucked all energy out of me, creating a mentally destructive rollercoaster of anger, resentment and resignation, a combination that frequently pushed me to turn my camera and my computer’s sound off in the worst group meetings. As I did something else without paying attention to the silent movement of students’ faces on the screen, the only TA who noticed my absence sent me an email saying she could not give me a grade for my lack of participation. I did not reply. 

In forcing an extensive interaction with our oppressors that represented a large chunk of our final grades, the pandemic-provoked change in evaluation methods accentuated our subjection and vulnerability to unforeseen, atrocious rearticulations of racial violence. The 2020-2021 online academic year not only transferred education to a toxic screen, but moreover guaranteed that our entire learning experience and academic performance was reduced to, and completely dependent on our engagement with that same screen.To top it all, the impossibility of coping with daily outrage and distress by hanging out with Black friends on campus further eroded my well-being in undermining the sole support system that had previously allowed me to regain control of my mind relentlessly under attack. Sharing stories of racist madness broke our isolation in fostering empathy and solidarity, something extremely valuable that the warmest video call cannot replace. Had I been able to meet Black friends in the library like I often did, the white girl infuriated by the size of African families would have been hilariously imitated until we turned the disturbing violence she enacted into a more bearable memory of pitiful ignorance. It did not matter that our bursts of laughter and fierce condemnation of racism unleashed a wave of dirty looks on us, because we were facing this repression together. The pandemic abruptly put this to an end.