Due to the global anti-racism movements sparked in the US, people are now directing their attention towards institutions like universities and these institutions’ complacency towards racist behaviours against their students and faculty members of colour. You’re Not Crazy, You’re Not Wrong, a UBC webinar that took place on September 17, sought to highlight the unpleasant realities of university life and being a person of colour in Canada. This talk provided a reality-check and the bad news is that universities, such as UBCO, are not the beacons of open-mindedness and equality they would have us believe.
The webinar included panelists, Dr. Anthony Stewart, John P. Crozer Chair of English Literature at Bucknell University; Binta Sesay, executive of the African Caribbean Student Club at UBCO; and Dr. Hussein Keshani, art history professor and visual culture program coordinator at UBCO.
This talk began with Dr. Stewart describing his experience as a Black man from Canada. His speech revolved around the concept of home and how he never felt Canada was his safe haven. He even mentioned that when asked where he is from, he never says he is Canadian. He does not answer Canadian because the country has never reflected his experiences back to him. “Having your experience reflected back to you is part of being at home,” states Dr. Stewart, but his never were. And yet, Canada prides itself in being “not the US,” as if that automatically purged the country from its problematic history of racism and settler colonialism. This raises the questions: “Who decides who gets to feel Canadian? What choices do BIPOC have now in a country like Canada?”
It is worth evaluating the comparison between Canada and the US, since in Canada, as Dr. Stewart explained, there is a belief that racism is not as bad as in the US. However, in the US, racism is addressed often. When asked during the Q&A section if he would like his son to go to university in Canada or the US, Dr. Stewart did not hesitate to answer the US.
If racism exists in Canada, it is subtle and this overlooks a crucial fact: racism is still racism. Subtle racism comprises the majority of racist acts. Saying there is no racism in Canada discredits the lived experiences of people of colour who have faced traumatic experiences. Dr. Stewart suggested that, in Canada, “not as bad” ends up being equated to “not at all”, and so conversations about racism are often shut down. Saying the situation of people of colour in Canada could be worse if they lived in the US encourages the very behaviour which allows racism to thrive.
Today, it is even more difficult to be a person of colour in a Canadian University because of the mixed messages the institutions send. Before, Dr. Stewart explained, his university never made any promises in regard to his racialized university experience - there were no mixed messages and no false hope. UBCO staff and student leaders are no strangers to diversity and inclusion training. We even have an Equity and Inclusion Office. However, Dr. Stewart put it best when he described particular experiences that leave BIPOC wondering, “did that person really just say that?” and, “why is nothing being done?” The university maintains how important racism issues are and yet people of colour continue to face traumatic experiences pertaining to race. Diversity trainings truly have the wrong end of things. They should not be about convincing people that we have to discuss racism. This should be an inherent, basic belief in all of us.
Following Dr. Stewart’s powerful recounting of his experiences, Binta Sesay delivered an equally powerful and eye-opening speech about her experiences on the UBCO campus. Binta shared that she held the belief, as many international students do, that Canada was a beacon of equality compared to the US. However, after living in Canada, she found this was not the case at all. She explains how she, and other people of colour on campus, were the victims of microaggressions by their fellow students and faculty. When classes are white spaces that do not reflect BIPOC experience or ways of knowing, and instead just perpetuate the ways of thinking of those in power, Binta states that “it can be hard to go to class when you face these everyday challenges”.
However, she states, she faced the most traumatic experiences when she joined clubs. She explains how students in the African Caribbean Student Club were the victims of stereotyping by campus security. In addition, this club was accused of stealing by a member of the SUO staff, who were sure they had given their machine to a Black student from this club. It was later revealed to be a false and racist accusation. This is not only appalling coming from two on-campus resources that are supposed to represent students and their needs, but it is also very disheartening. What resources can students of colour trust if the very resources that are supposed to be representing their interests are perpetuating the behaviour that threatens BIPOC in the first place?
Binta concluded her speech by delivering a powerful, yet simple statement: “I hear you, I see you” - an encouragement directed at people of colour, recognizing their lived experiences while simultaneously providing compassion.
Binta was followed by Dr. Keshani who provides a unique perspective of being a BIPOC faculty member. He described the discomfort he felt about discussing race in his professional environment and how being a professor at UBCO is strangely alienating in the sense that he does not feel entirely welcome.
Dr. Keshani states the following about UBCO’s faculty: “You have well-meaning, well-intentioned individuals in the faculty who think they are progressive but are engaging in performative allyship. They are simultaneously making you feel welcome and unwelcome.” Understandably, due to Dr. Keshani’s position as a faculty member, his part on the panel was brief.
You’re Not Crazy, You’re Not Wrong is a message for all BIPOC students, staff, and faculty at UBC. Microaggressions do happen, people are insensitive, racism does exist in our campus and Canada. Dr. Stewart, like most Black scholars and speakers, is tasked with the immensely emotional and taxing activity of providing people with ways to combat racism in themselves and others. He concluded his speech with the powerful lesson that all of us have the ability to imagine others as human, in spite of racism trying to fix people in place and decide what they need. We always have to strive to keep others in our imagination and ask, “What does [their] humanity entail and what does it require of me?”