A look at campus life as a black student, and how the U of O can move forward

This past week marked the start of Black History Month (BHM). With issues around anti-black racism permeating the lives of University of Ottawa students year-round, the Fulcrum believes it’s time to harness the sentiments touted during this month and extend support and allyship to black students beyond the end of February. In this spirit, I sat down with Dennis, a fourth-year U of O commerce student, Brian, a first-year U of O software engineering student, Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi, Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) vice-president equity, and MB*, a recent U of O graduate.

*MB requested not to be named due to work circumstances.

Savannah: Do you feel you’re treated differently or experience campus life differently than white students based on your skin colour?

Leila: I think it’s no surprise that still today people are being judged on the colour of their skin. For me what I’ve seen it do is make it that I need to constantly prove my abilities, even when they’re outlined. It means that I have to fight three times as hard for everything, it means there will be barriers when it comes to asking for help, it means my mental health issues will be taken less seriously or dealt with differently, it also means that I may not be able to seek the help that I need on campus.

I think that where I’ve seen it the most, especially in my position, is that, and especially when people are coming for me or commenting on the work that I do by using my race, I think that I’ve seen it make it a lot harder for me to justify the work that I do.

MB: When I moved to Ottawa, I went from a place where I was literally the black population of my school, to one of thousands. It was weird seeing how there were other black realities, and I think growing up in an almost completely white environment, there were a lot of things growing up that I did not realize were racist or discrimination until I moved to Ottawa.

And I was way more racially aware when I got there, because there were people who, if it was wrong, they could speak up and take action about it. As opposed to me, if I would speak up there was probably nobody that was going to have my back, because nobody knew what it felt like to be black at school.

I’ll just share this story as well, because this was when I realized something is seriously messed up at the U of O. I was partying with a bunch of my black friends, and there was about six or seven of us. And it was a pre-drink, so then we were leaving to go to the party.

As we’re stepping out, one of the guests is like, “no, guys, we should split up to get there because if we just show up to the party, a big group of tall black men, it’s not going to be a good look.” And I was like, what do you mean a good look, we’re there to have fun just like everybody else. Why wouldn’t we just show up? And he was like, “trust me, it’s gonna cause way less problems if we just separate in two or three groups staggered.” I was like, you know what man, fine, whatever.

And I did not understand why that would be such a big deal. So we did it, and after we all got there, sure enough, a large group of white people came in and it was … some of the comments I heard, like, “oh, hide your phones!” and stuff like that. “Make sure you put your name on your cup!” It was like, why would you say to these people who were also invited to the party, why would you say these comments now? There were already black people there when we showed up, so why would you just say these comments when there’s a group that shows up together, right? That’s when I was like, damn, Ottawa. It’s real. It’s a reality no matter where you go.

Dennis: I 100 per cent feel that way. I think from different ends, whether it be the whole inclusion aspect, I feel that the U of O is very much built on what I would call “bro culture.” So especially coming from like Toronto, it’s different coming here where you have like a lot of people who are coming from smaller towns and stuff, you know, who may not have that experience with other ethnic groups. So for me definitely, even from faculty as well, just from their initiative in trying to connect with me versus trying to connect with my caucasian counterpart. There’s this whole ease for example of being able to talk about hockey as a sport, but like you come to me and say “oh, what am I gonna talk about with him?”

Brian: (To Dennis) Would you say there’s also some appropriation of the culture to what they want?

D: That’s interesting…

B: The thing about bro culture also is the appropriation of African Americans and African Canadians, so they may be able to take what they want from it but they still keep the fundamentals of what they have. And it’s their own balance, but it also creates a disruption for others.

S: Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by a “disruption”?

B: It prevents you from connecting with those types of people. It almost creates a barrier in which, you would imagine that appropriation of culture would take away barriers, but if it’s not done in a certain context or in the right way, it’ll make it harder to connect with those people. And that’s what I mean by disruption, it kind of makes barriers when we’re trying to take them down.

To answer your first question, for me… if I’m passing by people I’m always met with stares of fear or unjustified discomfort. And it’s never an in between, it’s always one or the other. And if it’s from our caucasian counterparts, it’s one of the two. It’s not a stare of recognition of another human being, and that’s what’s kind of got me so far.

S: Do you think the differences we talked about are intentional, and do you think that matters?

L: I don’t think that it matters, I think intention a lot of the time is something that we like to go back to, like if someone says something racist, or engages in hate towards you in a different way, a lot of the time the first thing that they go to is “I didn’t mean to be racist.” If someone does something to me, and I say that it makes me feel a certain type of way, I should be able to express that. But often, because intentions are put before actions, and the way in which people react, we’re not able to express the ways in which things have hurt or affected us.

M: I think there’s a difference between racism and ignorance, and that’s the intent. And some people it was very intentional, some it’s just how they grew up. For me, growing up I was never put in a situation where I was like, this is wrong, I’m going to stand up for it, or this is racist, I’m going to stand up against it. Because I always thought this is wrong, it’s not always about race.

But then in Ottawa I would sometimes be put in situations with my black friends where they said, “this is wrong, this is racist, we’re going to stand up against it,” and I was like, is it though? And it felt weird because I didn’t want to say it was not, but at the same time I didn’t feel as strongly on certain topics as they did. So it was weird. I found it very weird that one of my friends told me that if you’re a black student in science, and you do not go on to med school, you’re considered a failure because why else would you go into sciences. But when you think about it, I don’t see a lot of black doctors.

Maybe I’m totally wrong, but where I am right now there are not a lot of black doctors. I volunteered at a hospital the other day for med school interviews, and none of the candidates were black. None of them. And I was like, whoa, I see what my friend meant years ago. It’s things I get now with age, that you don’t realize at the time. Sometimes we’re caught up in the moment and don’t have time to analyze everything as properly as we should.

D: I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional, but I feel like it’s something from within. Especially with (Brian’s) whole fear thing, I’ve definitely experienced that myself for the past four years. Whether that’s stemming from what you’ve seen in the media, and it’s just coming out without you knowing it or not, it’s there.

And the last thing that anyone on a university campus wants to feel is exclusion or discomfort based on your perception whether it be intentional or not intentional of me and the colour of my skin. When it comes to my interactions with other university students, for me it’s like once I feel this initial discomfort, it’s like I’ve checked out, you know? Like if you show me that you’re uncomfortable around me, I’m really not going to go the extra mile to try to be your friend or show you that I’m not this scary person. Whereas when I first started school, I was like, shit, I feel like this obligation to show them that I’m not this person they perceive me to be.

B: Touching on what you said about the media, I don’t think it is intentional because … when you see African Americans or African Canadians on media, it’s rarely for anything good. It always seems to be something that’s wrong, or went wrong, and if you keep getting fed this type of imagery of African Americans and African Canadians, then you would, whether intentional or not, subconsciously start to associate a certain emotion, or certain feeling, or certain background when you see African Americans or African Canadians. And that’s why I’d imagine it’s not intentional. But at the same time, the damage is still done. It still affects all of us, and it’s something we wish would change, but the media has a strong grasp on what people view first as a specific reality.

S: So you think it’s important for people, as they consume media, to step back and check themselves a bit on biases?

B: I do think there has to be some initiative. It’s a lot to ask because in the first place it’s not necessarily one’s fault that they take in all these things from the media. The person would need to have initiative in order to recognize that not all people are going to be like this. And you should not always judge the same book by the same cover.

D: It’s hasty generalization…

B: I think it’s also interacting with people of said race and get to know them.

D: But even with that being said I don’t understand how you can take certain things from the media, take what you want, and leave out certain things. It’s like, I’m going to consume and be into rap music and hip hop, but when it comes to real life and dealing with other black students or whatever, I’m going to look at them with the negative aspect of what I’ve been consuming. I don’t see how that makes sense.

S: Going into BHM, what do you think is most important for people to understand about anti-black racism on campus?

L: I think that anti-black racism is something that we culturally have to learn and unlearn, all of us experience it in different ways. I think we have to acknowledge that it’s something that’s embedded in the way we were taught to behave with others.

When I’ll get emails on the first day of BHM, it’s “why are we having all these events for black folks,” or “why are they special?” or “why are we giving them extra space?” And I think it’s important to realize that we all have a part to play in making sure that racism and anti-black racism are eradicated from our campuses.

When we’re talking about white folks, anti-black racism is something that exists in every single race and group. I think that especially when it comes to white folk and the history between black folk, and how we got to where we are, to realize that it is an extra step of having to unlearn. Because in a lot of ways, when it comes to our barriers, we are on the opposite end of them, and for us to get where we need to be it also has to include them.

M: Most forms of racism are subtle. So, it’s not going to be like, the 50s in the States where it’s going to be “No negros allowed, no (n-word)s allowed, you won’t catch it with the naked eye.

And we also have to appreciate that even though there are still great, great, great lengths that we must go through to achieve racial equality, as black people, we here in Canada are fortunate that we can take social actions without having as much negative repercussions.

D: I think it’s being aware and actually, you know, informing yourself and whether it be having these discussions amongst your friends… like me and my friends have this talk all the time, and someone always walks away like mind blown, because it’s like, “I never knew that you felt like this, I never knew that you go through this, I didn’t know that these things that me and my other friends do actually have this effect on you.” I think it would just be making that admission and being more aware.

B: I’d also say that we should always also look back in the past while we look towards the future. And with BHM, it’s not meant to be a guilt trip for anyone who’s not African American, we have to recognize that we’re doing so much better than we have in the past, but at the same time we have to keep the momentum going. We have to have those conversations and keep improving. But we have to recognize that it has gotten better, and will continue to do so.

D: They say that history repeats itself in one way or another right—if you’re not remembering what’s happened in the past, what’s to say that it won’t happen again?

S: What would you like to see people do to be better allies to that conversation?

L: I think it’s showing up even when you’re not sure why. I think that it’s important to go out of our way to learn. Also, the first thing to realize is that it’s not us against them unless we want it to be. I think for a lot of black folks it’s just trying to survive. You’ll hear that we haven’t got to a point where we’re thriving, where it’s more than just survival, so I think that it’s realizing that when we’re talking about things and when we’re trying to do this work it has to be a complete community effort.

And obviously community will sometimes mean that black folks want to be just with themselves, but in a lot of ways when we are asking folks to be allies we are asking you to be sure that you’re doing that research, making sure that you’re listening to black folks, making sure that if you don’t understand something that you’re asking, making sure that sometimes the things that you say and do will affect people in a certain type of way, and not to react negatively when someone is calling you out, because that is a part of learning. And in any type of work, you have to realize that we’re gonna say it, and then learn and grow from it.

So I think that being an ally is just realizing that it won’t always be perfect, that the journey of unlearning and learning is one that is very long, and that will include a lot of ups and downs, but it’s really important that you listen to folks that are affected by it, and kind of follow their lead, in the way they want you to do.

M: The best way to eliminate racism is just cooperation. At one of my previous employers, I was student life coordinator for their student population. And I realized that it was hard making activities to please everyone because the campus was so segregated between Canadian students and international students.

If there’s something racist, whether it’s on campus or in your personal life, at work, if something is wrong, and you think it’s wrong call it out, but call it out for the right reasons. And like I said, most forms of racism are subtle and systematic, so we gotta be way more aware of what is going on. And if we’re aware of it that’s half the battle. Because most people now … we’re not aware of the little systematic things that are going on to divide the races.

B: It really starts with being informed. Because a lot of racism just stems from ignorance. And if you just take some time to gain knowledge on the past so history does not repeat itself, and the present, then you’ll be in a better position to make a change in your lifestyle and treat all people equally. So I think it has to do with knowledge and lack of ignorance.  

D: As a note to that, I feel like us being at the University of Ottawa, and where we’re located specifically, it’s a much different dynamic from let’s say Ryerson or U of T, where you’re directly in the city centre, and you have a city whose population is mainly made up of minority groups. Like I was on Ryerson’s campus two or three weeks ago, I was there for a case competition and whether it be like BHM posters, or Indian heritage, they have all these things on their campus at all times, so it’s a very different setting. So I feel like when these messages are there and they’re hitting students consistently, there is more of that informative aspect.

I think Brian’s point on this not being a guilt trip month is huge. The fact that black history is just a month is to me ridiculous, but I think the main point is to continue to stay informed, there are so many issues that happen every single day, and there are so many instances that are just hidden, and I think we’re living in the days where a lot of things are going to come out in the media, and it’s going to be much harder for people who have certain views to hide.

B: It’s all effort. That’s all you can give to a situation, in BHM and every month. As long as you have the effort to look into another perspective and put yourself into someone else’s shoes, then these problems will fix themselves.