Students at the University of Ottawa took to social media in numbers to decry a student federation event for its racial segregation of participants.
In My Skin, an anti-racism campaign held by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), hosted an event on March 4 to encourage dialogue about students’ experiences with racism.
But according to the event’s original description, the conversation would be split into two groups: whites and non-whites.
“In this meeting, we will have all the racialized folks in one room talking about their experiences, but also what kind of changes do they want to see to challenge racism,” the Facebook page stated. “In another room, we will have all the non-racialized folks talking about their white privileges.”
On Feb. 27, students flooded the page with messages mostly denouncing the event and demanding the SFUO to cancel it and issue an apology. The page was taken down, but the event ran as planned.
Ikram Hamoud, vp services and communications of the SFUO and the principle organizer of the event, clarified that one group was for students of colour only, while the other was for any student who wanted to discuss power, privilege, and allyship. The plan is for both groups to reunite a week later and share what they discussed at each meeting.
“Students of colour on campus have been asking for a space to discuss their experiences exclusively with other students of colour, and we recognize the importance of providing this sort of space along with many other types of spaces which include everyone together,” said Hamoud.
First-year economics student Alexei Kazakov created his own Facebook campaign called Students Against “In My Skin.” He said the backlash from the SFUO event would “not be tamed” just by removing it from Facebook.
Kazakov was born in Estonia and immigrated to Canada in 1997 because he and his family, as Russian ethnic minorities, were “oppressed and hated” in Estonia. He said he has also been discriminated against by some Russians because he’s Estonian-born. The event’s description angered him because of its reference to white privilege.
Kazakov drafted a petition for the impeachment of Hamoud on the grounds that in organizing the event and communicating it to the student body, she failed to uphold her constitutional duty. The petition also called to invalidate her mandate as the incoming vp social.
But in a change of heart, Kazakov cancelled his campaign and scrapped the petition to impeach Hamoud. He said he’s “disgusted” with the political environment on campus and wants nothing more to do with it.
“Both sides of the argument have said awful things and generally acted horribly towards one another,” he said. “Campus politics do, truly, bring out the absolute worst in everyone.”
Shannon Lafrance, a parent of a U of O student, said she was “totally disgusted” by the SFUO initiative. Lafrance is white, her husband is black, and her son Jamie, who has been a sociology student at the U of O for more than three years, was in tears when he told her about the In My Skin event.
“We’ve never made him choose a culture,” she said, adding that as a student and community advisor, her son has always been “a part of the (U of O) family.” She wants an apology from the SFUO and hopes their fight against racism will continue, but in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
“I admire what they’re trying to do, but it hurt my family,” she said.
But not everyone was angered by the event’s description, as some students expressed support and appreciation for its efforts.
“I know how hard it is for me personally to talk about race and racialized violence with white people,” Ossob Hassan, a Board of Administration (BOA) representative for engineering, wrote on the event’s page. “And as uncomfortable as it makes certain people to segregate by race, I think it will lead to better dialogue and reconciliation in our community.”
Hanna Sam, another BOA representative, wrote, “As a racialized woman, I’m so happy this is a space for experiences. I have experienced racial aggressions at the hands of white people (…) This is a space that I really need for healing and a place where we can create solidarity.”
The Black Student Leaders Association (BSLA) at the U of O supported the idea of safe spaces for students to talk about racial issues that affect them, but pointed to a lack of understanding of the event that made room for misinterpretation.
“We truly believe that this is a positive way to allow everyone to become aware of the difference in our lived experiences,” the BSLA said in a statement.
Nicole Desnoyers, vp equity for the SFUO, said the entire executive was equally responsible for the event, and will continue with the In My Skin campaign.
“When it comes to fighting racism on our campus, it is imperative that this work involve all executives since it has such a widespread effect on our membership,” she said.
Other students planned an event called Beyond My Skin to hold their own discussion about racism on campus and how students can make changes.