Resolving some of the issues raised will take more time than others, says U of O president Jacques Frémont
More than a dozen black graduate students at the University of Ottawa spoke of microaggressions, underrepresentation and other discriminatory incidents that they’ve experienced on campus during a town hall on anti-Black racism on Jan. 23.
The town hall, which was held in the Alex Trebek Alumni Hall, is the second of its kind to be hosted this academic year. The first came in November 2019 and saw more than 30 Black students and faculty members push for more Black professors, data collection and curriculum changes.
“The voices of graduate students are important to hear. It is crucial to hear these voices,” said U of O president Jacques Frémont, who helped launch the Presidential Advisory Committee for a Racism-Free Campus after two Black students were carded on campus between June and September 2019.
“I’m here to listen, I’m here to take notes … we want to listen to what you have to say,” said Frémont.
Several graduate students detailed accounts of microaggressions that they’ve experienced while enrolled at the U of O, with incidents taking place while in class or at internships.
“You’re the only black person in class, which makes us feel a bit uncomfortable,” said one student in French. “If you talk too much, people think you’re a broken record and you’re trying to play the victim. If you don’t talk, no one knows.”
The student then shared an experience that they say took place in their education course, where a professor made a racist comment about students of colour.
“A prof told us it was hard for a prof to place an immigrant student in a class because there’s a stereotype that they’re going to bring their mentality with them,” said the student. “I’m born here but I’m stigmatized by my immigrant name.”
Another student spoke of the “traumatic” microaggressions that they consistently faced while doing an internship with their white friend.
“She was given more, and I was always told I wasn’t ready,” said the student in French. “I was traumatized — not only because I am a Black woman — but because I am also a refugee. Sometimes Black women are seen as too emotional, and refugees are seen as the opposite like victimized.”
After dealing with stress, weight loss and sleep deprivation, the student said that they decided to start a discussion group for other graduate students of colour, where they discovered that they weren’t the only ones dealing with microaggressions.
“When I put the word out that I wanted a discussion group, a lot of people were interested because a lot of people lived through the same things I did during their internships,” they said.
More professors of colour
Although they thought of turning to their lone Black professor for help, that same student said that they didn’t want to create a burden for them.
“I was lucky to have a Black prof, but I was still hesitating to talk to him, because you don’t know how they’re going to react,” they said. “He had just been hired on contract — a very vulnerable position. I didn’t talk to him — I took it all in and kind of absorbed it.”
It wasn’t until the student turned to a full-time, professor of colour who helped them create a discussion group for other graduate students of colour.
“Through my discussion groups, I’ve also helped a lot of students who have had problems with the different university help centres on campus,” they said.
The student called on the administration to develop mandatory cultural microaggression classes that are taught by professors of colour, so that students can “recognize and prevent” microaggressive behaviour.
“It gets heavy on me and others who try to help, so could we develop a service to take care of racialized students who endure microaggressions?” asked the student.
In their 16 years of schooling between Ottawa and Sherbrooke, Que., another student said they’ve never even had one Black professor.
“I published a science article in a very racist internship. I wished I had a prof that looked like me, especially in a big department in sociology,” they said in French.
What’s coming next?
Frémont said that many of the concerns raised at the town hall are rooted in the country’s colonial history and that Canadian society is in “a state of denial” when it comes to their racism.
“Our objective then is to become better than the rest of society. We have to set the example. We have to be better and we have to work,” he said.
His vision of the future, he said, is to have a discrimination-free campus.
“We have to be a better place. That is crystal clear, and we will work tirelessly over the next few months and years until we get there,” he said.
In an interview with the Fulcrum late last month, Frémont said that many of the issues raised at the two town halls can be addressed quickly, while some will take more time than others.
“There’s the issue of curriculum, it does not reflect the very idea of cultures and realities and identities we have on campus,” he said. “Of course training is much easier to do and can be done in a much shorter period of time than hiring a certain percentage of faculty members, which takes a long time.”
Frémont also revealed that the administration just received the second half of investigator Esi Codjoe’s report into racism on campus in January, which was originally supposed to be released in November.
“My understanding is that the investigator wasn’t ready to release. Now it’s received, I’ve not read it yet,” he said. “It was sent to translation and we’ll make it public as soon as it’s translated and the translation has been checked.”
According to Frémont, the second report — a follow-up to an October 2019 report that concluded that a Black U of O student who was carded by Protection Services in June faced racial discrimination — revolves around the “systemic dimensions” of the incident.
“If we can find a positive of the incident, it’s that it forced us to go through and examine racism throughout everything we do,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience, there are issues which were not clearly not on the radar, and now they’re on the radar. We have to deal with those issues.”