The first time I ever saw Toronto was the day I moved here. It was August 2012, and I had left my home city of Brighton, England to come to U of T. I knew very little about Canada and even less about Toronto. One thing I was confident of, however, was that racism didn’t exist in Canada because it was a “cultural mosaic” of a country, where people of varying ethnic backgrounds lived together in harmony. I looked forward to not being complimented on my English language proficiency and to not being asked where I was from all the time.

It didn’t take long to for me to realize that my expectations of Canada were shortsighted. I didn’t find the intercultural harmony that I had expected; I found assimilation, or isolation. I learned that, not only was racism alive and well, Canada has its own continuing legacy of racist policies and actions. It was at U of T that I learned words and phrases such as ‘racialized’ and ‘person of colour.’ I never thought to apply these terms to myself until I realized that was how other people saw me.

I spoke with several students about their experiences of racism in Canada and how those experiences differ, or are magnified, in a university setting.

Racism on campus

When asked what racism on campus looks like, the students’ I spoke to were unanimous in their emphasis on its covertness. “It looks like it’s not there,” said Cailyn Stewert, a third-year equity studies, history, and diaspora and transnational studies (DTS) student. “It looks invisible. If you tell people it’s there, they look at you like you’ve got four eyes.”

“Racism on campus, to me at least, manifests itself very subtly. [At] a university in Canada, I think many students walk around with a very colour-blind view to racism. We’re Canada and multiculturalism is our thing. It’s what we’re known for, so racism doesn’t exist,” said Wei* a third-year English and chemistry student. 

A number of students used the term “microaggression” to describe their day-to-day experiences of racism. Chester Middlebrook Pierce, a  black psychiatrist and Harvard professor, coined the term in 1970 to describe invalidations and insults endured by African Americans at the hands of non-black Americans. Nowadays, the term is commonly used to describe the casual and normalized oppression of any marginalized group.

“The way I’ve dealt with racism is through microaggressions but also through questions that insinuate either inadequacy or temporariness,” said Aakanksha John, a fourth-year equity studies and DTS student.

“When I was here in my first year, I remember a lot of people asking me how was it that I knew how to speak English so well, which is a big one I think that a lot of international students that look like me and sound like me would have that,” John recalled. “It was very shocking to have people [suggest that] I had to learn how to be eloquent, and not that I was eloquent as an innate quality.”

Wei faced similar scepticism surrounding her English speaking abilities. “People sometimes assume I speak little or no English even though I was born and raised in Canada and speak three languages. I once had someone ask me where I was from because my English was “too good,” she said.

John said that the insinuation of temporariness often manifests in the form of the question: ‘where do you come from?’ “I’d say Dubai because that’s where I just moved from. People would often ask me where my origins were, so the questions would never stop until the person was satisfied, and not according to my comfort level.”

Of the two questions, I always had the most trouble with ‘where are you from?’ because I was at least armed with a response to the language one: whenever someone remarks upon my command over English, I respond with ‘thanks, your English is pretty good too.’ I’d do the same thing with a question such as ‘how did you learn to speak so well?’ ‘The same way that you learned.’

When it came to ‘where are you from?’ my answer was, as John put it, always unsatisfactory. The follow-up would be ‘no, where are you really from?’ because they clearly didn’t believe that someone who looked like me could also come from a Western country.

“They ask you where you’re from, where you’re really from,” said Stewart. I have always felt more comfortable discussing my origin story with other people of colour or racialized people. Stewart said that she felt similarly, and I asked her why she thought that was the case. “If it’s another racialized person asking that question it’s different — there’s that relatability. They aren’t questioning your Canadianness. If it’s coming from a dominant body, they have the privilege of representing Canadianness,” Stewart said.

For Bosibori Moragia, a second-year English literature and African studies student, microaggressions have been more common than instances of overt racism – though she notes that the latter does occur. “I did have an experience last year in which I was going to a protest downtown, the Michael Brown shooting, and I was having dinner with a bunch of people in Strachan [the Trinity College dining hall], and I was explaining why I was wearing all black because it came up in conversation. And I was like, ‘I’m going to this thing.’ And I left and then they had a discussion after I left and my friend stayed behind, and it was basically just, this one guy in particular saying Michael Brown, he deserved to die. So that’s the most overt thing that’s happened to me.”

In the classroom

Some of the individuals I spoke with noted how microaggressions can be amplified and become more obvious in a classroom setting. Moragia noticed that, as a black woman, she faces pressure in the classroom to be efficient and articulate in a way that is not expected of her white male peers. 

“White men, especially in lecture, when they’re asked about their ideas — they can ramble for days. They can just talk on and on and on and on, and it’s fine. But for us, we have this mentality, because people tend to shut us down so quickly, we have to know what we’re saying, say it the best way that it can be said, say it in the most effective way,” she said. “We’re not given that space to fuck up.”

Wei said that she has heard derisive comments from her peers about students with English as a second language, or students whose English is heavily accented. “I often overhear the term ‘fob’ [fresh off the boat] being used to describe those with a very strong ethnic accent, especially a Chinese accent,” Wei said, adding that while nobody she knows has ever called someone this term to their face, her friends use it, and snicker when an international student answers a question in class. “The term makes me extremely uncomfortable especially since my parents are immigrants from China.”

However, Wei noticed that it was often second-generation Chinese students using the term to put down their classmates out of internalized racism and fear of being targeted in the same way. “I think this may be their way of trying to separate themselves from their international classmates, as they’re afraid of being mistaken for one of them, and fear that stems from underlying racism that finds its way into the classroom.”

I have also noticed that classrooms cater overwhelmingly to English speakers. East Asian students sometimes provide English names for their classmates and instructors to use instead of their actual names, for instance. On the flipside, I have seen students with longer names or names with sounds that are not found in English become the targets of racist mockery as people struggle to pronounce them, or even when they give up and say ‘I can’t pronounce [your name] and I’m not even going to try.’

In addition to these interactions, course content and syllabi often fail to include perspectives that are not Eurocentric. Moragia said that, even in African studies, this is a challenge. Moragia was shocked that out of the three African studies courses she took last semester, only one of them was taught by a black professor. “The rest of [them] are a white South African maybe and another one is a Portuguese lady… but the way that they’re [teaching it] especially my first-year teacher, [it’s done] in a very tone-deaf kind of way.”

“When we tell her like “Oh, actually, we don’t want to see this” or “you could’ve done this in a better way,” she’s very defensive about it, and I feel like that’s something I wouldn’t have to encounter if I had an actual African professor teaching me African studies,” Moragia said.

I am an English Literature specialist and my program demands 3.0 Full Course Equivalents (FCE) of British literature to the nineteenth century, but only 1.0 FCE from each of Canadian and Indigenous North American literatures, and American and transnational literatures. Moragia, also an English major, noted that it is entirely possible to obtain an English degree without ever having to deviate from whiteness, but it is not possible to do so by devoting yourself to courses that pertain to your identity and that interest you.

“I find it frustrating that I have to have [2.0 FCE] of eighteenth century British literature, and I’m like, ‘What has that got to do with me?’” said Moragia of her program requirements.

Moragia said that she does not see herself in any of the texts she studies. The rare times she does see blackness or queerness represented, she said that these identities are tokenized — ostensibly included so that the instructor can call the class “diverse.” “[They don’t] flow into the syllabus. It’s like, they’re teaching us this one thing, we stop, they press pause, they say, “This is the required diversity section,” and then we finish that and then we press play again and we go on with it.”

Both Stewart and John discovered Equity and DTS later in their academic careers. John told me about a time when she wrote about a war between India and Pakistan for a political science essay. She was excited to explore a topic that was culturally relevant and hoped that her personal connection to the subject matter would help her. She received a D on the paper.

“I wrote about my own people, I wrote through an Indian mindset, commenting on Western theory, but I was graded below because I didn’t fit the requirements of writing or I couldn’t assimilate to writing in a Western way about Western theory, commenting on an Eastern war,” John said. “For me that was a giant contradiction, because if I was an Indian body writing about my people, using Western theory, then that should’ve been enough. The way I did it should’ve been enough. But it wasn’t and I still think that there’s a need for assimilation there that I didn’t fulfill.”

John did not have a professor of colour until she started taking courses in DTS. “I remember it was so difficult for me to find a professor of color, until I started DTS200, that was the first class in which I had a professor of color. And that completely changed my interaction because finally I felt like there were so many things with regard to the immigrant struggle, for example, that I didn’t have to explain to the prof because he got it. There were so many subversive things and nuances and innuendos that I didn’t have to convey to him because he understood. And there was such a relief that I experienced and I did so much better because I had somebody who understood my experience very, very clearly and critically and helped me to progress as a human being.”

Stewart found that her criminology and sociology classes were not critical of institutions and the way in which they influence racialized human consciousness; rather, they centred on analyzing black culture. “Black people are treated as inherently criminal — we’re always cast as wrongdoers with primitive intellect,” she told me. “Black men are seen as deviant and are always referenced in class, but we also have white boys shooting up schools and movie theatres and nobody wants to talk about that.”

Stewart has noticed a substantial disparity in the promotion and apparent prosperity of various academic disciplines. “You see it too with the marginalized departments: Caribbean studies, African studies, Equity, women and gender studies [WGS]. U of T doesn’t advertise them or fund them well. But [faculties] like kinesiology and engineering are funded a lot and promoted religiously. No-one threatens them,” Stewart said, referencing an online threat made against U of T WGS professors and students in September 2015.

My conversation with Moragia took a similar turn; she also mentioned the starvation of the Transitional Year Program (TYP), which is designed to help students who do not have the qualifications usually required to get into university.

The TYP had a net expense budget of $1,322,392 in 2014-2015, which is scheduled to increase slightly in 2015-2016, then dwindle to $1,305,255 by 2018-2019, partly owing to a projected increase in revenue from this program.

Moragia was skeptical of the idea that the university cannot sustain certain programs and said that the university chooses which programs it wants to flourish. “They don’t tell you [that] you can’t have these [programs], but then they set it up in a way in which they basically suffocate you from the inside and then you just have to be like, ‘Well, we can’t sustain this anymore.’ So it’s clear they don’t give a shit.”

Social activities, student governance, and building community

Adil Abdulla, a fourth-year student studying international relations and economics, participated in the Hart House Debate Club until he quit this year. He described the atmosphere as “pretty patently white.”

“It’s not even because necessarily all of the people are white, it’s just they create an atmosphere that is a lot more amenable to white people, and you see that with, for instance at the first few meetings of the year, you’ve got 60–80 per cent of people are people of colour, and then first, there’s a selection process for novice, and that takes it down to about 50/50, and then by the time you get to a month into school, the percentage is maybe five per cent, which is a dramatic drop,” said Abdulla of the participation rates.

Adil also chairs the Trinity College Meeting (TCM), Trinity College’s direct democracy student government. He told me that he doesn’t see many people of colour in positions of leadership. “I think it’s probably a lack of comfort, might be that some institutions are painfully white institutions,” Abdulla speculated.

Last semester, a new group called POC@Trin formed, aimed at increasing engagement among people of colour at the college. “But it’s like a cycle that feeds on itself, I mean, at the POC@Trin events, you hear lots of comments about people who show up to some event, they don’t see people of colour, and then they leave, and then next year they wouldn’t be there and the same cycle would continue,” Abdulla said.

Stewart sits on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors as a representative for Woodsworth College and is a member of the UTSU’s Racialized Students’ Collective (RSC). She said that student governance is often a difficult space to navigate as a black woman, and that despite her best efforts she still faces unwarranted criticism. “Some people have said that I’m incapable of doing work and dominant voices are not limited and democratic methods don’t always work. There are other board members who are people of colour who feel the same way.”

I couldn’t attend the first meeting of the RSC due to a scheduling conflict. I asked Stewart what it was like, and she responded with enthusiasm. “Everyone was connecting with each other, we were finishing each other’s sentences…We all had insightful viewpoints on different things. Everyone sharing experiences and relating to one another complimented my experiences and relating to other racialized students was very powerful.”

The value of shared experiences and fostering a sense of community was echoed by Moragia.

“I feel like I’ve been liking, so far, the little things that I’ve been going to. I feel like the students of colour and black students have been making these really cool events, that you go to and they speak to the problems that you feel like you don’t have anywhere to go to really discuss them, and people are out here trying,” said Moragia on the events that she has gone to and the communities she has joined.

“When I started going to more [Black Students’ Association] events and making friends with people there, making friends with other black people, and stuff like that that I started — they were like, ‘Oh, let’s go to this thing and this, decolonizing this and that, love and white supremacy, this and that,’ and it was just stuff that I was interested in.”

Abdulla agreed. “I think a lot of the cultural organizations are good. I am involved with the Ismaiili Students’ Association, so things like that would be really good, particularly for people of colour. But just various cultural or religious groups are useful, especially given how religion also impacts the racism debate in that it correlates a bit more strongly, it’s also useful to have non-Christian institutions that are able to cater to a different audience.”

Moving forward

“Why do we have to rally? We get less than half the services. Mental health for example. Black people are in a process of decolonization, same with Indigenous Peoples. It comes from trauma and it’s distinct,” said Stewart of those services that do not adequately address unique issues faced by people of colour. “I’d really like to see specialists of colour, who can validate how we feel and who recognize that the way you live and move through life as a person of color, specifically a Black person based on my own experiences, impacts mental health a substantially.”

Stewart, John, and fellow Woodsworth student Sydney Lang initiated the new Equity Committee at Woodsworth, where they hope to help students feel like their experience matters. “Vic, Trin, and [St Mikes] have Equity Committees and Woodsworth is one of the most diverse colleges, so why not?”

Stewart hopes that the equity chair will have the power to approve event proposals to make sure they are inclusive and that they bear in mind the needs and values of different communities on campus. She said that the committee will also include sub-committees in order to highlight distinct and unique experiences.

John remarked that the narrative of being just a number at U of T is a surprising equalizer that can help students work together on important issues. “You have certain students who, yes, can access things better than others can due to their privilege, but at the same time you can have an international student, a permanent resident, and a Canadian citizen in a room and not know the difference between the three,” she said.

“There are certain rights that you are protected under by being part of U of T. And a lot of the times, as racialized students and marginalized students, we feel like we’re not protected under it, but I know students, my seniors, who’ve inspired me to demand for my rights and not be quiet and not be silenced. Those are the people who’ve really empowered me and who’ve taken away the stigma of being quiet and just being run over. So as a student who is a permanent resident, I feel like I’m joined by international students, by Canadian citizens, and for us the cause is what unites us.”

John said that she would like to see equity become a breadth requirement to graduate. “You’ve got society, you’ve got sociology, psychology, you do these things, but why isn’t equity a requirement? Those are the things that inform so much of changing the narrative around Canadian-ness and identity and power at this university.”

She says that, for now, students should look for opportunities to learn about the experiences of others. “Go to events that are in spaces you haven’t experienced before and open yourself to learning and trying something new because these conversations are important. And if you don’t know how you fit in, into that conversation, if you don’t know how you relate to the struggle, then you’re never going to be involved, and when it comes the day for you to be represented, and you need people to fight for you, or give you a platform to stand on to raise your voice, you won’t have it.”

For his part, Abdulla said that he has faith in systems of governance and hopes that more people of colour come to governance events. “Because the only real bodies that can make decisions that might help are these governance bodies and generally there’s at least theoretically the ability to show up but people don’t. And I don’t know why, I’ve been trying to ask people to find out, but I really think that that needs to happen before we can go about getting any reasonable amount of change,” he said.

I asked Stewart whether she felt optimistic that change will occur. “There is this emphasis on optimism,” she said, “you’re demonized if you’re not seen as being optimistic. It’s tiring and frustrating work, and I’d call it realism, not optimism. Realism takes into perspective the criticality of human issues, whereas through optimism you run the risk of overlooking the harmful degrees of racial issues whilst abandoning reasonable and complementary judgement, and instead one paints an illusion of a post-racist utopia.”

“It’s disrespectful to the scale of the problem to expect optimism,” Stewart continued. “I try to practice self-care and not let all this kill me inside. To be honest, I’m not an optimistic person — I’m critical of reality, and to compliment that I have a profound resilience that’s been handed down from my ancestors to us children of the African continent and diaspora.”

*Name has been changed

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