The first week of my second year at the University of Toronto started out like every year. To understand that feeling, it was standing under the summer sun — which shone just on the cusp of slipping into autumn. It was the awkward run-ins with the people you used to be with in class, the ones you saw at a gross first-year frat party, the classmates you followed on Instagram, or that person you spoke to that one time during the first week of first year.
It was the half an hour wait time at the U of T Bookstore, dropping $200 on a textbook you’ll read once, and then rushing from St. George to your next destination, whether that be class, home, or — god forbid — Robarts Library. It was wondering whether standing in line for the brown food truck was really worth it. It was the one time of the year when U of T campuses don’t pulsate with student anxiety.
As I walked into my NEW150 — Introduction to African Studies class in the basement of New College, something unexpected happened. When I entered, the classroom was filled with a majority of Black students.
Having spent a year at U of T living at Victoria College, it had become very clear to me that UTSG did not have an abundance of Black students. In fact, Victoria College had so little diversity that I could immediately spot Black students I had never seen before in the dining hall. I’ve had a friend tell me, “I keep thinking you’re that other dark-skin girl.” I’ve sat down at the dining hall and heard a fellow Black student explain weaves as others ogled at her, half confused and half scared at the idea of fake hair.
It’s safe to say that many of the antics that happened in first year continued throughout my first few weeks in my second year. This mainly consisted of friends putting their arms up to mine to compare skin tones and saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll catch up to you next summer.” By the way, white people, please stop doing that. My skin colour is not a tan; it’s called melanin.
You see, being Black at U of T is unique. You walk into a classroom expecting to be one of the only Black students. You expect that whenever conversations surrounding race are brought up in tutorials, eyes will shift your way, as if you alone suddenly represent the entire Black race. So when I walked into NEW150 on that Thursday morning in September, I felt confused.
In my head, I had already established that U of T wasn’t a place where classrooms could be filled with Black students. In fact, I had just come to terms with the idea that from my early education through my postsecondary studies, I was going to be one of the only Black students in the room. Having gone to school in a white suburb of London, UK, I was used to it. Actually, I was actually used to much worse.
A classmate in an A-Level politics class once said that colonialism “wasn’t that bad — at least it gave the countries railways.” Teachers used to tell me that they didn’t know how I fit in the classroom “with all that hair.” Girls would say, “we’re French, remember, we’re racist,” as an excuse for why they wouldn’t meet up with a boy after school who was “half Black.”
Over the course of seven years, I became great at ignoring these instances. Racism, intolerance, and ignorance — whether purposeful or not — were large parts of my educational experience.
After that first class, I walked with one of my classmates to the Tim Hortons in the Medical Sciences Building. She is Irish-Rwandan. I am semi-British and Congolese. If you know anything about world history and conflicts, then you can say it was the epitome of an unlikely friendship.
We sat on the steps, and I remember her saying, “Girl, did you see how many Black people there were?” Ah! She had noticed it too. “I didn’t even know there were that many of us here,” she continued. How was it that my new friend had had the exact same thought as me? How is it that even from the neuroscience department to the diaspora and transnational studies major, we had both come to feel like we were the ultimate aliens on campus?
Over the course of my second year, that NEW150 classroom gave me chances to debate and express myself freely. I never had the thought that I was speaking to represent a whole demographic of people. I never had to explain why we shouldn’t just get over colonialism, and no girl was subjected to being questioned if that was her real hair or not.
But when I stepped out of this space and found myself on other parts of campus, I became more aware of how singular this experience was.
I grew frustrated with some of my peers. I wrote about being racially stereotyped on nights out, questioned why I had never spoken out about comments that had made me uncomfortable in class, and began to ask myself: was institutionalized education ever going to be a safe space for Black people? Does U of T provide these figurative and physical spaces for its Black students?
In the context of the world
An eight-minute video showed the brutal killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the middle of a pandemic. Immediately, social media — and streets all over the world — erupted with protest. But what stood out to me was watching my current and former classmates engage with the social media phenomenon that is ‘slacktivism’ — a new term that encompasses ‘activists’ whose contributions to movements consist only of Instagram stories and Twitter posts.
The conversation soon switched from the brutalization of Black bodies by police enforcement to white and beige infographics titled “What is White Privilege?” Some of my classmates and peers who had been politically active all semester for a range of other issues didn’t speak out or go to protests. Even worse were those who had indirectly or directly made comments about Black people, and who only did the most performative action of posting “#BlackOutTuesday.”
I was frustrated, sad, and — simply put — overwhelmed. Many of these people I had seen in class, on campus, or at parties, and more did not have a single Black friend in their circles at U of T, yet they were preaching about Black issues and trauma as if they had taken the time in their daily lives to understand it.
I realized that this was the status quo at this university. From the wokest of the woke, who inhabit corners of campus like the Junior Common Room or Caffiends — who assume that talking about anti-racism makes them anti-racist — to students who propagate harmful views toward marginalizied communities in class and on social media, yet receive equity scholarships, the University of Toronto has effectively rendered its Black students invisible.
In the heat of the moment, I took to Instagram stories. I spoke out on social media about the hypocrisy of #BlackOutTuesday and the ability of white people to somehow turn the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement into a ‘white issue.’
I urged for people to take their anti-racism work off of social media and make it active work. I spoke about how I resented some of my university peers for only caring about Black people when they dance with us at parties, or when we’re their close friends or love interests, and for sharing videos of Black trauma.
Instagram pages such as @beingblackatuoft began to detail experiences of our times here, which were often uncomfortable to read. It was a sorrowful reminder that U of T, both the institution and its student body, had failed its Black students by not creating a comfortable, safe place for us to reap the benefits of postsecondary education. There is no coming-of-age fantasy for us here.
After this summer, I decided that I would no longer ‘get political’ on social media. It was a boundary I had to draw for myself; it became exhausting to watch all the performative action, and for my posts to be lumped up with it. Even though I had engaged in good conversation with people about Black issues, I felt that it was only because I was palatable to my peers.
I am a middle-class, lighter-skinned woman with looser curls and a half-Canadian, half-British accent, who used to shy away from having conversations about race with her white peers just six months earlier. I would like to ask all those who seek to continue their anti-racist work: would you respect my message as much if I were a darker-skinned Black woman? If I were a Black member of the LGBTQ+ community? If I were a Black person with a disability?
During the pandemic, many students have taken the time to make their online presence more political. They position and label themselves as allies by posting different infographics that boil down 402 years of systemic oppression into 10 slides or less.
Unfortunately, this is not enough. Posting and spreading awareness only scratches the surface. Many people forget that anti-racism work is active and requires you to be reactive.
“Black identities are not monolithic”
When you educate yourself on these issues, do so with an open heart and mind, try to put away your internal biases, and don’t feel attacked by the people calling out your privilege.
Understand that not every Black person will react the same way to current events. Some will speak out and others won’t; some will protest and others won’t — and we are all in our full right to do so.
Most importantly, do not burden your Black friends with having to explain everything about race to you. They are not encyclopedias. The Black experience differs across the diaspora, and Black identities are not monolithic. At a university where Black students are minoritized, be aware of the jokes you recycle in an attempt to make yourself look ‘down with the brothas and sistas.’ Guaranteed, nine times out of 10, the joke flops, and we’re looking at you like you’re racist anyway.
Make sure that the conversations you’re having with friends and family mimic your online stances, and if not, ask yourself why. Why is it so easy for you to take a stance online but not in your everyday actions? It begs bigger questions: is your anti-racism work performed for the illusion of tolerance amongst a ‘liberal’ crowd? Is your internal bias larger than you think?
Posting on Instagram is harmful if the racialized people who know you well offline and on campus can tell that your intentions are not genuine. After all, posting on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook when you don’t have a clue about the issues at hand is like acknowledging that Africa is a vast and diversified continent and then asking me in the same breath, “So what part of Wakanda are you from?”
Being Black at U of T is a unique and complex experience. It is realizing that, in an already cutthroat environment, you must regulate your tone to avoid being branded as aggressive. It is hearing those who claim to work as allies quote and admire philosophers that believed ‘the Black man’ was incapable of rational thought.
Being Black at U of T is knowing that you belong because you work just as hard as everybody else, but also that you will have to push ever harder. It is realizing that your institution is not ready to condemn racist behaviour at the expense of a student.
It is looking around Convocation Hall, Sidney Smith Hall, Victoria College, Innis College, Woodsworth College, Trinity College, Rotman Commerce, New College, University College, and St. Michael’s College, and seeing few people that look like you. Being Black at the University of Toronto is toeing the line between the visible and the invisible.
In an ideal world, we will all be back on campus in September 2021. We will be queueing in line for our textbooks at the campus bookstore. We will be having those awkward run-ins with people we know — but just vaguely. We will be rushing across St. George because our next class is all the way on the other side of campus, or we will simply be praying that the brown food truck returns.
However, one thing that must change when we go back next year is that we take our anti-racism work to campus. Students, faculty members, and university administration must hold themselves accountable to ensure a safe and productive space for Black students. We must make those who have been rendered invisible, visible.