Forgive me in advance, reader — this comment will be more self-referential.
As I sat down to write an article commenting on how The Varsity handled Black History Month, I could not help but reflect on the absurdity of my position. I am a white woman, trying to comment on whether or not The Varsity provided Black students with a good platform. It is a ridiculous thing to suggest that I could somehow represent or stand for the Black community at U of T.
My understanding of the Black experience, for the most part, has come from what I read online. Beyond that, I have read Maya Angelou in high school for English classes. In university, I read James Baldwin and, in terms of ethics, I have taken some classes that discussed bell hooks. To presume that any of this gave me a passing understanding of what it is like to be a person of colour would mean that I absorbed nothing.
Instead, I want to draw attention to the issue that is the makeup of The Varsity’s staff. The Varsity has spent some time examining the demographic representation of its staff. Their findings have shown that it is severely lacking in Black and Indigenous writers.
This is not that surprising though. In 2018, three per cent of the incoming class in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering identified as Black. For reference, as of 2016, the population of the GTA was roughly 7.5 per cent Black, according to Statistics Canada. These kinds of statistics give an idea of how proportionally few Black students there are at U of T, but they do not capture what that must feel like.
Last year, Leah Mpinga wrote in The Varsity that she was often the only Black person in every classroom she entered. She wrote, “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.” For her and — I can only guess — for most Black students, being Black at U of T means that you become the de facto representation for all Black people.
This year, Mekhi Quarshie wrote an article that called attention to the fact that only 6.7 per cent of the U of T faculty is Black. Quarshie cites Notisha Massaquoi, an assistant professor at UTSC, in the article saying, “the Black experience is something that you have to live to become an expert,” and that without representation, the lack is felt at all levels of campus life.
We see that same lack at The Varsity. While the newspaper strives to represent the U of T community and draw attention to important issues, its lack of Black and Indigenous voices is a barrier to achieving that goal. Thankfully, it is taking steps to address this issue. For this year’s February paper, it paid Black authors for their expertise instead of just expecting students to make time in their busy schedule to educate their peers. It also took the opportunity to try and build a stronger relationship with Black student groups on campus, according to Varsity Managing Editor Tahmeed Shafiq.
These are good steps in the right direction. However, there are still very few permanent Black or Indigenous writers at The Varsity. We need these writers so that their input is not just limited to the month of February and to speaking on racial issues. The Varsity needs to be vigilant in its efforts to make its writing staff more diverse to ensure that all students have the opportunity to represent their community in ways beyond speaking directly about it. Moreover, we need people whose lived experiences are able to make their input even more powerful.
Emory Claire Mitchell is the public editor at The Varsity and can be reached at [email protected].