This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Zaena Harrison, Alisha Muchemi, Samah Ali, and Tara Magloire
Welcome to Western University, an institution known for the “Best Student Experience” in Canada. I would also like to welcome you to another BSE: the Black Student Experience. Even then, the phrase is still limiting because any person of colour can identify with some of the experiences shared. The personal stories add to Western’s Student Experience, sometimes in a negative way. However, these personal experiences that the contributors bravely express and share are not to be generalized as the student experience of every person of colour. The stories deal with micro-aggressions- verbal or behavioural actions implying negative or hostile racism whether intended or not. Usually, it’s the target of the aggression that is affected in this scenario and that can be seen by the reflections following everyone’s stories. Their student experience is just as much part of the Western experience as anyone else’s.
I would like to start by saying that sometimes subtle racism can be just as disarming as direct acts of hate. Primarily because you are never quite sure how to react.
It was September 2013, O-week, and I was excited to be at Saugeen-Maitland Hall. There were a lot of people socializing and making new friends in the common area, and so I went to join someone I had met earlier that day. She introduced me to the people she was talking to and everything was going great until she said “When I first saw you I thought, ‘Woah that black girl looks really scary,’ but you’re actually so nice.’” All the while her other friends were laughing amicably. This was my first day in Saugeen, my father had not even been gone more than 4 hours and already I was starting to feel uncomfortable in what would be my home for the next 8 months.
When this girl said that, I was at a loss for words. Here I was thinking that I was getting along with someone and they were still unable to get past the fact that they interacted with a black girl, who didn’t do something to scare the crap out of them after five minutes. And the fact that she specifically said ‘that black girl’ implying that my blackness was what made me scary, reduced me to a simultaneous state of fury and confusion.
That same night, a number of people around the building would stop me and ask me if I would teach them to twerk. This became problematic for me and I wondered if I would ever begin to feel comfortable in residence. It was clear to me that most of the people I met had already made assumptions about me because of the colour of my skin. It’s alienating to live in a space, especially one as large as Saugeen-Maitland Hall, and feel like you are being watched or judged because of the colour of your skin. And when people openly discuss stereotypes they associate with black people, it makes me wonder what stereotypes they choose not to voice but believe just as strongly.
Living in Saugeen was an overall positive experience, and I met people that I truly bonded with. I didn’t experience any racism from the people who lived on my floor, and my roommate and I had many intellectual conversations about racism and other forms of discrimination so I did find some level of comfort living in residence. However, sometimes I think about those past instances and I beat myself up for not confronting their racial stereotyping and letting them know how damaging it is. But on the other hand I feel as if I don’t owe them anything and that I am justified when I choose simply to walk away from these situations. Talking about it in outlets such as this feels right because we clearly need to discuss these problems, and that’s the only way to even begin solving the issue.
It’s safe to say that the black student body on Western’s campus is close to countable. So small that I, myself, am shocked when I see another black person pass by. Regardless of the size of the classroom, I feel the dynamic is the same. The seat next to you is never taken and your opinion in a conversation is rarely invited without your initiative, yet upon discussions of race, Beyoncé, or twerking, you are the beacon of light. You’re invisible until it matters to be black.
In my first semester year at university, I attended a tutorial session where the topic was race and ethnicity. To this day, I still describe this as one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have ever encountered.
Allow me to provide some background: I was born and raised in North America in a very African household but completed high school in Nairobi, Kenya, where I am originally from. Moving back to Canada has been an eye opening experience. The racial lines, so prevalent and strongly defined in the Western world, were slowly erased as I immersed myself in the Kenyan culture where I belonged to the majority. I had forgotten what it was like to be a minority; I had forgotten what it was like to be black. That is, until I found myself as the only black individual in a classroom.
I sat in the stiffening awkward air of my classmates afraid of uttering racial slurs at the risk of offending me, all while looking intently at me and awaiting a splurge on the forefathers of the civil rights movement, the fight of my people, and my struggle as an African American – none of which I could resonate with at the time. In efforts to cut the unbearably tension, I raised my hand and shared my views based on my short experience back in Canada. After class, a girl who I befriended approached me noting that she found my perspective interesting and went on to jokingly say, “…but you don’t talk black, you talk normal.”
What does that even mean? Since when did black become a language? And if so, why is it not considered “normal”? What shocked me was not the statement itself but her ignorance, her shock that stemmed from my capability to express and articulate myself in the same manner she could, if not better. It was as if she had silenced me and negated everything I held true. She failed to recognize the racist undertones of her statement. To me, it served as a representation of the automatic assumptions: as a black individual I am not educated yet I share a classroom with you at a reputable university, that my minority status should parallel minimal thinking, and even though I’m smart on paper my articulation should not match.
From my university experience, I have seen the crippling consequences of the oversimplification and generalization of the black race in and outside the classroom. Fact: I am black, but I am not the voice for all black people. My voice is tailored to my experience, which isn’t identical to the next black person’s. Beneath our skin lies rich differences, which I feel are rudely underestimated. We hold brilliant capabilities strong enough to differentiate us but powerful enough to solidify us. This is the difference and this is what I feel deserves to be recognized.
I stare blankly at the shattered body in my reflection. I wash my face and wish my running foundation carried my excess melanin, so I too can look more like the people I refuse to be like. But these thoughts of assimilation don’t come from the distaste of my rich, sun kissed complexion, they come from the experiences that are packaged with it.
It always starts out as an innocent night out. Abandoning our original plans to stay home, my friends and I end up going out for a night on Richmond Row. After entering the bar and commanding the dance floor, a fine gentlemen swoops in with his friend, he with mixed ethnicity and his sidekick white. As the white friend gravitates towards my friend, another black girl, the mixed guy proceeds to make his way to me. We dance, incorporating some swing-like moves, but not after long I realize he was giving several props to another friend off the dancefloor enjoying the scene. Did I mention this friend he signaled to was black?
Ignoring the signs, I continued to dance with my partner even though my friend had declined the curious white boy. After a short while, I realized that I was being watched and laughed at by both black and white friends as my dance partner and I continued to bounce and twirl. Feeling objectified, I returned to my friend group and asked my friend if she felt like she was being used. She did. Disgusted and furious, the event was another cruel reminder of how I am always seen as a color before a woman; guys expecting me to “drop it low”, twerk or all of the above, just because my skin bares a darker shade. Even in conversations: people dress up their comments, claiming I’m “the most exotic girl in the club” or “they know I can dance better”, and always attach a stereotypical or racial connotation towards my being. Definitely not what I need when the purpose of the night was the have a good time. But of course, one can never be relaxed when the constant reminder of your race is always looming.
It’s frustrating to always be seen as a color, especially when someone who shares the same race makes an exhibit out of you, ultimately regretting your plans to go out. It would be different if this was a one-time experience but the acknowledgement of my race is a guaranteed reoccurrence every time I step into a bar. Deflecting racial stereotypes and comments on campus is irritating enough, but for it to persist throughout the night is another reason why going out is as tedious as attending class. It would be lovely to go out and never think about the weight my skin bares, but others always find a way to incorporate it into the evening. I don’t blame the skin that has blessed me with a year-round tan and a wealth of culture, but the baggage encourages me to stay in and avoid attracting zoo patrons. And if this is the only solution for my sanity and self-respect then clearly there is something wrong with this system.
Days flow in and out and when you finally take a look around, another school year has passed. This school year specifically has come with its own file of racial tribulations.
For a regular student such as myself, Homecoming was the last place I expected to hear any ill-considered jeers. Let’s travel back to what was supposed to be an enjoyable day complete with purple pancakes, unlimited amounts of beer, and the traditional trek down Broughdale.
While walking across the bridge to meet my fairly intoxicated friend, an older Caucasian student stopped, looked at me from the opposite sidewalk, cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “Hey black girl with the purple bandana! Turn around and twerk that ass for me! I know you of all people can do it!” I stopped so suddenly that one could compare it to hitting a brick wall. In the few seconds it took for those words to register, I realized that this was new territory for me, and I did not know how to respond.
A cacophony of emotions trailed across my face, whatever liquor that was in my system dissipated in seconds, and before I took my next step I turned to my right and launched a string of colorful language that even surprised me. Here I was, decked out in purple, representing a school I have admiration and pride for, and that perfect image vanished.
The metaphorical curtain of smiles and happiness dropped the second those words left his mouth. What I witnessed was the underlying mindsets that quietly plagued campus become all too real. Never in my lifetime did I believe that racial subjectivity would ever directly impact me. Is it not the 21st century? Am I still prone to being singled out? And even worse, do I need to tiptoe around this issue to not draw attention to myself?
At that moment, I felt nothing but confusion. Confusion that made me wonder why I, a socially active paying student, could only be identified in relation to the negative connotations of black culture broadcasted by subpar media outlets. And to make matters worse I almost decided to awkwardly laugh it off and to simply brush it off my shoulders. Why should that even be a viable option? Am I not allowed to be upset? I thought to myself how suppressing this incident would be me allowing my environment to manipulate my being. That because I attend a respected institution I must accept the standard of living that resides within campus grounds.
Since then I’m always expecting the next backhanded racial one liner, and I wonder if scapegoating the issue to the Miley Cyrus’ and Iggy Azalea’s make this attitude okay. But what seems to happen is all social etiquette flying out the window in favor of the infamous “It was just a joke.” So no, I will not dance to x rap song to be the life of the party. I can only identify with so much in this EDM-crazed campus and that does not seem to be enough to distinguish my personality. Everyone loves to identify with the racially ambiguous Nicki Minaj’s & Beyoncé’s but lines start to be drawn with mention of Lil Kim, but I digress. If you ever get the opportunity to sit down with a few of my girls, they will spare no hesitation in rehashing accounts of stereotyping within the walls of campus. It is more common then we’d like to believe and that is undoubtedly racially problematic.
The “Western Student Experience” draws up images of the dominant student experience, which unfortunately isn’t the same for the marginalized student who faces hardships that other students do not. Stories like these go unheard because no one asks and no one truly listens. Instead of taking the negative experiences from a certain demographic, specifically the Black Student Experience, it’s easier to acknowledge the positive stories and to ignore racial ignorance on campus. Sometimes Western’s Best Student Experience doesn’t apply to every student and it’s important to take time to reflect and acknowledge the different lived experiences of people.