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Studying while Black still tokenizing experience for many racialized post-secondary students

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Image: Facebook/U of Toronto

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Racialized students at the University of King's College are a sparse and often isolated minority.

As a liberal arts school of only 933 students, King's has developed a reputation as a small, progressive, and predominantly white learning environment. In the incoming class of 187 students, only a handful are people of colour.

For those few racialized students, the progressive and accepting learning environment that King's tries to create can be isolating and difficult to navigate.

"It's not a new thing to me. It's an ongoing thing in Nova Scotia that there's just not many of us," says Brandy Whitford, a bi-racial third-year student born and raised in Nova Scotia.  "But it's difficult to navigate because if you misspeak or say something dumb then it's like 'all Black people think this about this.'"

This notion of tokenization: using one person to speak for an entire ethnic group, becomes an area of concern for the few people of colour on campus. Being tokenized, even on a campus that aims to prioritize inclusivity, is often a lonely experience.

"People try really hard to be aware of their internalized racism, but a lot of times it doesn't really work out that well," says Whitford, who is active with campus societies aimed at promoting equity.

"It can be isolating to be the only person in a room who experiences racialized misogyny and gendered racism and stuff like that." 

Resources intended to support racialized students on campus are drastically sparse. The University offers peer-to-peer support systems, a social worker, and a health worker, but none of these services are targeted at people of colour.

To find community, racialized students on the King's campus have to look to external resources. 

Perhaps the most prominent of these resources is the Black Student Advising Centre, which is run through King's partner school: Dalhousie University. The centre, commonly known as BSAC, provides a wide range of resources to Black students at both King's and Dalhousie.

The services range from a kitchenette and accompanying lounge space, to peer tutoring, to monthly birthday parties for students who use the centre. 

"We always have something to just bring ourselves together," says Oloronke Taiwo, the centre's Black Student Advisor.  "The most important thing that I think [students] can get from using the centre is support. To know that there is somebody there for them."

The centre services approximately 300 students, and aims to create the community support that many racialized students lack on their campus.

"There are students in their programs that are the only [racialized student] in their class, so not everybody finds themselves comfortable mingling, or even if they want to are not really accepted enough for them to feel free with other caucasians," Taiwo explains.

"When they come here and see other people that look like them…they feel relaxed," she adds. "They feel free you know?"

Studying while Black isolating across the country

Michelle Mabira is President of a similar initiative at the University of Toronto: the African Students' Association. 

"Our big thing is just kind of bringing the community together," Mabira says. "What we do is kind of give [students] a place that is sort of familiar, that feels like home, like a community of people where they can make friends."

Despite the University of Toronto being the largest university in Canada, Black students still feel alone on their campus. Mabira says that the aim of the ASA is to show students how big the community truly is.

"It's so important for our association to make sure that the African students feel like there's a home," she says. "Because I feel like we're almost always put on the outside, like we're forgotten about."

Mabira says that the association would like to see more scholarships for African students, and a greater commitment to recognizing and getting to know the Black student community.

Kim Kierans, the Vice President and Equity Officer of the University of King's College is looking for more immediate and less financial ways to provide support.

"We need to see more racialized professors, more racialized staff," she says. "A real deliberate desire to seek out really excellent professors of different colours of different racial backgrounds of different backgrounds to come into our classes … not just to talk about racialized issues but to share their expertise."

The lack of racialized professors at King's is a trend seen on a national scale. According to a 2012 University of Calgary study, only 15 per cent of Canadian university professors are people of colour.

Only 1.6 per cent of Canadian professors are Black.

The overwhelming majority of these professors teach maths and sciences, with very little representation in the humanities. This means that racialized students, especially at liberal arts schools like King's, see few examples of experts and role models who look like them.

To students like Whitford, this demonstrates a lack of commitment to prioritizing marginalized voices on campus.

To staff members like Kierans, the lack of racialized professors makes creating conversation and community among people of colour on campus all the more difficult. 

"It's about creating a community. And that community is not an imposed community but rather an organic community," she says. "But there has to be leadership and champions to do that."

For racialized students at King's, it is this community and open conversation that it lacks most. 

"I think that the place where the tenseness comes into play for me is when we're talking about things as if it's just a debate rather than like things that actually affect people's lives. I think that that happens a lot in King's classes and liberal arts classes in general where people understand concepts but they are not coming from a place of lived experience," says Whitford.

The solution to issues of tokenism and isolation for racialized students is not clear cut. For many students, however, an effort to prioritize marginalized voices and create spaces for students to build communities and conversations would be a step in the right direction.

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a journalism and contemporary studies student living in Halifax. As an activist within the student movement, she dedicates much of her time to combatting barriers of accessibility within the established institutions.

Image: Facebook/U of Toronto

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