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It was inevitable. The recent spate of Black student organizing on campuses across the U.S. has stretched across the border into Canada. In a remarkable transnational effort, on November 18, student organizers in Canada orchestrated a day of solidarity actions inspired by demonstrations taking place at schools from Mizzou and Yale to Oxford and the University of Cape Town.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many students protesting racism in higher education, organizers face backlash on campus -- a space which they say refuses to contend with the structural racism built into its very walls.
At the University of Guelph, Black students say they are contending with interpersonal racism from their peers and structural racism from an institution that provides little recourse and dwindling resources for its students of colour.
I spoke with Yasmin Mumed and Savannah Clarke, student organizers at the University of Guelph who have been at the centre of the Canadian #BlackOnCampus movement to find out more about what the fight looks like on Canadian campuses.
How did the call to organize an action at Guelph come about?
Mumed: We heard about a solidarity action with Mizzou and Yale through Sandy Hudson. There was a conference call with Canadian schools and schools in the states. That's how the organizers -- who were also involved with Black Lives Matter Toronto -- reached out to us. They asked us if we wanted to hold an action at Guelph. The other schools that organized the day of action were University of Toronto, Ryerson, University of Ottawa, and Laurier University.
Clarke: Sandy gave us the idea of filming [the protest] and we agreed. We had less than a day to plan it. We'd never organized anything like this. The school is predominantly white, so we had to reach as many Black students as possible. We used social media, and made the hashtag #BlackOnCampusGuelph so people could share their experiences with racism on campus. We wanted it to trend on Facebook.
Mumed: Once we got the hashtag going, people started really participating. Our invite list [grew to] more than 1,000 people, but we had only invited 400 people initially. People realized that they weren't alone and that someone was actually doing something about this in Guelph.
Tell me about the student centre which was a key part of your November 18 protest on Guelph's campus.
Mumed: I was a member and part of the collective [that staffs] the C.J. Munford student centre for four years while I was at university. This year, I am no longer on that collective. The centre was founded 20 years ago to combat the racism that Black and Indigenous students were facing on campus. It's a centre for serving racialized students and the mandate includes promoting diversity. It's mostly used by Black students at Guelph. In my first year, there was a Black counsellor working at the centre three times a week. She knew a lot about the resources available to students of colour at the university, and provided emotional support. She knew that we were experiencing racism and other forms of aggression on campus.
She was really helpful but she was let go, so there was no one to turn to in my second year. The centre operates on a 25 cent levy per student, which is [far less] than other campus groups. The collective really had to take everything on, and run the centre with no resources. We did a lot of outreach work to connect [with] Black students on campus. A lot of students use the centre, we've had first year students come in and tell us that they didn't feel safe on campus, [that] they were experiencing racism [both] on campus and in classrooms. They felt isolated. There was no support anywhere for them. Munford is the only place they can go [and it's struggling].
So the centre is underfunded and has no one of colour on staff as a counsellor. What are some specific racial incidents on campus that have created the hostile climate that the centre helps students cope with?
Mumed: One time, I was in a research class and my professor was trying to explain how different countries have different perspectives and put up a picture of someone in Blackface. The whole class starting laughing at the image, and I was the only Black student in the classroom. I had to leave the classroom. I went to Munford to talk to people about it and to process what had just happened. People drop in with stories and things they've experienced and receive validation, that's how it works.
Clarke: When I came to Guelph, I was looking for Black folks and I didn't find them until the Munford Centre. Last year, there was some really racist stuff that got posted to the Overheard on Guelph page. It started about some people dressing up in ponchos and sombreros for charity who were called out for being racist. It got very anti-Black. It was so wild to be reading that, I actually had a panic attack in the library. I had to leave and I ended up at Munford. (See the image Clarke refers to below).
"So it's ok to have let's say black pride but it's wrong to have white pride? The confusion level is real I'm waiting for a valid Non biased point of why any race can't be proud," writes James Stewart, Guelph student and Facebook commenter in response to the picture above on the Overheard at Guelph Facebook page.
Mumed: Racism to most people [on this campus] is only [visible] as the extreme case.
Clarke: A lot of people posted racist comments to social media, to Yik Yak about our action. We have screenshots of their abuse, people calling us "monkeys" and stuff. And then the administrator at Guelph who addressed this, in one breath says that calling Black people animals is racist and in the next reminds us that not everyone is a racist and that it's not the school's fault, it's the individual. There's this thing where they don't understand the systematic nature of it. The really blatant, historical context to it. This type of environment was created.
Walk me through planning and executing the action -- and tell me more about the backlash to it.
Mumed: The student union -- which is all white by the way -- really helped us. They did anything we asked them; helped with equipment and getting the banner made. They were really supportive. At the action, we had a rally and speakers. We marched around campus and ended up at the Munford Centre. We were chanting the whole way, and the people who posted racist comments anonymously to Yik Yak didn't like that we were disturbing them in the library with our action. When we got to the centre, we invited whoever wanted to come up with us to come up to the fourth floor to speak with administration. We had about a 20 minute conversation. It got really heated, there was a lot of passion. We didn't want to police anyone in speaking to the administration. People were fed up.
There was a lot of backlash. People sent us messages asking us why were so "aggressive and violent." But we know people who dressed up really respectably and went and talked very nicely to the administration in the past, including when the sole Black counsellor was fired from Munford. They got nothing.
How has the administration at Guelph responded to racism on campus in the past?
Mumed: Since my first year, there's been an email that goes out at the beginning of the year from the school president and it explains that there have been "hateful incidents around campus" and tells us that "we just want people to know that the university does not tolerate this," or something like that.
But you know, they send it every year, it's copied and pasted. And we don't know what the hateful incidents are or what the consequences were for the person who did it. After they hit send on that email, that's it. It's not like there's counseling. There's no programming, no initiative taken to combat the problem. It's acknowledged that it happens, and that's it. The student union doesn't have a good relationship with the administration, because this is how they've chosen to handle it for so long. The administration fired the one Black counsellor. We were very upset. It had been years coming, confronting them.
Mumed: We have this idea that Canada is different. That it's over there and not in our own backyards. That it's so much worse in the states. We need to recognize that this system impacts us here too, but in different ways. The protests at Mizzou and the things that people brought up [there], we related to. It's a very real experience for Black people on campus. We needed to do this because we knew that other Black students were mobilizing on the same day, at the same time on campuses across Canada. That was intentional. Organizers are meeting each other, exchanging contact information and building networks. The more of us speak up, the more we engage this, the more powerful we are. The administration might ignore us, because it doesn't ever make it out of Guelph. There's no exposure.
People don't know what's going on at these schools. We're going to change that. We have specific demands. At Mizzou, a student was on hunger strike for four days and the administration ignored it. When their football money was [at risk], he stepped down.
Clarke: I want to see people stop pretending that this stuff isn't real, to see that our experiences are valid. We can tend to become disconnected from our communities and our voice as Black people on campus. This is an opportunity to get closer, to build community and to change that.
Muna Mire is a writer and fact checker.
Photo: flickr/ James M
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