With course registrations having opened last week, students are scrambling to find courses that fit into their schedules and programs. For Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) students at McGill, the period of course registration is also a time to find courses in which they feel safe. McGill is a white institution, with mostly white professors, so finding these courses can be an extremely exhausting experience.
As a Muslim student of colour at McGill, my time in university classes has been one of being invalidated by professors and other students who claim to be 'experts' on my lived experiences. Too many times, I have found myself in classes where my identities were being discussed through debate, making me feel like my existence was controversial and used to further create contention in the classroom.
At McGill, institutional barriers make it hard for BIPOC students to feel safe and fully respected on campus, which, in turn, makes it harder for us to want to continue pursuing higher education. Some of these institutional barriers come from a lack of proper representation within McGill's faculty. I've learned from one of my professors that out of approximately 5000 professors and lecturers of all ranks and about 1700 tenured and tenure-track faculty at McGill, only eight are Black and five are Indigenous. Additionally, even with white professors, there is a lack of accurate education and sensitivity on issues affecting BIPOC. For example, in programs such as International Development Studies, where most courses revolve around issues of 'development' in the 'Third World,' BIPOC students especially feel out of place because of the white-saviourism that most white professors and students possess when talking about these issues.
These situations have become the norm across faculties in Political Science, Philosophy, and even Engineering. This poses a new problem regarding the control of public knowledge. In institutions such as McGill where white academics hold most of the power in spreading public knowledge, there is a continued colonization of higher education: the whitewashing of academia.
By taking up space in our classes, white students may become more educated on BIPOC stories and experiences – however, through assignments, discussions, and research, these same students turn into creators of knowledge and 'experts' on BIPOC lives. White students come into classes and are given the academic tools and resources to create knowledge, studies, and histories about our own realities. Because white students take up so much course space from BIPOC students in programs made for us, we are not even given the chance to represent our own histories. When white students write about our struggles, they contribute to the whitewashing of history and the creation of warped knowledge of BIPOC lives.
Oftentimes, white students enter these specialized classes with the wrong intentions. For example, I have met white men taking Arabic courses who have told me that their goal was to join the CIA, or because they had a 'thing' (festish) for Arab women. For them, expanding their horizons may mean taking over ours: it means colonizing knowledge.
Regardless, I have no problem with white students learning about my experiences if they reflect on their positionality and learn to dismantle and disrupt these institutions, instead of recreating them. Rather, they often contribute to upholding oppression. What white students should do in order to accurately learn about BIPOC experiences, is to reflect on their own contributions in recreating the institutions that marginalize BIPOC students and uphold their oppression.
Many white students may see their time in university as a way to learn about other cultures, and to get out of the 'small-town' mindset. While attempting to expand their understanding of the world, they tend to fall into traps of fetishization, exoticism, and orientalism. Our experiences should not solely be your electives, or your majors. BIPOC students have had to fight for classes discussing our histories, experiences, and issues. The Institute for Islamic Studies was established in 1952. Both African Studies (est. 1969) and Latin American & Caribbean Studies (est. 1971) still fall under the Institute for the Study of International Development. In 1991, the Black Students' Network demanded that McGill establish an African-American history course, along with an interdisciplinary Africans studies program within the following year. All of these programs and courses came over a hundred years after McGill's opening, and after years of fighting against the university.
The first step for making campus a safer space for BIPOC is by ensuring that our safe spaces are respected. For professors, it means not tokenizing or exoticizing BIPOC identities. For students, it means letting BIPOC students take classes that are about them. So drop that African Studies' seminar, or that popular Islamics Studies course, and leave space for students like me instead.