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Defining racism and sexism: understanding forms of oppression

One of the discussions that the Dalhousie Dentistry scandal has inspired concerns the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes and behaviour on campus, and the urgent need to create a safer environment for Dalhousie students.

On March 5, Margaret Denike, the head of Dalhousie’s Gender and Women’s Studies, along with the Dalhousie Student Union and the South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre, hosted a forum titled “Forum on racism and sexism: Understanding relationships between forms of oppression.”

“We’re in a hostile space in university”

El Jones, the first panelist to speak, spoke about how as a black woman, she faces a unique set of challenges in the academic world that her white colleagues are probably not privy to and are definitely not subjected to.

“We’re in a hostile space in university,” said Jones. “They (the university) want your product, they want your brilliance … but they don’t want everything else that comes with it: the experiences of life that you bring, the challenges that we have in our lives that create obstacles to us being here.”

Jones, a professor at Acadia and former King’s professor, works with incarcerated people in Nova Scotia. She said she might have to leave the forum at one point to answer a one-way call from someone she is working with who is currently in prison.

Jones said that as a member of the of African Nova Scotian community, being there for members of her community is “not optional” – it is actually necessary for her to live her life “with integrity as a black person.”

However, at the same time, it also means that when she is in spaces that are predominantly governed by white social norms, such spaces are hostile to the sets of duties that she is bound to at all times.

 For example, if she had to leave the room in the Dunn Building where the forum was held to take the one-way call, she would be expected to apologize for that behaviour in order to not be perceived as “rude” – when really, since such behaviour is typical for members of black communities who depend on each other for love and support, it should be recognized as such and fully accommodated by the university.

“But the university cannot always recognize that these are the demands we’re meeting,” she said.

“The university says El, she’s great – but we don’t want North Preston … we certainly don’t want incarcerated people … [but] if you don’t want any of that, then you don’t want me. Because that’s who I am. Those are my people. They are me, and I am them.”

In order to have a more diverse and safe campus at Dalhousie, Jones says the university should not just be hoping to have a diverse student body.

It should be aiming to go one step further by seeking to identify what the unique things are that students from different cultural groups bring to university spaces, to understand the sets of obstacles that individuals from these groups must face, and then crucially, it must be asking, “What is it that these people bring here that we must recognize and change towards?”

“We all must go through the act of decolonizing ourselves” first if we expect institutional spaces to become decolonized as well, she says.

That is to say, university spaces can only be transformed if the people who are actually present in those spaces first work to unlearn harmful ideologies they are indoctrinated to adopt throughout their upbringing, so that they can truly open up those spaces and allow all who are in them to feel safe, recognized, respected and accepted.

“I’d internalized white supremacy too and I had to unlearn it, too – so that’s why I tell white people to do that too,” said Jones.

“We’re all confused. We (African Nova Scotians) are no different.”

Other suggestions she spoke of include hiring more diverse faculty members, and in particular, hiring more mental health counsellors from different cultural backgrounds so all students can receive the culturally sensitive counselling they seek and are in need of.

A really big culture shock

Tino Chiome, who immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe in 2006, said it is difficult for young people of colour to feel comfortable in university spaces because the majority of them are “overwhelmingly white,” which feels intimidating to young black individuals, as well as to immigrants from black majority countries.

“Coming from a space where you see yourself in a lot of positions and you come here and you don’t see yourself in any positions, that’s like … a mind-fuck,” said Chiome, the community organizer of Halifax’s Queer Black Indigenous Persons of Colour (QBIPOC) group.

“That was a really really big culture shock to come into this environment, and also realizing that white people are afforded the privilege of being individuals more so than the people of colour.”

Mental health services should expand to meet diverse needs

At Dalhousie, the available mental health services for students are not just problematic for people of colour that cannot receive the culturally sensitive counselling they seek.

In recent years, especially, the demand for mental health services has increased, leaving not enough available counselors and creating long waiting lists.

Greyson Jones, a PHD candidate in Dalhousie’s Sociology and Anthropology department whose research specializes in queer theory and transgender health, calls Dal’s mental health services “sub-par.” He mentions there is a cap of only 10 counselling sessions allowed per student, and wait lists are extremely lengthy.

Jones, like many concerned about the state of mental health services on campus, feels that the current setup is not working.

Dorota Glowacka, a King’s College professor specializing in theories of gender, race and genocide, has been advocating for professors at King’s to be equipped with basic first responder training.

This training would help them be better prepared to deal with their students’ mental health crises and students’ issues that have to do with experiences of discrimination based on their gender, race, ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic status.

This is especially important to help mend the generational knowledge gap. Glowacka mentions how when it comes to more progressive understandings of crucial terms such as “gender,” professors from older generations are usually out of touch and are ill-equipped to help students who are in need of counseling and advice.

“At this point I think that we need to stand together to deconstruct the ways in which these intersecting forms of oppression are embedded in our day-to-day interactions and lives,” said Greyson Jones, mentioning that on top of issues of racism and sexism, we must “emphasize that there are other forms of visibility” in need of recognition and support as well.

“I think now that we need to turn our focus to those who are wide open – there are people that don’t have that option to hide behind something.”

Specifically, people of colour, those who cannot “pass” or be read as heterosexual by a stranger upon first glance, non-binary trans people, otherwise non-gender conforming individuals, and people with disabilities are continually oppressed by certain things that are embedded within the structures of the university setting and of larger society.

A need for designated safe spaces and gender-neutral facilities

Jones mentions that in Ontario, every building that is part of a university campus has to have a designated safe space for trans students to comfortably and confidently be themselves.

Without these spaces at Dalhousie, trans and otherwise non-gender conforming individuals are hyper-vulnerable to discrimination and on top of this, they are uncomfortable in the institutional spaces they are supposed to feel accepted in and be considered an equal part of.

Recently, complaints have been filed with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission against staff on Dalhousie campus who allegedly discriminated against a trans woman who was a Dal student at the time.

One example of the complaints filed by the student has to do with the staff refusing to refer to her using her preferred pronouns, thereby refusing to acknowledge her self-identified gender.

“Right now there is no space for us and our bodies to exist – so it’s really no wonder that we can’t breathe,” says Jones, who is a Dalhousie student that self-identifies as a trans male.

The fact that every building on Dalhousie campus does not have an accessible and gender-neutral washroom is yet another way in which the university space is hostile to visible minority groups.

Adding gender-neutral facilities to new buildings, such as what was done with the newest building on campus, LeMarchant Place, is a good starting point, but not nearly enough to adequately address the problem.

Trans students should no longer have to wait until they got home to use the washroom, nor should they have to rely on apps that locate the nearest gender-neutral washroom in the vicinity, which is something that many trans people in Halifax are currently doing, says Greyson Jones.

“I believe that we can only address these concerns by examining the ways that people are erased by deeply ingrained ‘common sense’ ideological notions of what it means to be a valid human being in our society,” he says, adding that such ideological notions “are evident everywhere” – in the textbooks we read, in the signs put on washroom doors, in the medical forms that do not account for those who do not identify as strictly male or female, to the superheroes cast in movies that we grow up idolizing.

If universities want to maintain a truly diverse and intersectional campus they must create safe spaces for those in need, hire more diverse counselors with sensitivity training to more types of cultures, and install the necessary facilities to make campus more accessible to all.

These would be the first steps toward opening up university spaces for those who have been oppressed by them and held back by them, while at the same time being a part of them.

Follow Rebecca Hussman on Twitter.

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