When Kalkidan Gebre found graffiti on a desk in Dalhousie’s Killam library reading “no n*****s allowed #whitepower”, her first response after taking a picture was to scratch it out. She didn’t want anyone else to stumble across it and experience the same shock she had, and in any case she didn’t think anything would come of pointing it out. The graffiti, she says, is just one overt example of a systemic problem with racism on campus.
“I said…this is going to be another case of Dal not taking it seriously.”
Eventually, she sent a picture of the graffiti to a friend and from there the incident reached Dal Security, who shut down and repainted the study space.
Gebre says she was surprised by the university’s response. But no amount of whitewash makes her feel differently about the fact that the graffiti was there in the first place.
“It made me feel hurt, angry and it made me feel like an outcast… in an environment where so much knowledge and education is provided, that people still choose to be ignorant, it’s actually very frustrating,” she says.
It’s equally frustrating to know that students who are potentially her classmates have those attitudes towards her and other Black students, she says.
This past year has been a busy one for hateful graffiti at Dalhousie. Although Campus Security won’t disclose the exact number of incidents, there have been at least two instances of islamophobic graffiti on campus and one count of misogynistic graffiti, in addition to what was found in the Killam.
In the aftermath of the Dalhousie Dentistry Scandal, the university has made several high profile – though not uncontroversial – attempts to deal with the issue of misogyny, including the Backhouse Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia.
For Gebre, the fact that the university seems to acknowledge the existence of misogyny yet doesn’t see racism as an issue of equivalent importance is itself a problem.
“If your students feel uncomfortable in an environment then it’s something you have to take seriously.”
There have been other blatant examples of racism, says Gebre, pointing to an instance this past year when a friend was leaving Dalhousie’s McCain building and a group of white male students called her the n-word.
But it’s often more subtle than that. Gebre is a good student; school is her main priority. Yet fellow students and professors sometimes seem surprised by her strong academic performance, she says.
“We have to work twice as hard to prove we’re just as smart.”
Ntombi Nkiwane, 3rd year student at Dal, says she’s often the only Black student in her classes. The fact that Black students continue to be underrepresented on campus “speaks volumes,” she says, as does the fact that there are only a few avenues through which she feels comfortable raising her concerns, such as the Black Students Advising Centre and a handful of Black faculty members.
Ultimately, Gebre isn’t sure that Black students make up enough of the student body for administrators to consider them a priority.
“They probably don’t take us seriously because we’re not the majority….we’re the only ones that seem to acknowledge that [racism] is a big problem.”
Dalhousie has an Equity and Human Rights Office, but there are only two full-time advisors for a school with a student, faculty and staff population of around 25,000.
Gebre says that she feels like other instances of racism have not been taken seriously by the Office in the past, which is why she felt reluctant to approach the Office with her own concerns.
The Office did not respond to requests for comment.
She says it can also be a hard subject to broach with her some of classmates.
“I sometimes feel uncomfortable talking to white peers about it because I obviously have different views from them.”
Gebre says she’s not trying to lay blame for this, noting that growing up in Nova Scotia, the only time she learned about Black lives in school was when they were taught about the slave trade.
“We don’t learn about things such as white privilege or the real definition of racism.”
But students aren’t necessarily learning about these things when they get to university either.
The courses on offer are another example of systemic racism, says Dr. Afua Cooper. Cooper is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie; although she does teach some courses on the Black experience in North America and is working to develop a Black Studies minor, the curriculum – particularly in the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – remains predominantly Eurocentric.
“The globe is not 70 per cent European…but that’s what the focus is on.”
As little diversity as there is in the curriculum, it’s reflected in the composition of those teaching the courses.
The James R. Johnston Chair appoints a new faculty member every 6 years; the Dalhousie Diversity Faculty Awards also aim to increase the number of visible minority professors, and since 1989 the university has had an employment equity policy in place – although the effectiveness of that policy is up for debate – but Cooper says that these policies by themselves aren’t even close to enough.
“If we follow the current trend…it’s going to take a thousand years to achieve parity.”
Research by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) reports that people who self-identify as Black make up 2.2 per cent of the total labour force in Canada, but just 1.6 per cent of university teachers, earning roughly 75 per cent of the average salary for all professors.
If the university is sincerely committed to diversity and inclusion, says Cooper, it needs to look at how the composition of its curricula, faculty and student body undermine this alleged commitment.
“I’d like to see an inquiry on racism and I’d like to see the same sensitivity and the same kind of attention as there was [to misogyny]. Dalhousie likes to say we’re diverse and inclusive…I kind of think it’s the flavour of the month,” she says. “It’s not just enough to paint the wall over and hope for the best, and that’s what they’re doing right now.”
Gebre agrees, saying the lack of substantive commitment to addressing racism belies the sincerity of Dalhousie’s resolution to achieve equity.
“It’s kind of hypocritical a bit, because if you’re fighting against injustice you have to be fighting across the board, not just for one specific isolated issue.”
Students say there are things the university could do that would immediately improve the situation; whether it’s through improved student services, anti-racism workshops and campaigns in orientation week, or mandatory equity courses for all students, Nkiwane says the university’s response to racism needs to go beyond erasing evidence of the problem.
“That’s not a solution,” she says. “That’s a cover up.”
Universities are notorious for covering up campus problems. It results in a comfortable learning environment for certain people and a foreboding one for the rest of us (yet the price is the same).
If universities acknowledged the connection between marginalization and quality of education, they would be forced to also accept responsibility for their negligence in providing equally priced, quality education.