Posted on April 24, 2006

Queen’s U. Confronts ‘Culture of Whiteness’

Louise Brown, Toronto Star, April 22, 2006

Queen’s University, one of Canada’s most academically elite schools, admits it has allowed a “culture of whiteness” to take root that fails to welcome visible minority students and professors.

And the university vows to be more aggressive in shedding its reputation as a tony enclave of white privilege, says vice-principal Patrick Deane.

Queen’s is responding to a critical report prompted by the resignation of six non-white professors several years ago — as well as recent incidents of white students going out to pubs in controversial “blackface” makeup — that suggest the Kingston school has done little to try to reflect the diversity of Canada.

“One student accused us of attracting not the best and the brightest, but the richest and whitest — and that may be not far off,” says Prof. Joy Mighty, chair of the university’s equity committee, which has proposed sweeping changes to boost diversity at the picturesque campus on the banks of the St. Lawrence.

“Even in Kingston, some parents tell us they worry that sending their children to Queen’s won’t prepare them for the diversity of the world,” said Mighty, a black professor who notes she has not experienced discrimination herself, but knows professors of colour who feel isolated on campus.

“Some black students told us they have friends back home who ask them how they got ‘conned’ into coming to a white institution. That’s the image many students have of Queen’s.”

The university’s location in a relatively white part of Ontario, hours from the immigrant settlement hub of Toronto, may account for some of the racial sameness, said Deane in an interview yesterday. Too, because most students at Queen’s must pay for accommodation — few come from Kingston — the university can seem expensive for students on a tight budget, despite the financial aid available.

So Deane said the university is considering a number of committee recommendations, from setting loose goals for recruiting more visible minority professors and students, to targeting scholarships and grants to students of colour and setting up a resource centre on campus for visible minorities.

The committee proposed changes from a more inclusive curriculum to more campus supports, after examining a 2004 report on the lack of diversity at Queen’s written by York University professor Frances Henry, an anti-racism expert. The Henry report, made public only recently, cited deep feelings of isolation and discrimination among non-white students and professors. And it came long after a 1991 report raised similar concerns.

“It can be very frustrating being part of an ethnic minority on campus — you feel as though you’re absolutely invisible,” said black student Rachel LaTouche, president of the African-Caribbean Students’ Association, which represents 50 to 60 students.

“But it’s not just a numbers game; not just a matter of getting more visible minority students on campus — Queen’s needs to change its whole ideology so there is an underlying understanding of race relations,” said the fourth-year sociology major.

“Is it a school thought of as largely for elite, upper-class, white students? Yes.

“But am I a better person for having come here? Absolutely — because I’ve had a taste of the real world.”

Former premier Bob Rae, in his landmark review of higher learning last year, urged Queen’s Park to help Ontario universities recruit more students who are underrepresented in post-secondary education, including low-income students.

Queen’s held a special open house last month for potential “first-generation” students whose parents do not have post-secondary education, and Mighty said many were from visible minorities.

“Diversity has become a concern on many campuses — Queen’s is not alone,” said Ryerson professor Michael Doucet, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

But it’s the first campus where diversity has erupted into the public spotlight. Queen’s held a public forum on the issue last week, where a number of students spoke of alienation.

“Is there a culture of whiteness? Yes, in the sense the university mirrors the Anglo-centric culture that dominates much of Ontario — but for the intellectual good of the institution, that’s just not enough to be acceptable,” says Deane.

“If the purpose of a university is to turn people’s minds to the most momentous issues facing humanity, we need to be inclusive.”

As a white student, Ethan Rabidoux said he was shocked recently to hear stories from visible minority students at a campus forum on the issue.

“Queen’s is a great university, but it’s definitely got a culture of whiteness,” says Rabidoux, president of the Queen’s student association.

“Last Halloween, a white student dressed up in blackface as Miss Ethiopia and a lot of students found that really tasteless. Pictures got circulated on the Internet and it got to be a big deal to some black students, but when the university didn’t do anything, they said the lack of response was very isolating.

“It’s not so much active racism, as a lack of sensitivity about diversity.”