Anti-black assimilation in academia

Concordia alumna and BIPOC Committee bring attention to academic racism

Concordia University alumna Sophia Sahrane has had more than enough first-hand experiences with academic racism. Her account is only one of many, highlighting a bigger problem—the anti-black rhetoric ingrained in university education across North America.

How committed is Concordia to ensuring a positive university experience for students of colour? According to Sahrane, not very. Until she hosted an orientation event earlier this month featuring Angela Davis in conversation with Robyn Maynard (both black activists, feminists, educators and authors), Sahrane said she had never seen that many black people in the same space at Concordia.

Furthermore, the event featured an unofficial priority seating policy for anyone who was black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC), despite the objection of several CSU executives.

“The [priority seating] was important because it recognized that universities were not built for us, our experiences, our realities, our identities,” Sahrane said. “We have been pushed to the margins of academia, but in this moment, we had a place in this academic space and it was in the front row.”

According to Sahrane, the proposal for BIPOC priority seating was initially made by Leyla Sutherland, the Concordia Student Union’s student life coordinator, and the rest of the CSU orientation team, but was overruled by other CSU executives before the event.

Sutherland and the orientation team pursued Angela Davis as a guest speaker and originally brought up the priority seating policy after consulting with the BIPOC Committee—a student group founded last year by Sahrane herself when she was a CSU executive.

“Universities are not built to welcome racialized people, but student movements, associations and spaces aren’t built for it either,” Sahrane said. “I was lucky enough to occupy a position of privilege within the community, so I decided to create the BIPOC Committee in an attempt to balance out the lack of resources for BIPOC folk.”

While she wanted to ensure that racialized students could have a voice at Concordia, Sahrane said attempting to end institutionalized racism in universities is a much loftier goal. However, she said she believes the creation of a black studies program at Concordia would be a step in the right direction.

“Course curriculum at Concordia doesn’t even scratch the surface of discussing BIPOC individuals’ roles and contribution in history, politics or society,” Sahrane said, referring to her experience in the Faculty of Arts and Science. Throughout her four years of study at Concordia, Sahrane was never taught by a black professor. “Even black history and black literature is taught by white people,” she said.

According to Sahrane, she and many other Concordia students and scholars have advocated for the creation of a black studies program, but have been met with a severe lack of action by the university.

Concordia spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr said that while there are many conversations happening on campus about diversity issues in course curriculum, “at this point, nothing specific has been proposed” regarding a black studies program.

Despite the lack of progress, Sahrane said a black studies program would drastically alter a black student’s university experience.

“I don’t think assimilating or integrating black students within a white-dominant framework will ever work,” Sahrane said. “We should make sure that the black experience [is] never forgotten or dismissed within existing academic structures.”

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


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