What I’ve Learned About the Power of Conversation in Deconstructing the Pillars of Racism

| by Anika Bousquet |

I started off writing a piece on the role clubs can play in doing antiracism work on campus. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent discussions about racial justice, I firmly believed that as spaces led by and made for students, there were clear steps we could take to change the culture at Queen’s campus—especially as a predominantly white institution. I wanted to write about my discontent with what I saw as a tone-deaf decision made by a club I was a part of regarding taking stronger actions against racism. In doing this, I hoped the piece could serve as a guideline for others looking to take action at the club-level.

I did write that piece, and in reading it several times, I realize that I was wrong. I was wrong to believe that there is a specific list of actions each club can take to challenge systemic racism. I’ve learned that antiracism work is deeply personal, as our own lived experiences inform our perspectives and response to the world around us. If this is the case and we are all at different places, how can we expect to distill the possible actions that need to be taken down to a select few? Perhaps it can be done, but I don’t believe that I am the person to do this.

As a person of mixed Indian and French-Canadian heritage, I have been exposed to racism and colourism throughout my life, even in times when I didn’t recognize it. This, however, is from the position of someone with immense privilege as a white-passing, straight, able-bodied person.

I heard both sides: my French-Canadian family members described my mum and I as  “too dark,” while Indian family members praised me for my “fair skin and features.” While I brushed off these comments growing up, I see now that these kinds of cultural contradictions made me acutely aware of the pervasive nature of whiteness in every corner of our society

To my family who came to Canada from India in the 1960s, my light skin was a symbol of wealth, health, and prosperity; a symbol of the opportunities and better life they sought from moving to Canada. To my family who arrived on Indigenous land as settlers in the 17th century, being “too dark” was a symbol of dirtiness and of being “uncivilized.” The entitlement of white settlers to Indigenous land and lives and continual oppression of BIPOC individuals remains strong in our society today.

The oppressed and the oppressor. The colonized and the colonizer. Good and evil. Was I somewhere in the middle? It wasn’t until I came to Queen’s that I began to ask myself these questions.

How could I situate myself within the BIPOC community when I have never truly felt the experiences of my BIPOC peers? I have never had my accomplishments be diminished to the words “diversity hire” or have felt unsafe within a space or a system because of the colour of my skin. I also know that my ancestors have played a role in contributing to racial violence and systemic racism in this country.

That said, how could I situate myself in a predominantly white space when my 10-year-old ears listened to a service representative call my grandfather a “f------ immigrant who came to Canada,” simply because he stated that he was not interested in purchasing whatever product was being sold and that we were in the middle of dinner? Or when my mother has told me stories of being cornered and having her hair cut off in the playground by a group of white boys, of being called “Paki,” of mistaken for being my nanny?

In striving to label myself as either the oppressed or the oppressor, either the colonized or the colonizer, either the good or the evil, I was disregarding how these categorizations were distracting me from issues at hand. Of course, we need to challenge ourselves. In order for there to be systemic change, it is imperative that we look deep within ourselves and unearth the roots of our biases and privileges. But focusing on a need to fit within a certain category can prevent us from being open to change and from listening to and being present for others.

I think my initial desire to write an article stemmed from a need to categorize myself, our clubs, and the Queen’s community as on the “right” side. I wanted to outline that there were swift and impactful ways to approach our response to the Black Lives Matter movement and overarching antiracism movement, based on a specific experience I had within a certain club. However, I have realized that both swift and impactful are not intrinsically tied to one another. How did I come to realize this? Through conversation.

The most impactful actions I have seen taken are those started with a conversation or by creating space for individuals to share their experiences. In sparking conversations, the strict divisions of “oppressed and oppressor” “colonized and colonizer,” and “good and evil”  dissolved. What was left was our humanity, as defined by our unique backgrounds and realities. We were able to notice the synergies in our experiences, as well as the things that we could learn from one another. From there, I sincerely believe that we were better equipped to prompt meaningful change.

There is no “quick fix” or “one size fits all” solution to the systemic racism that exists and persists on campus and in our world. We need to both make space and take the time to have these conversations, and our leaders need to do the same. This means shifting away from fears we may have of saying the wrong thing or of how picking a side might affect our image or reputation. It also means having the courage to accept that our experiences alone will not provide the path to meaningful change. Our shared experiences will.

Written by, Anika Ines Bousquet, third year (politics, philosophy, economics)