Canada’s racist Ivy League: The virulence of McGill’s anti-Black problem

Among elite universities, McGill has shown itself to be uniquely resistant to real change
Photo: McGill University. Photo by lezumbalaberenjena.
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In the spring of 2019, high school students from my hometown of Baltimore visited McGill University on the most important day of the year: graduation day. The international trip to “Canada’s Ivy League” was designed to inspire the young students to see what other worlds are possible upon graduation.

During their trip, the group of African American boys, ages 13 and 14, along with their school director, entered McGill’s Faculty Club during a celebration to honour the university’s Black graduates. The boys were dressed smartly in creased khakis and collared polo shirts that announced their school crests proudly on their chests. Their Baltimore city charter school had gifted them the opportunity to attend a rigorous, college preparatory–focused school and also partake in paid-for international trips like the one to McGill. Such trips are usually sectioned off for wealthy white students who attend the city’s $30,000-a-year private high schools and a handful of elite, highly competitive public schools. My Baltimore public high school never offered such opportunities when I was a teen.

McGill was the first place in my long academic arc where I met Black students who did not complete degrees because of the weight of anti-Blackness.

In preparation for this graduation day, a group of Black students at McGill had worked hard to plan an event honouring Black graduates for the first time in the university’s history at the Faculty Club. This is McGill’s most ornate and exclusive hall, normally reserved for wealthy fundraisers, prime ministers, and presidential keynotes. The visit held special significance for the young teens from Baltimore, who were witnessing an important rite of passage in the lives of McGill’s richly diverse, international cadre of African, West Indian, Haitian, and Black American and Canadian students at the nation’s most esteemed university, in the campus’s most esteemed venue.

For those of us raised in the U.S., Montreal, upon first encounter, feels like a world a million miles away from the everyday social conditions that so facilely took Freddie Gray’s life in 2015. The legacy of the Underground Railroad and North Star shines brightly, still, in the collective imagination of many Black Americans.

Once inside the venue, one of the young students from Baltimore smiled at a uniformed staff member at the Faculty Club and then extended his hand to properly introduce himself. The senior staff member, a grey-haired white man, recoiled and responded, “I don’t have anything for you,” implying by his words and action that the young Black teen was begging for a handout.

The student was both surprised and offended, and sought out his school director to discuss what had transpired. When questioned, the McGill staff member insisted that the visiting student must have “misunderstood” what had happened in the exchange, as he had “only been joking.” He then, half-heartedly, offered an apology.

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The body worn down

Encounters communicating refusal and contempt are often mundane for Black boys. They are aware that their dark-hued bodies communicate an offence or danger to those equipped with an easy authority to end their young lives. A reminder of this existential truth streams readily across social media feeds and evolves into hashtags created for young Black men who look like friends, cousins, and kin. Such taxing awareness, as Black parents also know, characterizes a warped rite of passage that well precedes a deepening voice, darkening facial hair, or any of the other early markers of puberty.

The young student from Baltimore felt the weight of the words that had been chosen by the much older white man, the violent stereotype they implied, and their vulgarity — which even jokingly had no place on such an esteemed occasion, at such an esteemed institution. The student had learned at his Baltimore school to extend his hand as right-minded decorum when an opportunity for introductions presented itself. And he was clear about how his body felt to have an invitation — what he had believed to be an invitation — annulled in an instant as a white man recoiled from his touch. Notably, he was also clear about the insincerity and lingering violence in the McGill employee’s forced apology, one familiarly harnessed in an easy rationale of jest or “misunderstanding.” In fact, the young student requested the staff member keep a distance from him for the remainder of his time at the Faculty Club that afternoon.

I have thought often about this disgraceful exchange at my alma mater, because during my years at McGill, Black students taught me how a body experiences racial slights and assaults, in and out of the classroom, at this elite university. McGill was the first place in my long academic arc where I met Black students who did not complete degrees because of the weight of anti-Blackness and nonchalance they continually endured within the institution. I had not seen such cases when I was a graduate student at Cornell, Georgetown, or even law school in Los Angeles.

When the university announced an ambitious, $14-million plan to overhaul its student health support infrastructure on campus in early 2019, it evidenced no commitment to attend to the unique needs of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students.

One of the most stellar young students I met at McGill was a young woman who had grown up in a family of diplomats, travelled the world, spoke several languages, and lived abroad during her teen years. When she announced to me one spring that she was transferring to an elite European university, I was baffled. As a teenager in Baltimore, I had dreamed of being her, of accessing a world beyond my own with her kind of sophisticated social and cultural decorum, grace, and ease. When I inquired about her decision to leave, she explained that she had finally tired of the experience of sitting in her business and economics courses where stereotypical comments about Black people and Africans were regularly spewed by students, unmitigated by white professors, and dismissed as opinion rather than violence. Endlessly, she explained, she was positioned as angry or irrational when she raised her hand to speak up in her dauntingly large lecture halls.

She shared with me the physical impacts that two years at McGill had on her, how two years in lecture halls and classes had simply worn her body down. At McGill, she was introduced to a novel and creeping anxiety. Eventually, she found her lecture halls insufferable and sought out anti-depressants for the first time in her life. Like many other Black and racialized students I knew, she visited the campus’s ineffectual counselling centre for an appointment in the fall and was only seen after the New Year. Her experience with one of McGill’s therapists compounded her trauma, providing both a tipping point and clarity.

“It was all too much for me after waiting so long,” she explained. “My white therapist had no ability to begin to understand the weight of my experiences on campus. She just couldn’t get it.”

“Finally, I just decided that I can’t bear the ignorance or violence of this place, and its utter lack of emotional or mental health support for Black students,” she ended. “I’m leaving.”

Institutional violence

Historically, McGill has done little to support the mental health needs of its Black student body.

When the university announced an ambitious, $14-million plan to overhaul its student health support infrastructure on campus in early 2019, it evidenced no commitment to attend to the unique needs of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students, despite its diverse student population. McGill, in fact, has an international student body that constitutes a full one-third of its student population, and at least half of its international students are racialized students.

McGill’s administration stalled, awaited the graduation of the student cohort, and finally shelved the proposal without implementing a single portion of it.

Yet McGill’s health services continue to fail students who have unique cultural and experiential needs. The university’s extensive Health and Wellness Calendar, as a glaring example, offers an array of continuing group support services and events for students, but fails to offer even a single event for Black, Indigenous, and racialized students in its entire calendar. As such, there remains a loop of violence in McGill’s health services “overhaul,” as well as in the actions of its inadequately trained health services professionals. In the fall of 2019, an employee tasked with the well-being of students who require disability accommodations responded to the mental health crisis of a racialized student on campus by calling campus security and then contacting the police for support. The student had sought a counselling intervention and had asked specifically that security and police not intrude.

Over my six years at McGill, I learned to support Black students beyond the bounds of the classroom and without any institutional support. Stories about the impacts of McGill’s institutional violence have been detailed, at length, by its few Black faculty members. That is why I have chosen to first detail the impact of McGill’s anti-Blackness on the body — a hand extended, the recoil of another, a body so profoundly aware of racial violence that it maps out its own boundaries of safety within a campus building, or on another continent. The story of the visiting students from Baltimore is neither random nor exceptional (what is quite remarkable is the miniscule interval of time it took before McGill’s structure of anti-Blackness was felt by a visitor). It is merely a paragraph within a more detailed narrative about what McGill is, how it relates to Black people within and outside of its classrooms, and an infrastructure of anti-Blackness that it has bolstered over time.

These lived experiences of racial violence at the country’s most elite university matter terribly.

So, of course, do McGill’s history and data.

The long struggle for Black Studies

One way that McGill’s history of structural anti-Blackness is illuminated is through the long history of Black student organizing on campus for an Africana Studies major program.

Africana or Black Studies — which is distinct from African Studies in encompassing Black diasporic thought and experience — arose out of a Black student–led protest tradition in the 1960s that aimed to decentre Eurocentric university curricula, institutionalize the study of the Black diaspora, and prioritize the hiring of a cohort of Black faculty across the disciplines. One of most important battlegrounds for this struggle occurred at McGill’s doorstep in 1969, when Black scholars interrupted a session at the annual African Studies Association (ASA) meeting to protest the erasure of historical contributions by African American scholars to African Studies, as well as the “new era of academic colonialism” perpetuated by the ASA’s white gatekeepers.

In the 1990s, as part of the Black Students’ Network (BSN) and the offshoot Africana Studies Committee (ASC) — formed in 1994 in response to McGill’s effort to downgrade its African Studies program to a minor — Black students at McGill undertook years of unpaid work as they tried to create meaningful changes in curricula and hiring at the university. By 1995 they had a draft proposal to revitalize McGill’s once renowned but now neglected African Studies program and expand it into an Africana Studies program. In meetings with the administration, including then principal Bernard Shapiro, they were asked to submit a final proposal and budget. While undertaking full-time course loads, students — primarily Black women and Black queer students — worked collaboratively to draft a detailed, fiscally sound proposal. In November 2000 they submitted Envisioning Africana Studies: Tradition and Innovation at McGill, which described a gradual implementation and multi-year budget for an Africana Studies program. It also historicized the decades-long efforts of former Black McGillians, who had demanded a non-tokenized set of Black faculty, as well as courses on Black diasporic thought and life.

The result of the four years of work and the 30-page proposal? McGill’s administration stalled, awaited the graduation of the student cohort, and finally shelved the proposal without implementing a single portion of it.

When challenged on its absence of meaningful Black representation, McGill has long performed a familiar quantitative trick.

To date, the university still has not created an Africana Studies minor or major program, despite ongoing student demands and efforts over the last two decades. In its brand new Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, McGill is, yet again, disingenuous. In 44 pages, it fails to mention the decades-long struggle by Black McGillians for an independent Africana or Black Studies program. Instead, it proposes another working group to “explore options” (read: to study again without action) for folding a Black Studies program (minor, major?) into its existing, deeply problematic African Studies program.

This point cannot be overstated: African Studies — a discipline long dominated by white scholars, narrow and selective sites of study, and a penchant for awarding its white professional members — is not Africana Studies. African Studies is not the place to develop a rich and varied discipline that addresses the breadth of Black Canada’s history and people or the radical epistemological underpinnings that guide Black and Africana Studies. Simply, McGill must commit to and fund a stand-alone Africana (or Black Canadian, or Black Diasporic) Studies program.

This piece of Black organizing history at McGill feels crucial to share in this moment, as it evidences the institution’s steely and ongoing resistance to meaningful change for Black students and faculty — a resistance that is deftly concealed within external messaging of excellence “by the highest international standards” and “principles of academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity, and inclusiveness.”

Any Black student who has attended McGill has felt the lie in this, as well as the cruel dishonesty of a university that admits an out-of-country population as one-third of its student body, happily banks their exorbitant international tuition fees, and yet fails — over many decades of student-led demands — to create meaningful hiring and curricular changes that reflect the desires and realities of its richly diverse student body.

A miniscule Black professorate

In a study undertaken last year, political scientist Malinda Smith at the University of Alberta found that Black professors constitute 3 per cent of all professors in Canada. At McGill, the racial disparity is most stark: Black faculty constitute less than 1 per cent of all tenure-track and tenured faculty. Black women professors are an extreme rarity.

These numbers communicate a larger story about the university’s empty values, given that this major research institution is located squarely alongside the second-largest and most-diverse Black population in the country. Black Montrealers, in fact, make up nearly one-third of the city’s visible minority population.

McGill also knows, unequivocally, what types of violence commonly befall its Black, Indigenous, and racialized faculty.

When challenged on its absence of meaningful Black representation, McGill has long performed a familiar quantitative trick to conceal its anti-Blackness: publishing internal studies and smart-looking pie charts insisting that it has met its “equity targets” for “racialized/visible minorities,” but refusing to provide disaggregated data about the very racialized groups — namely, Black and African faculty — who face the highest levels of systemic discrimination and marginalization within Canadian universities. This trend, as McGill has only recently acknowledged, has been rebuked in a comprehensive study by seven scholars — the only study to nationally examine, in great detail, the collective failures of university equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) commitments throughout Canada.

As the few longtime Black faculty members shared with me during my time at McGill, the already tiny number of Black professors hired at the university actually decreased over time. Recently, renowned art historian and trans-Atlantic slavery scholar Charmaine Nelson resigned from McGill after nearly two decades without ever having held a Canada Research Chair. The federal Canada Research Chair program recognizes world-class researchers and provides financial support for their work. To become a chairholder, faculty must be nominated by their institutions.

Throughout her long career, Nelson advocated endlessly for the infrastructure that would have created a Black Studies program or formalized study of Canadian slavery at McGill. In addition to her new Tier-1 Canada Research Chair at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nelson will create the first-ever Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery in Canada.

A clear view of the issues

McGill has been long aware of its own anti-Black shortcomings, its radical deficit of Black faculty, and its absence of courses or programming committed exclusively to the study of Black Canadian life.

McGill was, of course, the historic site of the 1968 Congress of Black Writers, a gathering of Black intellectuals and activists from Canada and around the world that famously attracted RCMP surveillance. A 300-page dissertation from 2016 and a newly published book detail the violence and multilayered challenges faced by Black faculty and students on its campus. The long history of Black student organizing for change at the university is well documented in its volumes of student newspapers, and McGill has heard endlessly over the last six decades about the concerns and demands of Black students. Students have organized on social media to share their complaints after being repeatedly ignored by the administration.

As faculty members have been outspoken about the monolithic composition of hiring committees and the unwillingness of the university to prioritize Black hires, McGill students have demanded Black cluster hires and challenged department heads for allowing all-white hiring committees to ignore excellent Black candidates. Less than a month ago, as part of its Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, McGill committed to hiring 40 tenure-track and tenured Black professors in the next four years, and 85 by 2032.

As a Black American who has spent decades transiting between academic institutions in the U.S. and Canada, I want to name the ways that McGill has been uniquely resistant to Black presence and organizing on campus.

McGill also knows, unequivocally, what types of violence commonly befall its Black, Indigenous, and racialized faculty. In 2016, the Working Group on Systemic Discrimination, composed of McGill faculty, published stark findings in its Tenure-Track Faculty Survey Report that loudly communicated the hostilities faced by Black, Indigenous, and racialized professors. The voluntary survey was completed by just under a quarter of McGill’s faculty members.

Participants frequently described a “toxic” and steeply hierarchical environment where older white men were regarded as the most important within their departments and the university. “I feel that McGill displays an overwhelming whiteness across its faculties. I am alarmed by the lack of diversity in every respect, from curriculum and minority student recruitment to minority faculty recruitment,” said one respondent.

According to the report, 50 per cent of Indigenous and racialized faculty reported ongoing experiences of systemic discrimination at McGill. A stunning 30 per cent of Indigenous and racialized faculty reported experiences of overt discrimination or harassment on campus, which were so disturbing to the working group that they excluded numerous examples from the published report in order to safeguard the anonymity of McGill’s miniscule cohort of Black faculty. Faculty members reported systemic bias within hiring committees, questioned why McGill has so few Black faculty members, and expressed the need for meaningful racial diversity within the senior administration. McGill has no Black members in its senior administration, and all of its principals have been white. All of its deans, except one, are white.

McGill’s unique failure

Some of these problems are not exclusive to McGill as an elite Canadian university. Predominantly white institutions in the U.S. are hardly exemplars of diversity and meaningful inclusion for Black faculty and students.

Yet, as a Black American who has spent decades transiting between academic institutions in the U.S. and Canada, I want to name the ways that McGill has been uniquely resistant to Black presence and organizing on campus.

For decades, McGill has refused to create a minor or major that reflects the brilliant diversity of its Black student body and the rich local history of Black Montreal. It has refused to prioritize the hiring and retention of a meaningful cohort of Black faculty members, despite its status as a leading research institution in a city with the second-largest Black population in the country, and despite such leading initiatives undertaken at many other Canadian universities.

Although McGill loudly promotes values of diversity and inclusion, it long failed to both collect and publish the narrow sets of data — disaggregated, intersectional — that the federal Canada Research Chair program has prioritized and that best quantify the systemic barriers that Black faculty encounter. Notably, McGill has undertaken institutional studies that make anti-Black violence plain, but ignored its own findings and primary recommendations for structural change. It has continually ignored faculty and student demands for cluster hires of Black faculty while demonstrating it understands such hiring practices for Indigenous faculty.

Her experience with one of McGill’s therapists compounded her trauma, providing both a tipping point and clarity.

It feels important to end where I began. That is, with the body — the one that knows and lives in environments replete with the visionary creativity of Black life and Black struggle and, simultaneously, a tradition of McGill’s institutional harm. What kind of violence steals one’s undergraduate time for efforts to create a program reflective of oneself, only to have the process buried within its institutional memory? And what do we name the violence that insists we begin over and over again, organizing for the same changes, our efforts deftly concealed as if we had never been here at all?

As “Canada’s Ivy League” begins its year-long bicentennial celebration, in concert with an unprecedented billion-dollar fundraising initiative — again, with new Black leadership at the helm of its bicentennial planning team to symbolize its tokenizing brand of diversity — McGill has an opportunity to better align its values with the kind of Black presence, support, and programming that all other Ivy League schools began implementing in the 1960s and ’70s throughout North America. In fact, all other Ivy League schools in North America have institutionalized stand-alone programs or departments devoted to the study of Black life, through Africana or African American Studies. McGill’s failure is singular in this regard.

In addition to its faculty hiring and other commitments, McGill must commit to and fund a stand-alone Black Studies program now.

Rachel Zellars is now an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University.

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