On racism, diversity, and inclusion at Queen’s: Some thoughts and a proposed course of action

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This has been a difficult week for many Queen’s community members. Periodically, our relatively quiet campus explodes in controversy. I’ve seen it happen a handful of times since I’ve been principal, each situation unique in its own right, but each almost invariably magnified by the potent influence of social media.

Last week, reports emerged of a costume party attended by Queen’s students that involved the unacceptable misappropriation and stereotyping of numerous cultures. This has understandably caused both anxiety and anger for many; it has also rekindled an important conversation in our community about the degree to which Queen’s is a welcoming and inclusive community.

While we are much more diverse than we once were, this incident has acted as an urgent reminder that Queen’s still has much work to do on these issues, and in particular on sensitizing all our community members to actions and behaviours that may seem harmless fun to many but which marginalize some members and make them feel unwelcome at our university. For that reason, I am forming an advisory group comprising students, faculty, and staff members to examine the issue of inclusivity at Queen’s and make both immediate and long-term recommendations for change.

Among other things, the advisory group will consult key stakeholders who work on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion to identify concrete steps to create and sustain a positive, constructive dialogue and identify educational and training needs. This group will consult widely and report back to me with recommendations by the end of the academic year.

This will not be the first group to look at diversity and inclusion at Queen’s, and so I understand that there may well be skepticism about its creation and ability to effect change. With that in mind, one of the first tasks of the group will be to review the work that has been done in the past, and determine if there are barriers that have prevented previous recommendations from being successfully implemented and how we can overcome these.

Last week, I asked the provost to gather as much information as possible about the party that prompted this discussion. An investigation is just that – it is not a “witch hunt,” as some have opined on social media, but simply due process. There is no doubt that the party in question made some of our community members feel upset, marginalized and degraded, and that the decisions made by some students were insensitive and exhibited very poor judgment. However, based on the information the provost has gathered, we have come to the conclusion that there should not be a formal punitive process undertaken through the Student Code of Conduct. This in itself would fix nothing. What is needed is a broader, sustained, and more meaningful conversation around these issues.

This is a very difficult subject, and many of you have strong feelings about how the university should proceed. However, as an educator and the principal of Queen’s, I am confident that the most effective way to address these issues is through education, discussion, and awareness. That is why the work of the advisory group, and the dialogue that will take place in the coming months, is so important.

Of the many conversations I’ve had with members of our community over the past several days, one conversation with an alumna in particular stands out. To paraphrase, she defined racism as a broader concept than many members of the general public are likely to acknowledge—one that includes not only obvious actions of discrimination and hatred, but also unconscious assumptions and opinions, and more subtle acts of disrespect. Perceptions of what “racism” includes are fluid, and they have evolved historically.

Within a progressive society such as a university, such definitions have also broadened over recent decades. But progressive communities acknowledge that definitions evolve, open themselves up to difficult conversations, and respect each other as the status quo is challenged. Sometimes it takes an event such as the recent costume party to make us re-evaluate our own assumptions, unconscious biases, use of terminology, and our sense of what is and what is not appropriate behaviour in a multicultural and inclusive community.

We have made great progress on many social issues at Queen’s over the years (mental health and sexual violence, for example) through dialogue and concrete, rather than symbolic, actions. I encourage everyone to share views in a constructive rather than a divisive way, with a focus on the wellbeing and success of all our community members. Change comes from conversation and education, and creating a culture of greater respect and understanding. I do not know at this juncture what our specific actions will be, other than that they do not include demonizing individuals who are members of our community. I do know that we need to find solutions, and I welcome your suggestions.

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