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Feature Story Banner: Decolonizing the Classroom with photos of students

QTBIPOC Psychology Undergraduate Students helping to Decolonize the Classroom

by Eric Brousseau
Queen’s Psychology
March 23, 2021

In PSYC 400 (Applied Research in Higher Education), most 4th year Undergraduate students in the course form groups and present weekly tutorials on instructional strategies to their colleagues. There are occasional exceptions to the assignment topics and recently QTBIPOC students Rahul Patel, Grace Okusanya, Joseph Oladimeji, and Sarah Cho were tasked with creating a presentation on how to ‘decolonize the classroom’. In their presentation, the students aimed to bring awareness to their experience of discrimination in the classroom, and to explain what instructors and students can do to build a more inclusive educational community at Queen’s and beyond.

Rahul Patel is a peer blogger with Student Academic Success Services (SASS). He then asked his group members if they would collaborate on a blog post to extend their work beyond their classroom assignment. Each co-writer crafted their own portion of the blog, which the group then compiled and sent off to Dr. Ian Garner from SASS to post.

The co-writers’ blog research process was based on the in-class presentation they delivered. “It was overwhelming to find a place to start our presentation, so we reached out to Dr. Anita Jack-Davies from the Centre of Teaching and Learning,” Rahul says.

The co-writers say feedback to the blog has been extremely positive overall. They also say they have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from people to whom they have presented. “We presented as a Brown Bag discussion with members of the Social Personality Psychology program in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s. Students from all levels and Faculty members listened with amazement as we presented,” Rahul recounts. “Afterward, we were able to get some really productive discussions on how to decolonize the classroom in the field of psychology. Our hope is that people follow up their support and intentions with positive action.”

In reality, aspects of university experience are often very negative for QTBIPOC students like Rahul and his co-writers at Queen’s. “To put it short, life at Queen’s has been difficult with the ongoing discrimination I have faced since my first year here.” Rahul recalls. “Even seeing the discrimination that others experience makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it’s often hard to speak out when you’re a minority.”

Rahul recalls witnessing incidents in his first year when other students shamed the accent of several instructors for whom English was their second language, by saying things such as, ‘I hate [her] because I don’t understand her’.

Race and discrimination issues have been prevalent at Queen’s for decades, but recently students have begun to call in administrators through social media platforms such as @stolenbysmith and @erasedbyfeas in order to get their attention. In one high-profile instance, The Smith School of Business was named publically for sexual harassment, discrimination, and a lack of diversity and inclusion. Consequently, Smith has committed to advancing their EDII practices, and other faculties and departments are following suit.

Rahul, from Campbellford, Ontario, chose Queen’s University for two reasons: a scholarship that has significantly assisted with the costs of his university education thus far; and the opportunities Queen’s offers for students to go beyond academics to pursue professional and personal pathways. He is currently working on his thesis in the Neuroeconomics Lab under Dr. Anita Tusche’s supervision. Rahul’s plan for the future is to pursue a career in Industrial/Organizational psychology and to help solve the psychologically-driven problems that organizations face.

Co-writer Grace Okusanya’s background is Nigerian but she calls London (Ontario) home since that where her parents currently live. Grace credits her Nigerian heritage as having influenced the way she approaches her education, the opportunities she wants, and how she looks up to, and respects other people. Grace chose Queen’s because the general Arts & Science program would allow her to explore which disciplines most interested her.

“I would say I am one of the fortunate ones as I was able to surround myself with people who came from similar backgrounds as me as a first-generation immigrant in Canada,” Grace says, relating her student life experience at Queen’s. “However, in times when I wasn't always able to surround myself with other people who shared my experiences, it has been hard at Queen’s. It’s not fun and not right, to have to take classes and be involved in groups that don't always support or validate your experiences as a QTBIPOC individual.”

Grace says she has often felt discouraged to share her thoughts during discussions and felt like others made assumptions about her based on her appearance. “I think that to some students I might seem intimidating,” Grace suggests. “But at the same time, I’m scared to share my opinion because of the numerous times my ‘minority view’ on a subject has been shut down.”

Grace is pursuing a degree in Psychology, and she has volunteered in a variety of labs in the Clinical Psychology area at Queen’s. She says she has valued the time, the experience, and the relationships formed in those experiences. However, as a member of various research teams Grace has witnessed many ways where research is not inclusive to black and brown bodies, and she has tried to increase awareness of this in the labs she has worked in. Most recently, in the QuERBY Lab under Dr. Jeremy Stewart, Grace observed that the stimuli the lab used for a study (in the field of suicide) lacked people of colour in the images. “I informed my thesis supervisor of this and after looking further into it, we have found that there are actually no images of people of colour in our field of suicide research,” Grace reports. “As a lab we are currently looking into ways to help mitigate this very big shortcoming.”

Grace plans to pursue a degree in clinical psychology and to work towards establishing better/new ways to make mental health resources more accessible to marginalized peoples while also furthering our current knowledge of BIPOC mental health.

Co-writer Joseph Oladimeji, originally from Lagos Nigeria, immigrated to Canada when he was 12 years old. From a very young age, Joseph recalls experiencing many acts of racism and microaggression within the Canadian educational system. Joseph feels his experience with racism has made him resilient, and is one of the reasons he has decided to pursue a career in the field of law. “I chose Queen’s because I knew it would be a great university that could shape my mind academically, and place me in an excellent position to continue pursuing my dream of becoming a lawyer and working to correct the wrongs done to the QTBIPOC community,” Joseph says. “But before coming to Queen’s I had no knowledge of the University’s racist history or its lack of diversity. All I cared about was the name and the prestige that comes with the name. I think many QTBIPOC students would say the same.”

Joseph says that upon arriving at Queen’s for the first time, many QTBIPOC students and faculty implicitly understand that the campus was created (and is still held by) Eurocentric White Upper-Middle Class Heterosexual Cisgender people. “We spend a significant amount of our time in spaces that are not built for us. We learn from professors who don’t look like us, seek services from folks that do not understand how our identities intersect with the issues we are facing,” Joseph explains. “This can be very disheartening.”

Joseph and other QTBIPOC students feel that Queen’s can, and should do more both academically and administratively to welcome, represent, and retain bright young QTBIPOC students. They believe that hiring more QTBIPOC individuals (both faculty and support staff) could help ensure that a diverse body of opinions that will challenge the University’s Eurocentric systems and ideas, and provide ways to deconstruct these notions within the classroom. “The university establishment must also challenge its own Eurocentric ideas, and this will only happen when they invite other ways of knowing into syllabi, classrooms, and other spaces on campus”, Joseph says. “Constantly checking and challenging Eurocentric ideas we hold as an institution and ensuring that we have the appropriate staff to facilitate these conversations, can help with the decolonization of the classroom.

In addition, many QTBIPOC students feel that they risk putting themselves in harm’s way just to attend a prestigious university like Queen’s. In recent years, racist parties held among Queen’s students and hate vandalism in residence halls have made local and national news, highlighting this long standing struggle within Queen’s. Not all incidents of racism make the news, but Joseph says these kinds of acts occur every year at Queen’s, and the emotional and mental trauma they cause to QTBIPOC students who are exposed to them can take a heavy toll.

Joseph is currently in his 4th year with a major in Psychology, and though he feels fortunate to have found his community early in his Queen’s career, Joseph says he doesn’t know if he would still be here if he did not have his community. “Since my goal is law school, my extra-curricular focus has been to make Queen’s a much better place for QTBIPOC students,” Joseph explains. “My area of interest is equity, antiracist, and anti-oppressive discourse, and I’ve held several positions on equity based groups at Queen’s and have worked with them and the university to create more inclusive policies.” For example, as part of one organization Joseph has worked with university administration to create a safe space for equity groups to call home, known as the ‘Yellow House’. Another focus currently underway is the creation of an accountability policy to hold administration, faculty, and staff accountable for perpetuating racist or oppressive acts or policies.

Joseph plans to continue to do antiracist and anti-oppressive work in the future, and with a legal degree he looks forward to taking that work to the next level. He plans to help to create policies that protect LGBTQ+ groups facing the death penalty, life-long imprisonment, and social rejections in African countries.

Sarah Cho chose Queen’s University because it was the university that her father and older sister attended. She says growing up Korean and being one of the very few QTBIPOC students in her small town of Aurora, Ontario, prepared her for what she would eventually experience at Queen’s University. “I was not surprised or unfamiliar with the environment at Queen’s,” Sarah recalls. “Despite being used to the crowd, it was still disappointing whenever I’d sit in a classroom and realize that very few people in the room, if any, looked like I did.”

Sarah says she has been treated differently in her classes and groups because of her Korean Canadian heritage, and she finds it difficult to make social and academic connections outside of the QTBIPOC community. She describes experiencing confusion from people who assume English is her second language, and then receiving questions about where she is ‘really from.’  “I am proud to be both Korean and Canadian,” Sarah says. “But I don’t think this is something I must prove to others solely because of how they perceive me.”

Sarah is currently in her final year of a medial in psychology and environmental studies and her interests lie between researching human behaviour and thought processes linked to our relationship with the Earth. Moving forward, Sarah plans to focus her academic life on working with children and encouraging them at a young age to think about their relationship with themselves, others, and the environment.

The co-writers say that prior to their Decolonization blog, the majority of the support they received as QTBIPOC students has primarily been from fellow QTBIPOC students. “We share similar lived experiences and we naturally have the empathy to understand the discrimination we face,” Rahul explains. “Accordingly, we’re just more adept at recognizing each other’s pain and know how to appropriately take care of it.”

Nonetheless, Rahul believes that empathy is something that white, privileged students, supervisors, professors, staff, and administrators can cultivate for QTBIPOC students. “What’s unfortunate is that historically, it has been up to the QTBIPOC community to bring these issues to light in order to kick-start this empathy. We are tired of always having to be the first to take action,” Rahul says. “Instead, it is time for others to lead, make mistakes and learn from them, and unlearn their biases, to hone their empathy for, and understanding of QTBIPOC students. The time for statements has passed. The time for action is now.”

Read the Decolonizing the Classroom blog