Black Caribbean Identity on Campus

by Dwight Sampson

The University is traditionally thought of as a place of learning. For some, university is an institution that must be endured in order to get a job or to be perceived as a productive member of society. For others, the university can be portrayed as a second home; a place where they feel safe, happy and intellectually stimulated. Most students that attend university spend copious amounts of time physically on campus. As a result, they form connections with fellow students, staff and locations within the university. By examining the sheer amount of time students spend on campus, as well as looking at the connections they make, it is easy to understand why the university can be perceived as home. Though, just like many literal homes, this figurative home can also be broken and rejecting. It is possible for a student to perceive the university as both a home where they can be comfortable while, at the same time, feeling rejected by the university based on their identity.

As a Black Caribbean male, I experience individual perceptions of what it means to be Black, what it means to be Caribbean and what it means to be a Black Caribbean. Some of these perceptions are good, most of these perceptions are bad, and all of these perceptions are stereotypes. Often these perceptions are created by what individuals have seen through social media, movies or heard through music. I have been told many times I must not be Caribbean because my behaviour in public is not disorderly or loud or within the range of what the world expects Caribbean behaviour to be. Often, we as a society, view universities to be locations where these stereotypes are broken due to the extensive research and commitments these institutions have placed on diversity and making all students feel welcomed. I ask you to question whether the actions of educational institutes such as UofT have taken so far have been effective in truly engaging “diversity” on campus.

            In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life Sara Ahmed (2012) explores the concept of the “non-performative” in the context of the university. A non-performative action is when we say we will do one thing, but we actually do another, not because we are negligent or because the action only works in certain situations but because we intended for the action to do something other than we said it would (Ahmed 2012: 117). In particular, Ahmed uses the concept of the non-performative to question whether the actions of a university are truly intended for the purpose of diversity and equality or to “block the recognition of racism within” the university (Ahmed 2012: 116). What does this mean? Often, “diversity becomes about ‘‘saying the right things’’” (Ahmed 2012: 59) and being perceived as having a physically diverse population of staff and students. The non-performative nature of “diversity” reveals how statements of commitment to antiracism often do not do what they say they do.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with the University of Toronto? Surely, UofT is diverse! This must be true especially at our Scarborough and Mississauga campuses! We have so many people, from so many backgrounds, I’m sure no other university is as diverse! While UofT does a lot of work to make all campuses inclusive and diverse, I found this idea of “diversity” to be limited. UTSC states on their website:

“Diversity is central to who we are and what we do. We believe it is vital to foster diversity in all facets of our campus culture—from the people who study and work here, to the multiplicity of voices, viewpoints and ideas encouraged in the curriculum and in campus discourse” (UTSC, 2019).

Mission statements such as this are “utterances of a specific kind” that mobilize “the international language of governance” (Strathern 2006: 194-195 in Ahmed 2012: 24). To the credit of the university, it hosts many events such as multicultural week, Black History Month and other cultural events. Additionally, the university presents curriculum in the Social Science from areas underrepresented in academia with a main focus of Asia and Africa, as well as providing programming for minority groups such as Imani. These actions, while presenting the “right image”, however, are not enough and are mostly skin deep.

While researching the notion of the University being perceived as a home, I interviewed the student group Caribbean Connections UTSC. I am a member of this group, which hosts weekly podcasts called Top Chatta – posted on SoundCloud – about issues prevalent to Caribbean students on campus. In this podcast, we discuss issues around Caribbean student life both on and off campus. One week the group decided to produce an episode on the topic of fitting in on campus as a Caribbean student. I hosted this podcast and based my research around the recordings which has been posted on the internet by the club. One topic that emerged was how UofT has many policies in place that prevent the reproduction of Caribbean culture. A Trinidadian student from the Caribbean Connections speculated:

“I feel like this [feeling welcomed on campus] is less about underrepresentation and more about cultural discrimination. There is a Holi event on campus, but if we [CCUSTC] were to ask for J’ouvert, they would say that is too dangerous, that is too loud. But the events are inspired by one another, they are essentially the same thing”.

They spoke about the time when CCUTSC wanted to throw an off-campus party with the purpose of fostering deeper connections between students of Caribbean heritage. The Caribbean Student group applied for funding through UTSC but were rejected with a note stating: “The event did not benefit student life in any way”. The student continued:

“The [UTSC] Student Union has many assumptions. Whenever they hear it’s a Caribbean event, they think it’s going to be louder, more rambunctious and more problematic. There are stigmas with being associated with the Caribbean that are taken from a small sample of our behaviour. And some of it is stereotypes and prejudice.”

This view was reinforced by every other member of the podcast. The students agreed that the university reinforced stereotypes about Caribbean cultures such as having “uncontrollable behaviour”, being “loud” and participating in “dangerous” activities. There was a shared feeling that Caribbean students must supress their cultural identity to fit in on campus.

Some of the conversations revolved around how the racism experienced in high school, especially from teachers, had influenced their feeling of being less than or left out. A member of Caribbean Connections stated:

“When I was 12 years old, I was coding in HTML and JavaScript and people discouraged me, so I stopped. That’s a big reason why I take stats and computer science. But growing up people kept telling me don’t do that. Black kids don’t do that. And that leads to reason why you may see certain demographics of people doing better in computer science classes”.

This statement highlights the fact that there are expectations in society for certain races to act a certain away. The statement of “black kids don’t do that” implied that even if the university is implicitly stereotyping Caribbean cultural identity, the problem is rooted in deeper issues of institutionalized racism in North America.

To use the words of the university, in a truly diverse community, “all facets of campus culture” including Caribbean students, would feel comfortable in presenting events to UTSC administration. Thus, the intention behind the statement of diversity, regarding multicultural events and minority program, does not affectively take form within the student community. Instead, discomfort takes over. For these students, to feel discouraged by cultural stereotypes when proposing community events reveals the non-performative nature of the university. Each year, there are panels, committees and councils, which investigate and suggest actions to be taken to make the campus more diverse. Yet, there is minimal change. This reveals that the word “diversity” invokes difference but not the commitment to demonstratable action (Ahmed 2012: 53). I present my finding not to bash UofT as not being diverse, but rather to indicate that there is more work to be done in the form of policy changes and re-education. Though the university does a lot of work to ensure diversity, Caribbean students only seem to see those intentions at student recruitment times and minority engagement events such as Black History Month and multicultural week. This indicates a non-performative nature to the actions of the university as well as the limits of a policy of diversity on campus.