Furthering a tolerant WLU

(Photo by Kate Turner)

Conversations surrounding issues of racial inequality and other forms of discrimination that are present within the Wilfrid Laurier University community were held on the night of Nov. 27 at an event hosted by the Association of Black Students (ABS) and other on-campus groups.

Held in the MacDonald House lounge, the event, “Is there a racial divide?,” was an opportunity for students, staff, faculty and community members to consider this question on their own campus and within the Laurier community as a whole.

Senmone Grant, president of the ABS and coordinator for the event, explained that the event was done as a response to an incident involving racist posters that occurred at Laurier.

Last month, posters were found on campus depicting Trayvon Martin, who was murdered in February 2012, accompanied by textual racial stereotypes.

“We thought that it was a disrespect to the black community, but not only to the black community, also to everyone’s safety at Laurier,” said Grant, voicing the ABS’s reaction to the posters.

She continued, saying that they felt nothing was being done about it so they decided to create an event that would provide students with a safe environment to talk, not only about the poster, but more broadly about racism and their experiences with it at Laurier.

Michael Onabolu, president and CEO of WLUSU, was one of the speakers at the event and expressed his own reaction to the poster.

“The first thing I thought was, how could something like this happen on our campus?” he said. “But the reality is that racism can happen anywhere, and it stems from misunderstanding and prejudices.”

Onabolu went on to say that he believes that this forum provided the opportunity for everyone to get to know one another and to “be able to have that discussion about how similar we all really are and the fact that we should embrace our differences.”

“We’ll never know who created the poster,” Grant noted. “But that’s not what this is about. It’s about what happens from here.”

She stressed that the point of the event was not to place blame on anyone, but to begin a movement to create change. As the ABS’s focus as a service at Laurier is to “emphasise empowerment, solidarity and progress … by encouraging people to become more aware and involved with the movement of overcoming socially and racially based inequalities in the world.”

Grant said this event was one of the ways they are trying to create agents of change.

“We’re trying to make a movement, trying to create change,” she said. “We’re trying to prepare a better future for the generations to come.”

The event itself ran as a presentation followed by a discussion forum. Attendees began arriving at 6:30pm on Tuesday night and were asked to write one word on a sticky note which answered the question: “what does inclusivity mean to you,” which were then posted on a wall.

The floor opened by asking those in attendance to contribute their ideas to form some ground rules that would make the space open and accessible to everyone.

From here, speakers gave presentations to the group which were then followed by an opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussion.

Contributing speakers included representatives from Wilfrid Laurier University Student’s Union, the sociology department, Laurier 4 Palestine, Laurier Students’ Public Interest Research Group, alumni, Laurier Afghan Student Association, the religion and culture department, Kitchener/Waterloo community members and other Laurier students. Staff members from the Diversity and Equity Office were also in attendance.

According to Grant, more people attended the event than were expected.

To her, this demonstrated “how important a meeting like this is” to have.

Holly Baines, contract academic staff for the department of sociology, spoke in particular about why she believes talking about race is important, particularly within the context of Canada.

“I think in Canada we have a problem talking about race,” she said.

People don’t like to use words associated with racial stereotypes, but Baines openly acknowledged in her speech that she was white and that a certain amount of privilege comes along with that.

“One of the things I need to do is name my whiteness in the way I act, that is, to act accountably,” she continued. “When I make mistakes when reaching across the racial divide, I need to say ‘yep, I made a mistake there, thank you for helping me figure that out.’”

While no concrete answers toward the question of whether or not there is there a racial divide were decided on, this was not the aim of the event, as the various contributors pointed out.

Rather, there was a collective agreement that this was simply the first step in addressing issues of racism and discrimination at Laurier.

This was voiced by Grant in her welcoming speech as she said, “We thought it was our duty to create some kind of forum where we could discuss race and racism on campus, and also to share experiences.”

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