UBC Students of Colour in Solidarity With... fights "tokenistic" displays of diversity

In recent years, incidents such as the Ferguson or Charleston shootings in the United States proved that racism is still a common problem in North America. Most recently at the University of Missouri, there has been controversy over several racist incidents that were largely neglected. In light of these recent developments, a handful of UBC students organized an event to speak out against this inequality.

"UBC Students of Colour In Solidarity With..." featured songs, poems, speeches and dances from various artists and speakers to celebrate racial diversity. Despite this description, the event is not as entirely celebratory as it sounds.

The gathering itself was mainly inspired by prejudices on racial diversity, whether due to societal hegemonies or outright racial hate. Although speeches and songs did celebrate identity, there were equal amounts of content that strongly spoke against discrimination. The penultimate feature of the event itself was a silent march down Main Mall where attendants held up signs in support of those who are victims of racial prejudice.

Cicely Blain, a fourth-year European studies student, is the main organizer of the event. Although president of the UBC Intercultural Alliance, she organized it solely on her own accord with the help of her peers. With other universities already doing similar events in light of the University of Missouri scandal, Blain felt that it was something that needed to happen here.

However, organizing the event was not just a matter of responding to recent racial controversies. For Blain, it is also a response to what she feels is apathy on behalf of the UBC administration regarding diversity in general.

“UBC definitely has an issue of visibility and that’s why I wanted to have an event like this,” Blain said. She also claims that although the university does promote diversity, it is in a highly tokenistic attitude. “They love [diversity] like that’s how we sell, that’s how we get the money from donors and that’s how we look good in comparison to other universities. It’s not a real celebration of all the culture and communities that exist here.”

Blain attributes these problems largely to the white-centric hegemony not only on campus, but also across the globe.

“A lot of my books are not written from people of colour, most of my professors are white ... just those small things that add up to feeling that the university doesn’t acknowledge students of colour,” she said. “White people still have the most power even though there’s only one white person in the room … [they] have privilege in this society and are able to do stuff without question."

Blain has endured numerous forms of racism in her home city of London prior to coming to UBC. Although she acknowledges that Vancouver is generally safer than most places in terms of cultural and racial diversity, she thinks it exemplifies the need for more racial visibility.

“Being in Vancouver, you feel removed from these things — especially for me. There’s not a very big black population,” she said. “We’re in a pretty safe environment here … I think it’s a responsibility to have that privilege to organize in a safe space [and] raise awareness on what other students are going through.”

This is not to say that Blain’s problems have stopped entirely. According to her, a friend working in Vancouver quit her job due to racist remarks from her co-workers. Additionally, she regularly endures racial insults online, whether through email or social media posts. Like many others, she also sees that poor treatment and visibility for indigenous peoples is still a nationally prevalent problem.

Despite her strong views and the enduring ignorance of others, Blain insists that the event is not meant to be an aggressive reaction.

“I do acknowledge that some people may misunderstand this is as a protest or being an aggressive retaliation towards white people – it’s not. All that we’re trying to do is reclaim some space and have a moment where people of colour are celebrated and acknowledged,” said Blain.

“It’s supposed to be a celebration of these communities that don’t always get the support they need. Hopefully, by watching [their performances] and just being in that space of really talented people of colour, that will help UBC students acknowledge that everyone has something to offer regardless of their race.”