Who else would help you? How racialized faculty and graduate students navigate systemic racism together

Being 'kapwa' is about duty and care, about honouring your moral and social responsibilities toward one another. This support is desperately needed for scholars of colour.

Allen Baylosis was nervous.

He could hear his heart pumping louder than usual, as if some curious musician took the word eardrum too literally and turned Baylosis’ anxiety into a new song. He was walking downtown with his friends on a sunny June 2022 afternoon. They had just spent the morning together and began walking along Vancouver’s busy streets.

Baylosis had plans after, but he wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye.

Hey, I’m meeting a professor. Wanna come? Just hang out with me.

So there they were, headed toward the Breka on Main while the jitters slowly made their way across Baylosis’ body, infecting limb by limb.

What if he changes his mind? What if after he meets me, he decides that I’m not competent enough to be his research assistant?

Baylosis pushed those thoughts to the side. He could recognize overthinking when he saw it.

He was a professional, a performer.

He’d been on stage plenty of times. Both as a performer and as a scholar of performance, he knew a thing or two about breaking free from anxiety. It was practically second nature.

Baylosis was meeting Dr. John Paul Catungal one-on-one for the first time. Catungal — who is a GRSJ professor — is a scholar he looks up to and who also has a seat on his graduate committee. Graduate committees provide supervision for graduate students and assesses student work.

At the time of their first meeting, Baylosis was in his first year of UBC’s GRSJ master’s program. Within the next year, he would be nominated for and transferred into the department’s PhD program.

When Baylosis got to the cafe, his friends took a seat at a separate table. Baylosis went off to the counter and ordered himself a latte and a slice of cake. It wasn’t a busy day at the cafe — other customers wandered around and sat lazily about. The only thing Baylosis could hear was the whirr and drip of baristas making coffee and the barely intelligible murmurs of other people’s conversations.

Once he got his order, he breathed in its nutty, smoky scent, then walked over to his table to wait for the man whom he would soon consider to be a mentor to arrive.


Baylosis thinks of his mentors as his kapwa.

In Filipino culture, kapwa is about community. With no direct English translation, it’s often used to refer to the bond Filipinos share among members of the same community.

Being kapwa is about duty and care, about honouring your moral and social responsibilities toward one another. As Baylosis described it, it’s a bond motivated by a single question: “Sino pa ang tutulong sayo kung hindi kapwa Pilipino?

Who else would help you besides your fellow Filipinos?

To Baylosis, to be kapwa is to move beyond merely supporting each from the sidelines and toward pursuing your journeys alongside one another. This support, in the notoriously tumultuous waters of academia, is desperately needed — especially for scholars of colour.

In 2019, Universities Canada reported that 20.9 per cent percent of full-time faculty and 40.1 per cent of graduate students self-identify as racialized. Additionally, a 2022 Nature survey found 35 per cent of respondents who identified as part of a racial or ethnic minority group reported experiencing harassment or discrimination during their current graduate program.

That’s more than two times the rate reported by people who didn’t identify as such.

GRSJ’s former graduate chair and advisor, Dr. Pilar Riaño-Alcalá — a Latin American professor — said she is both on the receiving end of racism and the confidante of other racialized scholars, so she makes it a priority to mentor students of colour.

“If I am going to [invest] time into my students, I do give priority to those who I know will experience discrimination, racism and being silenced within the university system,” she said.

Although being kapwa is a Filipino concept, Riaño-Alcalá demonstrates that the idea of being kapwa extends beyonds the Philippine’s cultural borders. It's a commitment shared among scholars of colour to help each other navigate the pervasive “whiteness” of academia.

Racism is an open secret among scholars of colour, and one of Baylosis’s mentors, Catungal, makes an effort to be candid in his guidance for racialized students, but he makes sure to do so away from the eyes and ears of university authorities.

He knows being too honest out in the open can lead to backlash.

According to the Nature survey, 59 per cent of survey respondents said they couldn’t speak freely about the harassment they faced in academia.

Mentoring behind closed doors allows Catungal to be “able to be honest about — using my own experiences, for example — how race, racism, white supremacy shape what it means for us to be in the university.”

In “Building a Race-Conscious Institution,” a guide prepared for Universities Canada, Dr. Arig al Shaibah — UBC's current associate vice-president of equity and inclusion — outlined three main forms of racism in higher education: individual racism, institutional racism and structural racism.

Institutional racism occurs when biases and prejudices are embedded into institutional policies and practices, thereby systemically disadvantaging people of colour. According to the guide, structural racism is the largest scale. Structural racism describes how all these systems of institutional racism interlock at a societal level and create a culture of racial discrimination that becomes that society’s primary standard.

‘Wasn’t designed for us’

Dr. Annette Henry, professor emerita from the Faculty of Education and GRSJ, said “[scholars of colour] have to talk about this system of white supremacy.”

In a 2018 study, professors Tameera Mohamed and Brenda L. Beagan from Dalhousie University described how whiteness has been built into institutional policies, standards of conduct/behaviour and “taken-for-granted ways of doing that become normalized and normative within academia.”

“Many participants [faculty of colour across Canada] reflected on the Eurocentric culture of academia, describing intentional shifts and sacrifices they have made to ‘fit’ within it,” wrote Mohamed and Beagan, “learning academic cultural norms and sometimes relinquishing elements of their own culture.”

“The long history of academia is that ... It wasn’t designed for us,” said Catungal. “No wonder we feel out of place — that history hasn’t ended.”

Baylosis considers himself lucky. Throughout his graduate journey in Canada, he’s been able to foster several supportive relationships with surrounding faculty.

But many of his peers have not had the same luck.

“There have been lots of accounts wherein the supervisor themselves are the one who bars ... graduate students from defending their thesis, their dissertation,” said Baylosis.

According to a Statistics Canada 2019 report, 66 per cent of PhD student and postdoctoral fellow respondents said they were harassed by someone who held a position of authority over them.

Baylosis thinks of it like this: any professor can supervise, but how they handle their relationship with their supervisees will differ. That relationship dynamic is critical.

As Statistics Canada explains it, academia’s hierarchical structure is in itself a risk factor for increased workplace discrimination and harassment. Since graduate students are often younger than their faculty and administrative colleagues, they are also at a higher risk of being on the receiving end of such behaviour.

“Academe is hard,” said Baylosis. “How do you navigate it if you’re alone?”

There are many different forms of asymmetrical power dynamics between faculty and students beyond the direct faculty supervisor/graduate supervisee dynamic. Many graduate students also take on research or teaching assistant positions for other faculty members and generally have multiple faculty in their graduate committee.

Likewise, the academic authority figures who allegedly harassed Statistics Canada’s student respondents were not just their direct supervisors but also those who occupied other senior academic positions which afforded them some control over those student’s future career prospects.

“If the number one person [who’s supposed to support you], let’s say your supervisor, isn’t ... behind your back, then it’s going to be a burden," said Baylosis.

Searching for a supervisor

Baylosis wanted a supervisor who would actually be invested in his work. So he came up with a strategy: Find the Filipinos.

“There’s this sense of security — assurance — that they will guide me properly. Kapwa,” Baylosis explained. “I believe that we also have shared struggles as racialized folks in academe.”

He kept searching for a connection to home and found it at GRSJ.

“[UBC] was the only university where I found three Filipinos in one department,” said Baylosis.

At UBC, he found Catungal and professors Christopher Patterson and Leonora Angeles. He wasn’t sure how different their cultural upbringings were from his or even what generation of immigrants they belonged to, but he was okay with that.

“It doesn’t disregard the fact that we come from the same cultural heritage,” said Baylosis. “So there is this linkage between ancestors to which we will be rooting our research interests.”

The women of colour in Drs. Shiri Noy and Rashawn Ray's study consistently reported having less supervisors that provided them with professional career support than other groups. Students of colour also consistently reported that their primary supervisors were less respectful of their ideas than they were for their white peers, which puts these students at a systemic disadvantage.

“Respect of ideas is perhaps the most important currency in academia,” Ray and Noy wrote,” and plays a substantial role in graduate progress, letters of recommendation, and future job prospects.”

Baylosis said he wanted a Filipino supervisor because he hoped their shared heritage would make them more likely to be interested in his work.

Baylosis believed he would have an easier time with a supervisor who shared his heritage because he believes that people who share the same struggles and share the same dreams will be more likely and more determined to uplift each other.

Language discrimination

Throughout the years, many students have told Riaño-Alcalá that when their supervisors, committee members and instructors critiqued their work, they commented on their writing, but didn’t actually engage with their ideas.

“We’re talking even for PhD dissertations,” said Riaño-Alcalá.

These students, usually international students from the Global South and non-native English speakers, mainly received corrections for their assignments’ grammar.

“I find that, quite often, deeply discriminatory and racist,” said Riaño-Alcalá.

One of the respondents to Nature’s international graduate student survey, described a similar experience in which a Brazilian student doing a PhD program in Canada had to reach out to her institution’s academic affairs office because her supervisor “frequently belittled her English and scientific skills.”

The academic affairs office told her that she could either change labs, change supervisors, or convert her PhD program into a Master’s program so that she could graduate early. She decided to change labs and is now more comfortable pursuing her program, but she wishes there was a way to hold supervisors like her accountable for mistreating students.

“If they don’t face consequences for unfair and discriminatory behaviour,” [she said], “... it’s going to keep happening.’”

On the flip side, Riaño-Alcalá also believes that feedback that praises a student’s language skills can still be patronizing and infantilizing if the academics providing that feedback don’t also provide an actual critique of the student’s arguments and ideas.

“Somehow the focus turns to comments like ‘Oh, it’s amazing, despite that English isn’t, you know, your mother tongue, you are okay when you write,'" said Riaño-Alcalá.

Riaño-Alcalá thinks that these kinds of comments treat these graduate students — who are often adults with extensive professional and/or educational experience in other countries — like “little kids.”

This infantilizing praise is also similar to what Dr. Geneva Gay, professor of education at the University of Washington–Seattle, called “benign neglect” in her article, “Navigating marginality en route to the professoriate: graduate students of color learning and living in academia.”

Gay described the practice of benign neglect as one in which supervisors claim to support their students, but fail to “provide the kind of critical and constructive instruction that [students] need to develop their intellectual, research, writing and teaching skills.”

Without proper intellectual support, students of colour are then left to fend for themselves or seek support elsewhere. As research and Riaño-Alcalá’s own experience have shown, “elsewhere” often means the office of another professor of colour.

The need for emotional labour

During a Filipino academic conference in 2022, Baylosis attended a graduate student workshop where he and his fellow students were told that “You need to work thrice as hard as white people,” by one of the scholars on the panel.

“The myth of meritocracy can be described as the mistaken view that cultural biases and social inequities do not factor into the assessment of individual capabilities (e.g., intellectual aptitudes, academic qualifications, and professional qualities),” wrote al Shaibah.

al Shaibah insists that representation gaps between racialized and non-racialized students, scholars and staff in higher education are “opportunity gaps,” not “achievement gaps.” She advocates for adopting a more inclusive understanding of excellence that adopts “more expansive and accurate methods of evaluating merit.”

Many students of colour have already told Riaño-Alcalá about the times they were punished, ignored or received lower grades than expected when they attempted to address the racism they faced in the classroom or in their evaluations.

From white students dominating classroom discussions or mispronouncing racialized students’ names, to students mistaking the cultural origins of others, or referring to their peers by the wrong pronouns, Riaño-Alcalá hears about it all.

Catungal said performing this kind of emotional labour is simply unavoidable for members of historically marginalized communities operating within academia.

Riaño-Alcalá also said traditional counselling is not always a safe option for racialized students to unpack their experiences.

“There are very few counsellors that are really qualified to work from a social justice-oriented perspective [and] from an anti-racist perspective who are available,” she said.

Per University Canada’s most recent survey, the number of racialized graduate students doubled that of racialized faculty.

In a 2012 study, Dr. Frances Henry and York University Course Director Carol Tator interviewed racialized faculty at Canadian universities found this means the limited number of racialized faculty that are available to mentor students sometimes feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. This is because they don’t receive institutional recognition for their mentorship contributions and therefore have less time and energy than their white colleagues to dedicate to contributions that would actually be recognized by the university, such as teaching and publications — which puts these faculty at a career disadvantage as well.

These metrics are used to determine not only promotions, but also tenure-track eligibility, particularly important in the academic employment system. Non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty simply do not have the same access to job security, healthcare benefits and professional development opportunities as their tenured and tenure-track counterparts.

Since the reasons for racialized professors' mentorship labour are structural, Catungal doesn’t believe that setting individual boundaries with his students is productive on a systemic level. It’s not the fact that students are coming to him for this kind of support which he resents.

“What I resent is that some of my colleagues have made themselves immune from having to do their emotional labour because they are the ones that have made themselves unsafe for students,” said Catungal.

Yes, Catungal admits, drawing individual boundaries could protect him. But what about them — his students? Catungal believes that it’s his responsibility as a mentor to find ways to protect them both.

One way Catungal tries to protect both his students’ and his own well being is by hosting gatherings with his graduate students. It’s his way of encouraging them to view each other as potential pillars of support.

Developing these “networks of solidarity” is a documented strategy for resisting racism and colonialism within the university. It is a testament to racialized scholars’ refusal to be “passive victims.”

Henry strongly believes that you can’t talk about emotional labour without talking about whiteness.

“When we talk about emotional labor, as a Black woman, we have to talk about whiteness,” said Henry. “We have to talk about this system of white supremacy, and what it demands of us, and how we're positioned in it.”

Since the mentorship and emotional labour of scholars of colour have proven necessary for the betterment and retainment of racialized students within the academy Henry and Catungal believe the key to making this labour more manageable for them is to increase the amount of faculty with whom they can share this responsibility.

Where are the numbers?

One of the most basic ways to start redistributing mentorship responsibilities among faculty of colour is to hire more faculty of colour, said Henry and Catungal

“Part of how I feel supported is to know that there are other people doing this work and that I can draw on them, but also just so that I don’t feel alone,” said Catungal.

In other words, strengthening the presence of faculty of colour also strengthens the network of support for both students and faculty themselves. Many of the racialized professors interviewed for the 2012 study expressed how lonely they were in academia.

One of the most significant contributors to this loneliness is that many of these faculty did try to discuss the racism they experienced with their white colleagues, but were so often dismissed, undermined or invalidated by them that they realized it would be pointless to continue attempting to have those conversations with them.

During an investigation into racial discrimination at Canadian universities in 2017, CBC News found that over 60 of the universities they contacted across Canada claimed not to collect racial demographic information about their students.

One of these schools was UBC.

Even now, in 2023, racial demographic data about UBC’s student population is still not readily available on the Planning and Institutional Research Office’s (PAIR) demographic dashboard website, unlike the data they do collect on gender, age, country of citizenship of Indigenous-identification. Racial information about faculty and staff are also inaccessible on PAIR’s faculty and staff dashboard.

As Dr. Shantanu Basu wrote in his article, Multiracial Equity in Canadian Academia, the data that is collected through voluntary equity surveys, like what is done in some universities in Western and in the Universities Canada website, is limited by the participation rate of respondents.

“A lack of comprehensive data on demographics, and on equity in internal processes like hiring, promotion, career advancement, and salaries, [reduces] accountability for practices that are harmful to EDI,” Basu wrote.

And yet, this available data is already pointing toward systemic underrepresentation and culture problems for racialized faculty, students and staff.

“We need to ask questions and maybe redo our ways of evaluating who should be here, who gets to stay and who gets to be admitted,” said Catungal.

According to Catungal, developing targeted support for scholars of colour includes not only reevaluations of hiring and promotion criteria, but also “more holistic and less normative understandings or productivity or expertise or admissibility.”

To him, this includes not only challenging the Eurocentric nature of academia but also recognizing that faculty of colour bring not only their expert knowledge but also their own histories and lived experiences — which are also forms of expertise.

And, as many of the participants in F. Henry and Tator’s study argued, the underrepresentation of racialized faculty led to the maintenance of a traditional Eurocentric curriculum. But they also argued that hiring more racialized faculty with more diverse specializations is what can transform the current curriculum.

“If [universities are] going to support people of colour, Black folks, Indigenous folks ... we need them in the university,” said Catungal. “So bring them in.”

‘I’ve seen myself in them’

Baylosis stressed that diversity is about more than just quantitative measurements.

It’s about having more opportunities to develop deeper connections with your community. It’s about creating more possibilities among those connections. And it’s about having connections that nurture your dreams as well as the dreams of the people you’re in community with.

Baylosis said seeing yourself in your prospective mentors and mentors matters for scholars of colour.

“It pushes you ... You can do what they do. They already set the path for you," said Baylosis. "Show up, do your thing because they showed up."

Sometimes that connection can be felt in just a single word, like “Kumusta?”

“Would a white supervisor ask me ‘kumusta?’” said Baylosis.

When Angeles asks him “kumusta,” the Filipino translation of “how are you?” in the hallway or Catungal asks him when they run into each other at community events, Baylosis has to think. Will he answer in Tagalog? In English? No automatic answer — “I’m fine," “all good” or “doing well, and you?” — works. "Kumusta" prompts him to give his supervisors more than just a template answer.

It’s one word that opens up worlds of possibility.

Being asked “how’s it going” by a non-Filipino is a matter of courtesy.

“If I had a supervisor who is white, or let’s say who is not Filipino, it’s going to be different,” said Baylosis.

“Kamusta?” is a question that represents what it means to be diasporic Filipinos, together.

“Because your upbringing, your rootedness, your culture, even just asking 'kumusta' — it makes your day,” Baylosis explained.

Baylosis’ mentors are not only accompanying him in his journey, he’s also accompanying them on theirs. He is as much their kapwa as they are to him.

“I have three Filipinos in my home institute,” said Baylosis. “I’ve seen myself in them, doing the things I want, so what’s stopping me?”