Queen's University — Since 1873
5th April 2007

Challenging the ‘culture of whiteness’

In his final arguendo column, Ahmed Kayssi says to empower the many cultural clubs at Queen’s

Ahmed Kayssi
Ahmed Kayssi

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My family and I were new to Canada when it was time for me to apply to university, so we asked a more experienced relative for advice. He recommended McGill and the University of Toronto. Where I grew up in the Middle East, these two schools were renowned for their international reputations and vast resources.

When I mentioned Queen’s, which I had only briefly visited one summer, he was firmly against the thought of even applying. This was a university for white people, he put it bluntly, and I would probably be more comfortable somewhere else.

So as you can imagine, I didn’t really know what to expect when I moved into room B513 in Victoria Hall in September 1998. My roommate was a 24-year-old Franco-Ontarian who had just left the army after serving in Bosnia. My house president was Trinidadian and the vice-president was from Ghana. There was an American and a Swazi living two doors down. My closest friends came from Ireland, Egypt, India and Barbados. To say that my first year was culturally rich would be an understatement.

The lack of visible minority students has been the subject of vigorous debate throughout my time at Queen’s. Compared with other leading campuses around the country, ours certainly looks homogenous in many ways.

Yet, I think it’s inaccurate to describe the obstacle that we face in diversifying our campus as a “culture of whiteness.”

This rhetorical term lumps a large number of people and ideas into one awkward group based solely on the colour of their skin. To suggest that all Queen’s students, staff, and faculty members of European extraction share an identical outlook on life is ridiculous.

While there is more we can do to make everyone feel welcome here (last week’s Ideas Supplement offers some excellent suggestions), I also think that there are aspects about our University’s relationship with minority students that are worthy of emulation by other campuses.

As a Muslim, I have never felt that my right to practice my religion was restricted here, while my colleagues at other schools, particularly in Quebec, have had starkly different experiences.

Halal and kosher meals have been available upon request at Ban Righ Cafeteria for years, with plans to soon offer them at other campus food outlets. The JDUC administration is looking into ways of increasing the prayer space available to different faith communities, along with dedicated washing facilities.

The annual Culture Show, organized by the African and Caribbean Students Association, is an incredible act of community-building by the many cultures represented at Queen’s, white and non-white. I’ve met people who have driven all the way from New York to attend this show in past years and alumni who have come back on a regular basis from Toronto and other cities to perform.

Rather than simply blaming our lack of diversity on a so-called “culture of whiteness,” we should empower the many cultural clubs we have on this campus to reach out and engage people of all backgrounds in their activities.

We should educate the University and Kingston communities about racism and discrimination and ensure that this city becomes a more hospitable destination for newcomers to Canada and people with different lifestyles.

We must also work harder to attract more aboriginal students, because their unique experiences and perspectives are sorely lacking from this campus.

My prediction is that as Kingston continues to grow and its population becomes increasingly more cosmopolitan, Queen’s will eventually become a more popular choice for students and professionals currently uncomfortable with leaving their ethnic communities in larger cities.

And on that glorious note, I will sign off on my final arguendo.

Thank you to Brendan Kennedy and Matt Trevisan for recruiting me as a foot soldier in the War on Apathy, to Shiva Mayer for the preposterously over-pretentious picture and to Joanna Nicholson, whose talent as an editor is paralleled only by her elegance and charm.

I am deeply grateful for the eloquence of Grant Bishop, the thoroughness of Gregory Day, and the sangfroid of Thomas MacMillan, without which these rants would have been far more incoherent.

To the handful of people who regularly read my column, I hope that it has at least given you something to think about. If my words have ever offended you, please accept my sincere apology and rest assured that everything I have written was solely for the sake of argument—nothing more.

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