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In a recent survey by SH101, close to 1,000 students described incidents of racial bias that they’ve observed or experienced, usually in school. We asked students and experts to identify the implications of those incidents and ways that we can all help relieve racial pressures (next page). In each scenario, click to see what the issue can look like in college and how we can all respond in ways that help. For resources that dig deeper into these themes, see Find out more today.

When did you last talk about race? And how did that conversation go? The racial tensions amplified by the US election have spilled over into Canadian forums, nudging us to reflect on racism in our own country. An overwhelming majority of students who responded to a fall SH101 survey (93 percent) agreed that racism is a real problem. Yet race is a topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk about without invoking accusations and defensiveness. It can be challenging both to think honestly about our own perspectives and to look through a different lens. The goal is growth, not shame.

Why is this so difficult? In part, because racial bias is based in stereotypes so familiar that they have become difficult to see. “Those stereotypes have been so ingrained into Western societies that they are for the most part invisible, existing as everyday assumptions,” says Dr. Kevin FitzMaurice, Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury, Ontario.

Becoming aware of those assumptions enables us to address them. “Once you recognize it, you understand that racism is not mandatory. None of these things are unchangeable,” says Keith Jones, a race and disability activist based in Massachusetts.

What everyday discrimination looks like

Some racial discrimination is blatant, such as assaults and the destruction of property motivated by hate. Another type of discrimination is more common, however. Comments that carry negative implications based on race and ethnicity—“microaggressions”—are part of everyday life for Indigenous people and visible minorities. They happen in class, at our jobs and internships, on the sidewalk, while shopping, at restaurants. We’re talking about women’s purse-clutches when a Black male walks by, and well-meaning comments that imply a low bar based on race (“You’re so well-spoken!”). These actions sometimes reflect unconscious (or implicit) biases, research shows.

Why “small stuff” has a large impactStudents studying outside

Racial discrimination takes a psychological toll that is different from other life stressors, research shows (Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2007 & 2008). And while diversity awareness has grown on college and university campuses, microaggressions continue to make many students feel unwelcome, potentially harming their academic and personal prospects, research shows (“Voices of Diversity,” 2014). In interviews, Indigenous students at McMaster University, Ontario, described “interpersonal discrimination, frustration with the university system and feelings of isolation” (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2016).

The experience of discrimination varies. For example, the colonial racism affecting Indigenous people is distinct in some respects from other forms of racialization. A 2012 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry suggests that Aboriginal university students may experience racism more frequently than African- and Latino-American adults in the US, leading to “racial battle fatigue” (the stress, fatigue, and difficulty focusing that is experienced by racialized students at predominantly white universities). These experiences raise the risk of depression, pain, fatigue, and other health issues, according to a meta-analysis of studies in Race and Social Problems (2014).

We can step up in simple ways

We can all help build an inclusive community that brings everyone closer to meeting their potential—a community that does not tolerate casually expressed biases, false assumptions, and disrespect. Our actions need not be confrontational or divisive; they can be as simple as not laughing at a derogatory joke. It’s also vital to listen to others, build self-awareness, and learn to tolerate the discomfort of the conversation. “Self-reflection is a hard thing to master, but it allows us to be open,” says Jones.

Eight everyday scenarios and how they can go better

“Throughout my school years I have had teachers and students surprised when I would take certain classes because they did not think I would be smart enough.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

“I had a lab instructor that, once I disclosed I am Métis, treated me much harsher and ruder than the other students. I felt as though she had the expectation of me to fail.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Saskatchewan

“A person in my class told her friend that she was worried about being put in a team with a ‘black person’ because ‘they don’t work hard.’”
—Second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

Expert perspective: Perception is powerful

Low expectations are the product of stereotypes. Leah Grantham, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, found that her academic ambition and study choices met resistance, apparently because they went against the stereotype of Indigenous women’s getting masters degrees in Social Work and Education. She says, “Other students and professors were not supportive [of my goals]. ‘Aren’t you happy with the level of education you have now? Shouldn’t you get a job?’”

Research has shown conclusively that intelligence is robustly related to the environment—including the stimulation and opportunities that may or may not come our way (Psychological Bulletin, 2014). Discrimination is part of that environment. The stress of racial stereotypes and discrimination causes psychological and biological reactions that impair concentration, motivation, and academic performance, research suggests (American Psychologist, 2016). Racial stereotyping starts early, as demonstrated in non-Black teachers’ low expectations of Black children, a bias that could shape those students’ prospects in school and life, researchers said. (Economics of Education Review, 2016).

How we can unpack stereotypes

Try a thought experiment

  • “Put this in a very personal frame. What do people expect of you? If you failed in school, would that make you exactly what they’d thought you were?”
  • “Switch up the stereotypes: What if your star hockey player, the jock, wanted to be recognized as more than that; ‘Now you want to be seen as a physicist? Only dumb jocks play hockey.’”

—Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Demo acceptance and positivity

“The best example of handling it was by a professor at school. He makes a point of directly addressing communication barriers in a positive way by complimentary feedback to foreign students who speak in front of class.”
—First-year graduate student, Seneca College, Ontario

Speak up in support of people who are dealing with bias 

“I’m native. A girl in my art class said only natives in jail made decent art because they had so much time to ‘hone their skill.’ My classmates were super- uncomfortable. I said, ‘I hope that I’m misunderstanding you; you’re saying that the only good art made by native people comes out of the jail?’ My professor told me that was totally uncalled for. OK, university, OK. I really wish that someone else who wasn’t native would have said something. Why didn’t they say anything? That’s what confuses me the most.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Saskatchewan

Look for nonconfrontational ways to call it out

“I have seen a lot of comments directed at foreign professors, usually similar to ‘He should learn to speak English’ or ‘I don’t understand what he’s saying,’ when the professor is, in fact, speaking better English than the student. I will usually say, ‘It’s just his accent’ or ‘He speaks clearer English than me.’”
—Second-year undergraduate, Memorial University
of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

Discuss the implications

“[I hear negative] stereotypes mostly. They’re not meant to be harmful, but I try to remind them it’s a slippery slope. These aren’t bad guys: We had a conversation about how the low-key racism our parents grew up in is still instilled in their words, and to an extent is in everyone. Humans classify and divide everything, even each other.”
—Second-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

Expand your network 

“If you begin to ask questions and get to know that person on a friend (intimate) level than those stereotypes will vanish.”
—First-year undergraduate, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario

“There were expectations that my grades and interests reflect stereotypes. People have tried explaining my own culture to me, but most times they guess and try to explain [an Asian] culture that isn’t even mine.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“The fitness instructor was laughing that the badminton class was ‘all Asians”. I thought that could have been potentially offensive and it made a sweeping generalization.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Expert perspective: Positive generalizations are harmful too

All stereotypes erase individuality. In direct encounters, positive stereotypes are depersonalizing and divisive, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013). “When you use stereotypes, even if you think them positive, you are discounting the complexities of large groups of people,” says Paul Kivel, co-founder of the Showing Up for Racial Justice network in the US, which helps white people organize in support of visible minorities. Examining our own stereotypes helps us see others as individuals.

Here’s the trap: We are much more likely to tolerate positive stereotypes than negative stereotypes, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2013). Those positive stereotypes reinforce the idea that racial generalizations are valid and implicitly give weight to negative generalizations too. For example, the positive stereotype that Black people are athletic contributed to a more negative view of Black people, the researchers found.

How we can respond positively to “positive” stereotypes

Resist positive generalizations too

“Attempting to put someone in a cookie-cutter box that society has created is not only insulting but rather is a reflection of you and your thoughts.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, California State University San Bernadino

Expand your social network

“Not all meaningful action has to take place within the boundaries of activism, rallies, and revolts. I live in an incredibly multicultural city [and] attend a magnificently multiethnic church. The best way to overcome racism is by being purposeful about building relationships. It might be hard or weird at first. It’s definitely awkward at times. But it is oh, so worth it.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario

Give each other room to be who we are
“It would have been nice to have been given reaffirmation that I define my identity, not the other way around, and that I am more than that identity anyways.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

Get comfortable with self-awareness 

“Learn to recognize microaggressions, and don’t be afraid to admit if you’ve done any of them. Make it a learning experience to better yourself.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

“The teacher called out a woman of colour by asking how she felt being a minority around a bunch of ‘white girls.’ Afterwards, the woman of colour, who was incredibly shy, expressed that this made her uncomfortable. There are different ways that this point could have been brought across.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Saskatchewan

“I was always viewed as the spokesperson/representative of my whole race.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“Teachers and assignments assume that people are white. They often ask questions that position students as privileged and ask what they can do to combat it. It’s great if you are privileged but very marginalizing if you aren’t.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, British Columbia

Expert perspective: One person is one person

The culture and experiences of people of colour are vastly complex and distinctive. “Spokesperson pressure” or “tokenism” denies that variation. “It is impossible for one person to offer the ‘perspective’ of an entire group,” says Dr. Carla Shedd, a sociologist at Columbia University, New York, and author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, & Perceptions of Injustice (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015). “And it is unfair for teachers or students to ask an individual, especially one who may identify with or belong to an underrepresented or marginalized group, to be a group representative.” This is why it’s important to listen to a multitude of voices and acquaint ourselves with a variety of resources, including biographies, blogs, and film.

Tokenism is a common experience for many Indigenous students, says Dr. FitzMaurice; this can happen when non-Indigenous students look to their Indigenous peers for answers on questions about Indigenous-Settler relations. It is OK to learn from each other about our respective histories. The problem arises when an individual is positioned as representative of a community or population.

How we can stop singling people out

Find commonalities without erasing difference

“Rather than ignoring race and colour, value race and culture other than one’s own, learn from one another, allow bonds and teams to form that are not based on race.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Northwest University, Washington

Consider discussing the angle

“You can challenge this without accusing people of racism. You can ask, what is the underlying perspective of this exercise? Is this designed to be gender- and ethnicity-neutral? Was there a particular kind of student you had in mind?”
—Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Respect each person’s individuality 

“Don’t refer to people as ‘you guys’ or ‘them,’ i.e., judging the whole group. Instead, refer to the individual.”
—First-year student, Nova Scotia Community College

Avoid putting people on the spot

“I don’t represent all Indigenous/Aboriginal people, I represent only me and my own experiences.”
—Leah Grantham, graduate student, University of British Columbia

Remember how general these generalizations are

“I had a co-worker who used to ask me a lot of questions about Africa, but rarely my specific country. I even jokingly answered her questions like, ‘Well in my country we do celebrate Christmas but I can’t really confirm that for most of the other 50+ plus countries.’ She didn’t seem to grasp that it would be like me asking her about growing up in North America which covers everywhere from here to Mexico.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia

“A class in Indigenous Studies was required for my teaching degree. Several students complained that it wasn’t necessary, while fundamentally misunderstanding or being completely ignorant of many of the issues discussed. Several thought indigenous people should ‘just get over’ the past.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“‘I don’t see race,’ ‘You’re just being sensitive,’ playing devil’s advocate for argument’s sake..... [This is] white people thinking that because they aren’t affected by it, racism is not a problem.”
—Fifth-year+ undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

“When people get defensive about being called out on problematic behaviour, it makes the problem worse. Take criticism as an opportunity to make yourself better rather than feeling as though you need to justify the behaviour.”
—First-year graduate student, McGill University, Quebec

Expert perspective: Racial discrimination is present all around us

Racial prejudice and its effects have been extensively documented. Colonial racism in Canada, like slavery in the US, has generated systematic race-based discrimination with severe effects, research shows. “By almost every measurable indicator, the Aboriginal population in Canada is treated worse and lives with more hardship than the African-American population,” wrote Scott Gilmore, a social justice advocate in MacLeans (2015). Real-world examples help tell the story: for instance, many campuses are sitting on traditional Indigenous lands. “This land is unceded [not signed away via a treaty], highlighting the active colonization of Indigenous peoples and lands today,” says Dr. FitzMaurice.

How we structure the conversation is important; certain teaching styles can facilitate or obstruct discussions about racism. “Indigenous learning practices—sharing, respectful and empathetic listening, and the careful use of humour—are helpful,” says Dr. FitzMaurice. The debate format, in contrast, can be “extremely inappropriate” for some discussions.

Becoming an ally means, first, “self-education regarding history, context, and experience,” says Kerry Bailey, a PhD candidate in Sociology at McMaster University, Ontario. “‘Ally’ is not a term we can claim for ourselves, but a position we can strive to achieve.”

How we can open up to discussions about racial discrimination

Come to terms with some discomfort

“I attempt to create ‘brave spaces’ in the classroom where I incorporate Indigenous pedagogies of helpfulness (shkabewis), honestly, sharing, and dialogue on very difficult issues of racialization, colonization, trauma, and efforts to reconcile, heal, and decolonize, individually and socially. This inevitably means that students will be triggered emotionally, that there will be anger, guilt, and sadness. A student has to be brave to enter into this space. Part of this requires a commitment from the students to stick with it when it gets tough.”
—Dr. Kevin FitzMaurice, Associate Professor, Sudbury University, Ontario

Avoid playing devil’s advocate 

“Don’t purposely give an unfavourable opinion about racism or racial issues just to spark anger or a debate.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Colorado Denver

Attend diversity events

“In most student of colour events I have been to, the majority of the attendees are students of colour. Other students (usually the majority demographic) probably think they shouldn’t attend. But not doing so affirms an idea of microaggression from the majority white demographics in the eyes of students of colour.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Recognize other people’s experience

“Try every day to see it from another perspective. Everyone should try learning a second language in school. Nothing complicated, a first level second language, just to see how challenging it is.”
—First-year graduate student, Seneca College, Ontario

Tap into your own experience

“Talk. It’s true that you may not know what oppression feels like, but you do know what it feels like to be in pain, and oppression hurts. Many things hurt. In discussion about needing to be there for one another, every being can be included.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University

“As a born Canadian, my religious and normal rights have been taken away or altered to accommodate other races or religious beliefs. They do not feel they have to accommodate mine.”
—Second-year graduate student, St. Clair College, Ontario

“Students make comments such as, ‘I hate how all First Nations people get free education.’ They do not know the reality of education and First Nations people. They also do not understand treaty rights and why they were developed.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

+ Comedian Aamer Rahman’s 3-minute guide to “reverse racism”

Expert perspective: “Reverse racism” is not systemic

Affirmative action policies, and other attempts to address systemic racial discrimination, have fed into a belief in “reverse racism,” a 2011 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found; such policies are viewed by some white people as a barrier to their own success. Their experience is direct and personal, for example, the scholarship for which they are not eligible.

Those frustrations, however, do not constitute systemic discrimination based on skin colour, religion, and/or cultural beliefs (which would be racism). Robust evidence shows that historically, government policies and social norms have produced better opportunities, environments, and health outcomes for some members of society than for others. Indigenous people and visible minorities are vastly underrepresented through our political, legal, educational, media, and corporate institutions. Those who are prominent and successful are seen as exceptions to the norm and held up as spokespeople for their racial or ethnic group.

Visible efforts to make post-secondary education more accessible to Aboriginal students lead to resentment, says Leah Grantham, “even though Aboriginals are seriously underrepresented and over-stereotyped” in universities. The resentment is fueled by false beliefs about Aboriginal students’ funding sources, which are in reality limited. For urban Aboriginal students in post-secondary education, the most frequent obstacle to completing their degree program is lack of funding, according to a report by the Environics Institute, 2010.

How we can think constructively about “reverse racism”

Listen, and listen more

“Listening is a big step. Instead of bringing in a counterargument when a person of colour talks about their experience, listen. Too many voices are silenced because of inadequate representation in media, faculty, etc.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Bring self-awareness and savvy

“Don’t try to be smart or trendy or cool. Coming from a place of humility and acknowledging your own bias and lack of knowledge is the best approach. Try to get informed on your own but don’t believe everything you hear/read/see; try to get to the source of information.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Be open to other cultural experiences

“We can always learn from and share with others. This is why Indigenous Elders always stress the need for non-Indigenous people to participate in Aboriginal cultural knowledge and practice. This is key to moving from awareness to understanding to knowledge, and creating relationships of trust and empathy.”
—Dr. Kevin FitzMaurice, Associate Professor, University of Sudbury, Ontario

Take responsibility for learning

“White people need to do the work to understand systems of oppression/harm. Don’t wait for a person of colour to explain it to you.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Challenge the myths

“The vast majority of international students have met the same standards or seem to have exceeded them, in my experience. I’d say they have to fly to get to where we walk.”
—Lean Grantham, master’s student, University of British Columbia

Know that this is not a contest

“Stop insisting that ‘all lives matter’ when that’s not the issue they’re discussing with Black Lives Matter. Realize that white students are privileged even if they’ve worked hard to get where they are.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

Accept the complexity of the issue

“Thoughtfully recognize and listen to the arguments that systemic racism is real, acknowledging a history that continues in different and similar forms. Research epigenetics and neuropsychology—how trauma and even bias can carry throughout our lives genetically, culturally, and environmentally.”
—First-year student, Red Rocks Community College, Colorado

“Cultural appropriation specifically related to speech continues to be an issue. Hearing a (white) professor use the excuse, ‘Sorry, that’s just my inner black lady coming out!’ after making a ‘sassy’ comment was pretty unprofessional.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Nova Scotia

“There was a welcome BBQ on campus and one of the profs said, ‘Have you noticed that all they are serving these days is chicken dogs or halal meat? Isn’t that funny!’”
—Graduate student, Ontario

“[The problem is] accidentally using harmful language, and not understanding why it’s discriminatory. When this is pointed out, people too often respond with tone policing or anger as they become defensive or embarrassed.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Expert perspective: Disparaging “humour” has unfunny effects

In studies, humour that targets certain communities has the effect of validating prejudice and discriminatory actions toward members of those communities (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2004).

Disparaging comments “reinforce stereotypes and misinformation” and are “racist whether or not the disrespect was intentional, whether or not a member of that group was present, and whether or not it is claimed to be a joke,” says activist Paul Kivel.

Racial slurs carry pain for “those who have suffered violence behind them either today or in the past,” says Kivel. By using derogatory slurs and terms, whether as a joke or an attack, we ignore the history contained in those words. In effect, we seem to sanction that past abuse.

How we can respond thoughtfully to derogatory humor

Know how painfully certain words resonate

“I think the biggest mistake a student can make is not to educate themselves on racial issues, especially on the ways in which seemingly innocent words or phrases can have unintended yet deeply harmful effects on others.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

Let the “joker” feel uncomfortable 

“As an ally, it is important to call others out when they make racist remarks. #makeitawkward”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Follow up with the disrespected person

“In such a situation, I would want to talk to the victim one-on-one, and just try to express that they weren’t treated fairly, and empathize with them.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

Think about the best ways to speak up

“I very much support taking action. However, when publicly addressing a situation or comment, we need to be aware of the context, who might be impacted by the discussion and our ‘place’ within the overall conversation.  Voicing support and concern must be done carefully in order to not cause further distress or recreate power imbalances.”
—Kerry Bailey, PhD student in sociology, McMaster University, Ontario

Initiate conversations about how to step up

“Educating students that this is an issue and what to do when faced with this sort of situation (educate through school news paper, emails, posters, etc.)”
—Fifth-year+ undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Consider the context

“Recognize the setting: when, where, why, and what is the joke about. Comedians can use dark humour to spread awareness, to get people to understand that their jokes are filled with stories [about experiences] that are not OK.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University

“I have worked on many group projects with an all-Caucasian demographic except me. In those groups, I find my inputs don’t count as much as when I’m working with groups containing more minorities.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“I witnessed the non-inclusion of some international students at my school into a residence’s intramural sports team. The incident was certainly not blatant or obvious, but it had a huge impact on the individuals who were left out.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

“I don’t look First Nation, so I often have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall. People are just generally unaware of how exclusive they are being. I was in a class recently where everyone, including the professor, used language like ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We just don’t know, based on the colour of our skin, who is part of what ethnic or cultural group.”
—Third-year undergraduate, British Columbia

Expert perspective: Change the broader scene by changing the personal scene

On an individual level, we can be immediately inclusive. “You don’t have to agree with or like everyone,” says activist Keith Jones. “Understand, however, that if you are behaving in ways that make another person’s life worse, you are compliant. You can end this. You can literally, today, decide ‘I’m never going to tolerate racism or prejudice again, ever.’”

This takes self-reflection. Racial bias is widespread in human groups and cultures—yet this does not give us an out. Bias causes varying levels of harm, depending partly on the social structure in which it occurs.

“Addressing racism means recognizing that we all have the capacity to harm, but also the opportunity to learn and grow,” says Lydia Brown, a race and disability activist and a graduate student at Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts. “Among Asians, being people of colour doesn’t mean we are automatically exculpated from being anti-Black, for example. I don’t think it’s the exact same thing as when white people discriminate, but it’s not OK, whether we call it racist, biased, or bigoted.”

How we can include each other

Introduce yourself

“I find that the more students mix with others and learn more about various cultures, the more understanding they become.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

Make kindness your default

“Realize that just because people don’t show it doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing some type of discrimination and/or aggression. Be kind to others regardless of their race or ethnicity. It may not seem much but the kindness of others often create a positive impact on a person’s day and their outlook.”
—First-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta

Get brave about self-exploration

“Look at your own biases, look at your inner circle and see who is/isn’t included and why.”
—Shermin Murji, MPH, Canadian Health Educator; doctoral student, Florida State University

Demo how to be inclusive and accepting

“The best way someone approached it was a professor who taught public speaking. He’s always encouraging and non-judgmental with accents and approaches languages barriers as normal and OK. This leads other students into seeing what openness really looks like.”
—First-year undergraduate, Seneca College, Ontario

Reach out

“One time my friends and I were about to walk into a party. I heard one of the girls behind us say, ‘We’re Black, they’re not going to let us in.’ I grabbed her hand, even though I didn’t know her, and made sure she and her friends made it into the house.”
—Second-year undergraduate, St. Joseph’s University, Pennsylvania

Push through if you can

“At times when I felt excluded, I figured I could simply be expressive, and this has always created some unique experiences.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Actively support other communities

Spend money at minority-owned businesses; hold institutions accountable (school administrations, local government, etc.), support programs and policies that serve racialized communities, and rally around causes that are led by people of colour.
—Various students, various colleges and universities

“People often point out differences right away. They want to know where you are from, why your hair is a certain way, what language you speak, if you subscribe to stereotypes of your culture.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“People in class ask me where I’m from. When I say Toronto it’s not good enough, I have to mention that my parents are from China.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Expert perspective: Look for what you have in common

Instead of asking where someone is from, ask yourself why this information feels important. If your goal is to make a connection, think about alternative ways to do that.

“It is perfectly natural to be curious about individuals whom we deem to be ‘unlike’ us,” says Dr. Shedd. “The easiest way to make sense of something unfamiliar is to organize the information into categories that are familiar. However, even if you are curious about someone’s racial/ethnic origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc., you are not entitled to ask or assume information about someone’s personal identity.”

Indigenous students face this line of questioning routinely, says Dr. FitzMaurice. “There is an assumption of being tied to a First Nations reserve community outside the city, based in the stereotype of a static or timeless Indigenous culture. This negates students’ urban experience.” Half of the Aboriginal population of Canada lived in urban centres by 2006, according to census data (Environics Institute, 2010).

“When people of colour are asked where we are really from, the underlying assumption is often that we don’t actually belong,” says Lydia Brown, a graduate student at Northeastern University of Law, Massachusetts, and visiting lecturer at Experimental College, Tufts University, Massachusetts. “Try asking where someone grew up, or what city they consider home, which might prompt much more interesting answers anyway.”

How we can get to know each other

Ask rather than assume

“[I am asked] ‘So are you Muslim?’ when I tell them my nationality (Lebanese). I simply say ‘no’ and respond with the better question, [which] should have been, ‘What’s your religion?’”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Boston

Start with what you have in common

“You already have a shared connection simply by virtue of attending the same school. You can use that to connect by sharing information about your intellectual interests, favourite course, etc. Then you can invite that person to do the same.”
—Dr. Carla Shedd, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Columbia University, New York

Try these icebreakers

“Some simple conversation starters focus on similarities; e.g., ‘Would you mind if I sat with you? I don’t know many people in this class, so I thought I would say hello.’ Or, ‘I have the same textbook as you. What is your degree?’”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

Talk about each other’s experiences

“As someone from Asia, I don’t find it offensive or inappropriate when people from the west try to learn our culture and our practices. There is a fine line between mocking a culture and wanting to make an effort to understand it.”
—First-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta

Ask open-ended questions

“Maintaining open and inclusive language allows people of different ethnicities the power to disclose or not disclose the amount of information they want.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Acknowledge your missteps

“Most people are happy to chat if you are respectful and enter with an open mind. If you make a mistake (an incorrect assumption or term), simply apologize and ask for clarification. Avoiding others because you are unknowledgeable will perpetuate the problems.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Students want to support each other meaningfully
Here’s how 1,750 college and university students responded to our recent survey:

  • Many students expressed the wish that someone had spoken up for them in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Many students wanted to be more supportive of their racialized peers but weren’t sure how.
  • You overwhelmingly believe we should try harder to find common ground and support each other (95 percent).
  • You support the principles of racial activism: For example, 8 in 10 (79 percent) say racism is systemic, and 6 in 10 (61 percent) identify as racial activists or allies—even though you don’t always agree with activists’ ideas or tactics (84 percent).
  • You feel it is inaccurate to categorize people as either “allies” or “bigots” (79 percent) and believe that people’s views on race and racism can change (94 percent).

Laura Barr
Third-year undergraduate
Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

“The Implicit Bias tool measures our unconscious biases and feelings we may not want to reveal. I took quizzes about Skin Tone, Asian, Race, and Arab/Muslim preferences. I was surprised at my results. Some tests suggested I might have “a moderate automatic preference” for light-skinned people. As a Canadian user, I wasn’t 100% sure of some American references.”

Useful?

These tests give you insight into your own biases about race. While it says my result was the average result, I know I’m still an accepting, loving person
4 out of 5 stars

Fun?

These tests aren’t the most exhilarating things in the world, but they provide great insight.
4 out of 5 stars

Effective?

I sometimes messed the keys up out of forgetfulness, which affects your results. I think I’m more mindful about treating all people fairly (though I did this before anyway).
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Lydia X Y Brown, race and disability activist, graduate student, Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts; visiting lecturer, Experimental College, Tufts University, Massachusetts.

Kerima Cevik, race and disability activist.

Keith Jones, President and CEO, SoulTouchin’ Experiences, Boston, Massachusetts.

Paul Kivel, social justice educator and antiviolence advocate; cofounder, Standing Up for Social Justice; cofounder, Oakland’s Men Project; author, Uprooting Racism (New Society Publishers, 2002) and other books.

Carla Shedd, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, Columbia University, New York.

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Torres, L., Driscoll, M. W., & Burrow, A. L.  (2010). Racial microaggressions and psychological functioning among highly achieving African-Americans: A mixed-methods approach. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(10), 1074–1099.

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.


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Meron Begashaw is a graduate student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She is a music and pop culture aficionado, and loves to read and learn.