academia

Campus Sexual Assault: the Educational Experience I Never Wanted

The University of British Columbia University Sexual Assault Panel‘s report, which provides recommendations for both the university’s stand-alone policy as well as their sexual assault action plan, goes to President Martha Piper today, and it will have its public release at a date soon to be determined. I have spent the past three months working weekly with a group of excellent and committed UBC faculty members on this report. We have all put in more hours than originally anticipated, and in the last few weeks in particular I have been living and breathing this report every single day. This has been difficult, and I must emphasize, completely voluntary work. It has been work that comes with more costs than it does rewards.

And there have been costs for me, ones that I cannot even yet fully grasp.

While it has been a choice to go public and to advocate for change around sexual assault in educational institutions, it has also changed my life irrevocably, and not always for the better. I have given up my privacy. In many cases, I have given up my dignity: the most traumatic incidents of my life have become fodder for trolls on the internet. In being such a vocal critic of universities, I have also potentially signalled my liability as an employee in academic spaces. I do not have the protection of job security or the academic freedom that comes with a tenured position. I have tried to do all of this work while also balancing my research and my teaching. It is financially precarious, emotionally and intellectually arduous, and often frighteningly lonely.

In doing this work, I have also lived and re-lived some of the most humiliating and traumatizing incidents of my life. It is no coincidence that of the six incidents of sexual assault I have experienced since 2002, five of them have taken place on the campuses of educational institutions, UBC included. As is evident by so many of the stories coming out in the press, educational spaces are ones in which violence often goes un-checked, or worse, covered-up. Policies are lacking. Resources are non-existent or understaffed. Education around responding to disclosures is not always present or consistent. In the past three months, as I have had to give more thought to how UBC should be better equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of sexual assault, I have thought about my own assault that took place at UBC more than five years ago, one that I pushed as far into the recesses of my mind as possible so that I could focus on my doctoral degree.

I should say that deciding not to deal with that sexual assault more or less succeeded. To the outside world, anyway. In the years after my assault in 2011, I received federal funding for my scholarly work; I became a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues; I presented my work at numerous national conferences; I’ve published in top journals in my field; I’ve become a consultant on national and provincial anti-violence initiatives; I’ve sat on countless panels, given countless interviews, written countless articles. I passed my doctoral defence with only two typos as revisions. My C.V., which details the past six years of my doctoral career, reads almost flawlessly, as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen.

A few weeks into the spring term of 2011, just over a year into my doctoral program, I was sexually assaulted in the graduate lounge of my department, by student who had recently graduated from the program. I will spare you the preamble and the gory details, not because I am ashamed, but because they don’t particularly matter, and I am, despite my public persona, an intensely private person. But what you need to know is that I was terrified. Having someone’s arm crushing your sternum, and very nearly your throat, will do that do you. And afterwards, I was lost. I sought help at the Sexual Assault Support Centre, which, at that time, was located at the back corner of the old Student Union Building, right on the edge of what used to be MacInnes Field. In order to get to the front door of the SASC, you had to walk through and past all of the SUB’s garbage and recycling bins. I hope I do not need to explain that the fact that accessing support services adjacent to the building’s trash disposals made me feel as though I, too, was trash. Having tried to report sexual assault during high-school (and getting nowhere) and reporting stalking in my time at SFU (and only getting a rape whistle and a pamphlet), I knew that I wasn’t about to try yet again to receive any sort of justice. So I said nothing. And I did my work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted, and as it turns out, wasn’t the last. Somehow, violence can take on a strange sense of ordinariness. It becomes a thing that just happens before you get back to work.

Except when you dream about it. Except when it affects every single moment of your life. Except when you’re in crowds, or small spaces, or big crowds, except when you don’t have a seat close to the exit in the room, except when someone frightens you. Except then.

If this is the way things are for me, I want things to be different for others.

Truthfully, I want to live in a world where sexual violence doesn’t exist at all, but if that can’t happen, I want to live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are supported and believed, and where there are robust systems of accountability for both perpetrators and institutions. I believe that the judicial system is flawed, and that we need better options for education and rehabilitation.

I know that I don’t have all the answers.

But what I know is this: I want to live in a world where my fellow survivors and allies do not have to file human rights complaints (Mandi Gray – York University, Glynnis Kirchmeier – University of British Columbia) against their institutions because they are being failed; where we do not have to go to the media because the schools we attend will not listen otherwise. I want to live in a world where survivors do not feel as if they have no choice but to drop out of school, as recently happened at Simon Fraser University. I want to live in a world where survivors, like Lizzy Seeberg, do not take their lives because they are, as Rehtaeh Parsons’ father put it regarding his daughter’s suicide, “disappointed to death” by systems that re-traumatize and re-violate survivors.

I know that the report will not fix everything.

Nor will the policy. Nor will all the blue phones in the world. Because horrible things still happen. Nor do I think everything at UBC is broken, either. There are many good people working in a complicated and often-broken system, one that is ultimately dependent on the fact that a university is not simply a place of learning, but also a business. There are already so many front-line workers (those at the SASC in particular, under the leadership of the incredible Ashley Bentley) and staff members who provide services to sexual assault survivors at UBC every day.

There are UBC faculty who have signed the petition demanding better for their students, and apologizing for not having done enough. They organized a fantastic day of discourse and dialogue around sexual assault in February of this year. I am grateful especially to other students who are doing such amazing work: the ones who worked tirelessly in the decades before I even arrived on campus, the ones who I have stood with in my own time as a student, the ones who take up the torch now. This journey has connected me to so many of you, not just at UBC, but across the country, and although we have come together under such awful circumstances, I am so glad and grateful to know you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know it’s such hard work. I keep a fire for you in my heart, always.

At the end of the day, I am not a faculty member, nor an administrator, nor a politician. I do not hold exceptional power within the UBC system. I am just a person who has been fortunate enough to hear stories that have been disclosed to me in whispers and private messages and phone calls. I am humbled by those stories, even as they keep me up at night, worried. I am just a person who has gone through some extremely difficult experiences, ones that I don’t care for anyone else to have to go through. That these experiences have occurred in the context of my schooling is painful; painful because school has otherwise been a place of joy for me, painful because sexual violence formed part of a curriculum I had no desire to have delivered to me. I have, as Raymond M. Douglas writes in his book On Being Raped, gained knowledge, but “not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better not to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me” (4). I could have happily gone through my educational career without these particular insights. I could even have written my dissertation on representations of sexual violence without the added expertise of lived experience.

Having finished my PhD, I now leave the hallowed halls of UBC behind, hoping that in some small measure, they have become a better place for survivors because I and others have spoken up, and because panels like the one I was privileged to be a part of are doing the work that they are doing. I am aware of the fact that the increased scrutiny of the university’s response to sexual assault has been a nightmare for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike.

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But I don’t think that the fact that UBC is currently under pressure to respond thoughtfully is a bad thing. Following the publication of his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer faced incredible amounts of backlash by the town of Missoula itself, by the University of Montana, and by the police force. As reported by Jacob Baynham on Outside Onlineone woman left this comment on Krakauer’s Facebook page: “I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” But as Krakauer points out, Missoula is just one example of the epidemic of sexual violence across America. Missoula could just as easily be Stanford, could just as easily be here in Vancouver. But the conversation sparked by such intense scrutiny has, at least as far as is being reported, created actual change. After a town hall forum in Missoula, Baynham reports that Krakauer was asked if he’d send his daughter to the University of Montana. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

I think that the University of British Columbia can be a Missoula: not the school to be made a painful and humiliating example of, but the school that paves the way for comprehensive change at all levels of administration and campus life, and does in a way that does not simply prioritize supporting sexual assault survivors because it will look like a better strategy for fundraising. Call me an idealist, but I think it’s possible. And there are so many people, myself included, who want to make that happen. There are countless people with whom our panel consulted of the course of our work. The university’s draft sexual assault policy has been released, and both campus and community stakeholders are invited to give feedback here.

But for now, I take my leave from my alma mater, look for brave new worlds. There is so much anti-violence work out there to do, and I will continue to do it. May the development of the UBC sexual assault policy and the action plan be an honest process, tempered by humility and by courage. For all of the survivors of sexual assault who live and work at UBC: I love you, I am in awe of you, I believe you.

Much luck and much love,

Lucia

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Write Where It Hurts: On Literature, Death, and Suffering

CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses death, blood/needles.

It’s mid-November. The daylight hours are becoming more and more scarce, and so I am pleased that the large lecture hall for this semester’s English 110 class has a large row of windows. The sleepy students need all the sunlight they can get, especially as the term winds down and the long nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing start to catch up with them. They clutch mugs of tea and coffee, trying to keep warm and awake.  From my perch at the back of the lecture hall, sitting alongside my fellow teaching assistants, I see the students crack open their books, flip open their laptops, and settle in for the day’s lecture. A few of them fiddle with their cell phones. I try not to be annoyed that they’re texting in class, or checking Facebook, but it’s their tuition dollars that are being spent, not mine. I open my own notebook, uncap a pen.

As the clock strikes eleven, Dr. Moss starts in on her lecture. Today, we’re talking about bioethics and medicine. Perhaps not what you’d expect in an English class, but you see, we’re reading Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures (2006), and weaving in questions of literature with questions of culture, gender, race, ethics, and science. Lam, who is an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital, published his stories to great acclaim, including Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The stories, based on Lam’s experiences as a medical student, trace the journeys of four students—Chen, Fitzgerald, Ming, and Sri—as they navigate the emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal challenges of becoming physicians. We’re reading a selection of stories from the book for the class. One of the earliest stories, “Take All of Murphy,” details the four medical students as they perform an autopsy. We’re reading about death, in all of its cold, surgical reality.

I should probably note at this point that I’m not squeamish. When it comes to any medical show or documentary about surgical procedures, you’ll find me glued to the screen, though I know those aren’t people I love or know and that makes it easier to disconnect. I do like to watch when I’m getting my blood-work done, watch my platelets and red blood cells and plasma fill up those little vials.

I should probably also note at this point that people I’ve cared for have died. I’ve never been to a put-the-body-in the ground funeral, but I’ve been to memorials. I’ve never actually watched someone die, but I know what grief is like. When I was 15, the younger sister of a childhood friend died of a particularly nasty form of cancer. She was only 12 years old. In my apartment building, I’ve seen the elders I’ve known and greeted for years die off, one by one. My aunt, whose dementia is worsening, will likely not live another five years. Dying while forgetting is a terrible way to go. My mother worked in geriatric psych nursing for years, and so death was just a part of the stories she came home with from work.

So with all of this, it somehow takes me by surprise that while I’m sitting in this class, listening as Dr. Moss lectures on various aspects of this fictional autopsy, my heart is racing. I mean, I’m feeling really sick. I’m sitting in class and my head is spinning and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the past three weeks, two people I have loved – people from formative parts of my life – have died.

Two of them. Dead. Just like Murphy in the story. Corpses.

My former French teacher died suddenly, at the end of October, on a hiking trip in Japan. Totally unexpected. He was an avid long-distance walker, every day, back and forth to school, during his 30+ years as a teacher. Beloved, dedicated. Just a few months earlier, I’d run into him on the path near my house, and we’d had a lovely chat about teaching and life. And then, at the age of 62, less than a year into his retirement: myocardial infarction. A heart attack. And now he’s gone.

A dear friend from theatre school died in November, one day before her 29th birthday, when the cancer finally caught up to her. A lump in her breast, discovered three years earlier. She was well again, for a while. The walnut-sized lump had shrunk. Her hair grew back. She traveled to India. But all those metastasized cells eventually consumed everything in its path. I’d just talked to her, a few days earlier. “Hospital birthday!” she’d written merrily on her Facebook wall as she prepared to be admitted. And now she’s gone.

Back to class.

Dr. Moss is still lecturing.

I’m trying to listen, real hard. I straighten up in my seat and I focus on holding my pen. I listen to Dr. Moss’s voice. I try to find comfort in its familiarity, the lilt and phrasing I’ve come to know well.

In the story, the body they’re autopsying has all these tattoos. When it comes to making a incision, the characters debate whether or not to cut through a tattoo, or to cut around it.

“It’s bad luck,” said Sri. “Cut around here.” He traced the ornate heart with the handle of his scalpel.

“It’s a nice cross,” agreed Chen.

“You guys.” Ming didn’t look up. She traced the incision lines on the arm. “It’s not going to work. Don’t you want to see the bicipital groove?”

“You should respect a man’s symbols,” said Sri. “My mother told me that. Look at his arm. These are his symbols. (Lam 43)

My friend Ali had plenty of tattoos, gorgeous ones, a whole gallery of art on her skin. I start to feel sad that the art has died with her. When people say that tattoos are forever, and that as a result, you’ll regret it, they’re lying. They’re lying and they’re in denial because they don’t want to admit that one day, body-canvases will be dead. And buried. Embalmed. Maybe burned to ashes. There is no forever, so you really don’t have to feel to badly about that Tweety-Bird tattoo or the name of a former lover that you etched into your arm. Everything comes to an end. Sometimes sooner than later. I start to think about their cold bodies. I have a hard time not seeing them just sleeping, in my imagination. When I picture them, I think that their eyes will fly open and it will all be as it was.

It’s noon, and we take a 10-minute break.

I find myself in the bathroom downstairs, sitting in the salmon-pink stall, and I’m trying to weep quietly. It’s not because I’m worried that someone else will come in—after all, most everyone uses the upstairs bathroom just a few paces away from the lecture hall, rather than this secret one near the loading dock—but because crying alone in an echoey bathroom just sounds so fucking sad. It’s one of the loneliest, most pathetic sounds I can think of. When it’s time to head back to lecture, I dab my eyes and blow my nose, arrange my hair around my face so that it doesn’t look like I’ve been crying. Fuck death, I think. Fuck this PhD. Fuck teaching. Fuck reading this story about cutting into dead bodies when I can’t get the thoughts of people I love just being cold dead flesh. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife but you know that would actually be really fucking comforting right now but I still don’t and so death is just death there is no after. Fuck death and fuck life and fuck everything.

I have a teaching evaluation a few weeks later. It goes well: I enjoy teaching, and my tutorial is full of brilliant thinkers. My students hand in their final projects and papers. I mark exams. I cry in the bathroom stall during lecture-breaks a few more times. The people I love are still dead, and I have work to do. Life goes on, but when I see Vincent Lam’s book on my shelf, I try to hide from its gaze. That book has undone me, in more ways than I even know.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

There are two reasons why I’m finally writing about all of this.

First, it’s been long enough that my grief has started to temper itself. I can think about my dead beloved ones without bursting into tears, although I still sometimes walk the river-path near my house and half-expect to run into Jacques-André on his familiar route, and I still expect Ali to announce that she’s off on some wondrous adventure around the world, sleeping on beaches in Australia or building cob-huts in Mexico. In late November, I attended a beautiful memorial for my teacher. This summer, I planted a tree for Ali on my property in the country. I’m dealing with the anxiety I have about more people I love dying, and accepting the fact that death is inevitable. 

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that literature impacts our lives, how we can reach out to it for comfort, or wander unknowingly into it and finding ourselves bruised and battered, full of shock and awe, as I did, facing the blustery chill of Lam’s prose. In the year following the deaths of my beloved ones, the activist and academic worlds have been embroiled in an impassioned debate about the value and necessity of so-called “Trigger Warnings,” or ways of flagging that disturbing or graphic content may lie ahead for readers and viewers. From Inside Higher Education to The Chronicle to The Globe and Mail to The Guardian, students, professors, and cultural critics alike have waded into the debate. On the one hand, the inclusion of trigger warnings is seen as censorship or coddling; on the other hand, understanding the effects of graphic depictions of violence is understood to be a necessary part of acknowledging the need for sensitivity, and beyond that, the ways in which mental health issues (especially Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) can be aggravated by having to read or view difficult material. As Melissa McEwan writes, “The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can’t be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.” McEwan continues: “Trigger warnings don’t make people “oversensitive.” They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything’s pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers” (“Triggered”, n.p.)

As someone who studies Canadian Literature, as well as trauma and sexual violence in particular, the use value of trigger or content warnings is not lost on me, even though I am not generally affected by graphic content. Whether it’s simply a result of intellectualization, or of desensitization, or who knows what else, I don’t feel anything visceral when I read about rape or torture or most forms of violence. I just don’t, and sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel other things, with regards to other subjects and other forms. I feel anger. I feel outrage. I feel sadness. Canadian Literature, true in some ways to the analyses that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood and John Moss made more than 40 years ago, is a difficult literature, full of victims and survival and bleakness. “SadLit,” I sometimes call it. Canada, like all countries, has a difficult history. And beyond that, humans have difficult histories. Even when literature is not directly reflecting the violence and trauma of so many nationalisms, including our own here in Canada, it is reflecting the human condition, and that can be a terrible thing to write and read about. We are haunted by stories.

I recognize the lump in the throat and the racing thoughts, the thump-a-thump of the heart as our eyes scan the page and the story unfolds, leaks onto us, cuts into us. I see and hear my students and colleagues wrestle with hard words, words which seem to have a literal hardness: the sharp edges of language. The syllables of colonialist violence, the letters of sexual trauma, the alphabets of absolutely awful things. We all know that these are representations, not actual incidents of violence. Even when the representations are of real-life experiences, we ultimately know that these are just splotches of black ink on white pages. And yet.

And yet…we are undone. I am undone. You are undone. We are undone. To various extents, of course. Some of us have to turn the page, skip a scene, or close the book outright. Some of us choose not to read at all. Some of us read onwards, knowing the sting that will come, bracing for it, yet never quite managing to outwit the sharp sting. Some of us lash out. Some of us don’t flinch. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what is happening to us. The moments of confluence between life and literature can be wholly unexpected.

I’m not angry at the books or stories that don’t envelop me in some sort of fantasy world, which don’t soothe me or provide me with happy endings. In fact, I’ve learned that I’ve come to love them in a strange way. For all my weeping and wailing and stomach-turning while reading Lam’s story, I know, I do, that he is just describing it the way it is. Amidst the backdrop of clinical sterility, “Take All of Murphy” illustrates that death is more than just one thing: it is a fact, it is the object of scientific study and progress, it is a source of philosophical confusion. It is. And I know, too, that in any other time and place, perhaps the story would have had no impact on me at all.

In any case, I am grateful. I am grateful that because of Lam’s story (for which I was obviously prepared, but one can never be fully prepared, can one?) I was able to let my grief spill out. Perhaps it was more necessary than I ever realized. I am grateful for conversations with my students, with whom I talk about some really, really fucking hard stuff, and we do so with respect. I am grateful for generous lectures by the professors with whom I have had the privilege of working, lectures which do not sugar-coat, but offer at least some cushions for the hard blows.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

It’s mid-August. I try to remember my beloved ones’ bodies as they once were: vibrant, alive. Each walk I take, I can walk it with the memory of Jacques-André in my footsteps. I trace the tattoo on my arm, think of Ali’s adorned skin. I re-read a poem she loved and taste its words in my mouth as she once did in hers.

I still dream about them sometimes. But I am, as they say, trying to move on.

Works Cited

Lam, Vincent. Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures. Toronto: Doubleday, 2006. Print.

McEwan, Melissa. “Triggered.” Shakesville. 4 Mar. 2014. Web.

Skewing the Data: Mixed-Race Identity & The Problem of Counting for Race

CWILAA few weeks ago, I attended a panel hosted by the Institute for Gender, Race, and Sexuality at the University of British Columbia, entitled “CWILA and the Problem of Counting for Race.” CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is a non-profit organization, founded in 2012, as a “discursive space to address gender disparities in Canadian literary culture, as well as the wider politics of representation, the critical reception of women’s writing in the literary press, and the ways in which we can foster stronger critical communities.” Through their first two annual counts, CWILA demonstrated that there is a significant imbalance when it comes to gender representation in Canadian literary culture. Considering the myriad ways in which these imbalances continue to circulate, (as evidenced by statements from the likes of David Gilmour, whom I have written about here) the collection of data seems to serve a useful purpose in providing some numerical and concrete grounding to what often feels like an abstract and unquantifiable problem. Data can help to back an argument, to lend “credibility,” when people would otherwise dismiss lived experiences or personal narratives as “mere anecdotes.” 

Of course, a lack of equitable gender representation in literary culture is but one facet of the problem of visibility, of the need for a dynamic articulation of the whole spectrum of lived experiences, especially by those who have histories of being silenced by systemic oppression. As CWILA continues its work, the various identity formations that intersect with gender—the intersectionality that occurs when we think through gender in relation to sexuality, race, class, and disability, among others—emerge as new spaces for discussions around how to collect data in order to demonstrate inequality in cultural production. 

Data is important. As panelist and author Madeleine Thien noted in her eloquent list of thoughts on the question of numbers, “numbers are interesting because they give us another perspective and another way of observing.” Of course, while Thien is clear that “we are not numbers,” she elaborates that “we are using numbers to understand a system that we have created. The numbers help us see the ways in which our system is a meritocracy, a celebration of great literature, and the ways in which it is not.” This could be said, too, of any way of counting for inequality and problems of representation, whether it be in the field of cultural production, political life, or the spheres of violence which often disproportionately affect marginalized populations.

Of course, the methodology of counting is not entirely un-problematic, for race as it is for any of these categories. As UBC English professor Dr. Laura Moss mentions, “To measure gender, CWILA instructed volunteers to look for pronouns in publishers’ material or self-identifying material: he/she/they, etc. To measure Canadian and non-Canadian, we looked at mentions of somewhere in Canada as a place of birth, residence, or work: Canadian by birth or by choice. To measure race and ethnicity there are no indicators like pronoun or markers of residency that will indicate race or heritage.” So, too, it must be acknowledged that counting on the basis of categories rarely, if ever, allows for fluidity of identity, for shifts, for identification somewhere on a spectrum. It’s hard to get a handle on your data-sets if they’re constantly shifting beneath you. Sometimes, in order to collect a snapshot of a given situation, we must invoke parameters of rigidity, even if they are not perfect. As writer and UBC English professor Dr. Larissa Lai stated in an interview with CWILA founder Gillian Jerome, “Well, I think the methodology of counting is fraught. And then the methodology of racial categorization is fraught. As is the methodology of gender categorization. So you’re already in the swamp!”

And so, as I reflect on this panel, I think about my own swampy self.

I am aware that when I write and speak (as a scholar, as a teacher, as an activist, and as a creative writer and blogger) that my racial identification is always lurking in the background, even when I do not directly address it. And so I wonder: simply based on my name, and on my appearance, how might I be counted in a study of literary or scholarly representation? How might I be filed away and categorized? How might I count or categorize myself?

I am deeply aware that I am, in so many ways, a question mark. A fully Italian name, with seemingly-matching olive skin. My mother tongue is German. My mother is white and my father is black. When my parents separated, my sister and I were raised by our mother in a primarily-white suburb of Vancouver. And, in many moments in my life, I have had the privilege of passing. While my sister and I share the same parentage, the rolling of the genetic dice meant that while I was born with lighter skin and straight hair, my sister was born with darker skin and curly hair. Even now, when my sister and I are out together, it is she who is more readily-racialized than I am. It is because of this complexity that the question of race, and accounting for my own racialization, has always been fraught. I am genetically, biologically, half-Black, and yet I have had virtually no connection to “Black” culture for most of my life. What is “Black” culture, anyway? I did not inherit the stories of my father’s family, the stories of growing up in Barbados, growing up Black on an island with a history of British colonization and the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, that history is still mine, somehow. It’s in my skin. Do I count in percentages? Half-half? 70%-30%? 

Sometimes, I wonder if this is how people see me. Half and half.

My attempts to reconcile my complex racial and cultural identity, however, are always affected by the ways in which others choose to define me, and by the ways in which they choose to interpret the data that I offer them. The forms of data-collection about my racial identity have all been different. The ways in which they breach the boundaries of my skin, interrogating my blood, all have different nuances and different textures.

Some are curious: “Where are you from?”

Some are probing: “Where are you really from?”

Some are presumptuous: “But aren’t you actually Italian/Spanish/Middle Eastern/Greek/Portuguese/something else?”

Some are institutional: “Please identify your racial background.”

Some are cold, callous: “What are you?”

The issue, of course, is not only the questions themselves, which can range from innocuous attempts at mutual racial or ethnic identification, to genuine curiosity, to the fetishizing eye of the guy on the street who tells me that I can’t possibly be half-white “with that ass.” The problem, all too often, is that the data which I offer is scrutinized, questioned, discounted, or trivialized. I am counted, only to be discounted.

Example One:

2003. I am sixteen years old, sitting at the year-end highschool awards ceremony, when an acquaintance casually asks me if my parents are in attendance. I glance up at the bleachers, quickly identifying my mother and proudly pointing her out.

“The woman in the red sweater?” My mother, in a blue cardigan, is seated beside a work-colleague, a black woman wearing a bright poppy sweater.

“No,” I say, with annoyance in my voice, “the woman in the blue cardigan.”

My schoolmate looks puzzled. She looks at my white mother, then back at not-white me. She frowns slightly.

“Ohhhhhhh! So are you adopted?” she exclaims.

Before I have a chance to respond, the school band chimes in with their hearty rendition of “O Canada,” and I shrink back into my seat for the rest of the night. As I cross the stage to receive my award for Student of the Year, I think: “Why can’t white mothers have brown daughters?”

I’m aware, of course, that everyone has a different relationship to these questions. Even I have different relationships to them, depending on which mood I’m in. It’s not that I don’t embrace my mixed identity, or that I am attempting to conceal it from others. In fact, sometimes I am quite happy to talk about it. What I wish to convey, however, is that self-identification is still always partially dependent on how others see my self, not merely that identity or lineage which I claim as my own. 

Quite coincidentally, as I was writing this article, I had another opportunity to see this problem of counting for race, and the politics of self-representation in action, when I filled out a survey organized by my university’s student society. The survey was broad, typical, a sort of attempt to grasp a sense of students’ experiences on campus, in terms of academics, resources, funding, discrimination, and so on.

Gender:Sexuality QsWhen it came to the identificatory questions of gender, sexuality, and disability, there were options to identify as “unsure,” to “prefer not to disclose” (re: disability), or to “prefer not to answer” (re: sexuality/gender). [Of course, the parameters of the survey require that these options be actively chosen, that one must choose non-choice or non-disclosure, rather than simply being able to leave all options blank.]

Yet, when it came to the question of race, there was no such option available. While I could choose more than one category, for instance, both “White” and “Black,” there was no way for me to express that my biology is never read as such, and thus has little impact on how I actually experience race as an embodied being. And heaven forbid I should choose the category of “Other – Please Specify” a category that I have stared down far too many times on census forms and applications, a category that reminds me that I am a question mark, I am neither/nor, I am both/and, I am in-between, I am invisibly-visible, I am different things to whoever is reading me, I am exotic cheekbones and a year-round tan and I must-be-adopted and I am only ever-always-Other. Please specify.

Not answering is almost never a choice, neither in the survey nor in my day-to-day experience.

noanswer

I don’t have a choice.

I do deflect answering for a while, sometimes, if I’m feeling unduly pressured or uncomfortable. I try to ask why they’re interested. I do try. But I am so often worn down, tired of prying eyes and mouths, and so I give them what they want, I give them their data. 

Example Two:

2013. I post a link to an article about mixed-race identity on Facebook, with a preamble of sorts about how it much it resonates with me.

An acquaintance, who clearly hasn’t read the article (which is funny, because it is exactly all the issues involved in questioning someone about race), comments, publicly: “what r u mixed with hun?”

I don’t bother to dignify that with a public answer. 

Later that day, I get a private message. No offense meant by the question, it’s just a QUESTION, you see, it’s just because she thinks I look exotic and beautiful and she’s just so CURIOUS. But, so, what am I actually, though.

It’s late, and I’m tired of this. I reluctantly type: “My mother is white, and my father is black.”

A bubbly response, emoticons galore: “Oh! I totally knew it! I’m like a pro at guessing race, LOL!”

I close the conversation on Facebook. I walk away. I feel defeated. I feel as though my data, my cells, my blood, my skin have been stolen, perverted, manipulated, sold for exchange on the market of exotic Otherness that is traded like trinkets. I am merely a token, a prize in a game of “What Kind of Not-White Are You?” and I have participated, albeit under coercion, in my own objectification.

But I am a human being, not a game.

It is perhaps, no surprise, then, that when I am asked to identify myself, even for the purposes of having my voice heard, or my lived experienced counted, for recognition that yes, I am a writer and scholar and thinker of colour, I sometimes cringe. This is it, this is the swamp of racial identification, the part of the double-edged sword that turns against so many of us. Yes, I am no longer a question mark when I offer up data, but I am still always Othered. I don’t know quite how to reconcile that. I have far more questions than answers, more lingering doubts and uncertainties than feelings of security.

Laura Moss mentions, that as data-collectors, non-profit organizations such as CWILA “need to be completely aware of the multiplicity of identity and not shut doors by collecting data.” In a strange, way, too, I am aware that I, as a mixed-race person who lives in a space of ambiguity, I often shut these data-doors myself. Sometimes, because I have no choice, sometimes, because I am not sure on which side of the door I stand, and at times, because I cannot bear to leave that door open, because I am uncertain as to what or whom I will find at the threshold. 

I have no idea of knowing just how many data-sets I have skewed in my moments of uncertainty, of shame, of confusion, or of sheer exhaustion with the question of race. Some days, especially when I am hiding behind a computer screen, or it seems irrelevant to the questions being posed, it’s easier to pass, to click “Caucasian/White.” It’s not entirely untrue, anyway. When I am presented with “African-American” as the only near-option for racialization, I cannot in good faith select a very specific history of Blackness that is not, in fact, my own. Some days, I’m not at all sure how to answer, given the blurry boundaries of race and culture in my life. Some days, when I am given the choice, I select both “Black” and “White.” Some days, I’d really like to write “biracial but still-ambiguously-racialized sparkle pony” or put “who the heck is asking, anyway, and why?” in the blank space of “Other.” Many days, I would simply rather not answer the question at all.

In Diamond Grill, a beautiful and often-murky biotext about mixed-race identity in Canada, Fred Wah writes: “I’ve assumed a dull and ambiguous edge of difference in myself; the hyphen always seems to demand negotiation” (171). Despite my own often-ambiguous and troubled relationship to these questions, or to the process of collecting data, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race, not when the stakes are so high, not when the representations of people of colour—especially representations which do not rest on racial stereotypes, or representations which does not require them to speak only about racialized experiences (or for other similarly-racialized people)—are so sorely lacking. I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when, as Roxane Gay revealed in her count of book reviews in the New York Times in 2011, “nearly 90% of the books reviewed are written by white writers.” And, moving beyond the literary and scholarly worlds, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when incarceration rates for African-American men are six times the rates for whites (NAACP), and when, according to Canadian government statistics, Indigenous women are “five to seven times more likely to die from violence than other women.” (Amnesty). Counting is not the end-point, of course. It is only the beginning. 

Data is imperfect.

Questions are messy.

Identity is complex.

But it’s only by thinking through these issues, and asking questions (even if they have no answers, or many answers, or contradictory answers) that we negotiate the process not only of counting for race, but being accountable to ourselves and each other as we relate through and across the various identities, histories, and bodies we inhabit.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Thank you to CWILA and the GRSJ for hosting the panel which inspired this essay, and, in particular to Laura Moss, Madeleine Thien, and Mary Chapman for their thoughts, queries, questions, and observations on this “swampy” subject.

**A profound thank you is extended to my sister, Maria Lorenzi, for her thoughts and our conversations as I wrote this article. As a statistician who works with data on a daily basis, her perspectives have been invaluable to my own understanding of the possibilities and limits of data collection. Beyond that, she is the person with whom I have shared the most in this experience of mixed-race identity, and I am grateful for her love, her support, and the ways in which we guide each other through these murky, joyful, confusing spaces of the self.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

References and Resources

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Thien, Madeleine. “The Work That Remains Invisible.” The National Post26 November 2013.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 1996.

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

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As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.

“Go Down the Hall”: A Response to David Gilmour

The internet has been abuzz today, following the publication of author and teacher David Gilmour’s provocative and contentious interview with Hazlitt Magazine’s Emily Keeler. In the interview, which has since gone viral, Gilmour states that he is “not interested in teaching books by women,” and that, by teaching only novels that he “truly, truly loves,” by “serious heterosexual guys” like Tolstoy and Chekhov, he is teaching “only the best.” If students want to read works by female (or, presumably, queer, or racialized writers), they can, as Gilmour says himself, “go down the hall” to his other colleagues at the University of Toronto.

Understandably, literary and academic communities (especially in Canada, since Gilmour claims that he hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers that he loves enough to teach) have responded with sharp criticisms of Gilmour’s seemingly-exclusionary attitudes towards what constitutes literary “greatness” and what is deserving of time and attention in his classroom. Over at The Globe and Mail, Jared Bland writes that only teaching white, male, heterosexual authors does a disservice to students. Feminist writer and blogger Anne Thériault, in an open letter to Gilmour, calls for him to critically examine why he upholds these texts as the pinnacle of literary greatness, and challenges him to spend six months reading anything that isn’t a text by a straight white male.

In response to this backlash, Gilmour did an interview with Mark Medley of The National Post, in which he attempts to both explain and apologize for his words.  Claiming that there isn’t “a racist or sexist bone in his body,” and that he is sorry that “people are offended by it.” Furthermore, he claims that the interviewer, Emily Keeler, is a “young woman who wanted to make a name for herself,” assigns his carelessness in his words to being more concerned with another conversation he was having in French at the time of the interview, and points out that his apology is largely motivated by the fact that he doesn’t want his teaching reputation to be besmirched, nor to lose female readers. Gilmour’s latest novel, “Extraordinary” recently made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.

I could go into my own lengthy analysis of Gilmour’s words. I find his attitude towards Emily Keeler to have been dismissive at best, his “surprise” at how people “take offense” to be narrow-minded and representative of his privilege, and his attempt at an apology to be wholly insincere. I could talk about how people with Gilmour’s attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom. I could talk about how Gilmour’s views of the critical thinking skills of undergraduate students is not rare, and that many professors still believe that age and experience are the necessary gatekeepers to knowledge. I could talk about how Gilmour seems to privilege one type of literature, and seemingly condemns all other “2nd and 3rd-rate literature” (and the colleagues who study them) to occupy space “down the hall,” far away from the intellectual enclave in which he works and thinks. I could talk about how Gilmour’s ability to “teach what he loves” and his need to “only teach books he emotionally connects with or represent his interests” demonstrates a particular kind of privilege in teaching and a curious lack of empathy or interests in others, as if we should (or can) only ever teach the texts with whom we personally identify.

While I don’t believe that equity in academia means that we can no longer specialize in a field, or that we all need to become generalists, I still find myself troubled by Gilmour’s assertion that the literature he reads and teaches is “the best,” and his inability to recognize that these longstanding works of well-regarded literature are framed by a long literary history that has often not consistently encouraged, published, or privileged other works, especially those by women, queer writers, and writers of colour. 

What I want to do is to take an active, optimistic, and collective approach.

This is what I propose: let’s take David Gilmour’s suggestion that students merely “go down the hall” to find those who can teach things he’s not personally passionate about or don’t speak to his own lived experience and turn it into a way of strengthening our own academic communities.

  • Go down the hall to take a course in a different department, especially if you’re an undergraduate student. If  you have to take courses in different areas as part of a requirement, see it as an opportunity to look at something new. See how you can bring your skills to a completely different discipline or set of texts.
  • Go down the hall to the library, and read a book by someone who doesn’t represent your own lived experience.
  • Go down the hall to speak to your fellow graduate students. Form reading groups, writing circles. Don’t let the competitiveness of academic life and funding opportunities shut those conversations down and keep you isolated, thinking only about your own work and interests.
  • Go down the hall to see what your colleagues are researching, writing about, thinking about. Ask them if they have any new recommendations for texts. Have a coffee, talk about what you’re teaching next term. Swap out a text or two. Change it up. Include a text that you don’t necessarily love, but one that challenges you, frustrates you, or provokes discussion.
  • Go down the hall and take a pedagogy workshop. Remember that teaching is a process, and that speaking to students is not the same as speaking to a television camera or even a group of your peers. Ask for feedback. Ask your students what they want to learn.
  • Go down the hall to a classroom and listen in to what students, especially undergraduates, are talking about. Realize that they’re having brilliant, intellectual conversations. Don’t underestimate their abilities to read complex literary or theoretical texts.
  • Go down the hall at a conference to attend a panel that doesn’t necessarily have something to do with your field or your favourite author. See what you learn there. Meet new people.
  • Go down the hall and see which projects are engaging the issue of literary representation and politics. See how you can contribute to creating an equitable field in the teaching of literature, the writing of literature, and the reviewing of literature.

And finally, perhaps most importantly: go down the hall, open the door, and walk out of the ivory tower, at least once in a while. Look around. Attend community events, speak to people who aren’t “scholars,” people whose life experiences are their body of scholarship, people whose literatures are the stories of their lives, their families, and their cultures. See what kids are reading these days. Open a different chapter, listen to a different or a new story, and you might find that you learn more about yourself and the world than you ever thought possible.

A VERY BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE LIST OF RESOURCES

Interested in Canadian Women’s Literature?

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Canada’s Early Women Writers Database

Interested in Asian Canadian Literature?

Ricepaper Magazine

Interest in Queer Canadian Literature?

Casey The Canadian Lesbrarian

Interested in Indigenous Literatures in Canada?

CBC’s 8th Fire: Suggested Reading

Interested in Black Canadian Literature?

African Canadian Literature Database @ York U

Caribbean Tales

Interested in Québecois Literature?

Government of Quebec – Literature

PLEASE ADD MORE LINKS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION FOR OTHER GREAT RESOURCES ON A VARIETY OF LITERATURES (NOT JUST CANADIAN!)

It Happened On My Campus, Too: Rape Chants at UBC

Just two days ago, I published an article  (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.

Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.

Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?

Wrong.

Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).

Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.

I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.

It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.

It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.

As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.

As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.

I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.

UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”

It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.

It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.

It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.

For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.

  • If you would like to contact me about this article: llorenzi@alumni.ubc.ca

Articles Referenced:

Tucker, Erika. “Difference between SMU and chants of froshes past is these students got caught.” GlobalBC. September 6th, 2013. 

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre – PRESS RELEASE: Frosh Week Chant Validates and Perpetuates Rape Culture 

Willick, Frances.  “SMU rape chant a mistake ‘heat of the moment’.” The Chronicle Herald. September 5th, 2013. 

“SMU president calls sexual assault chant ‘biggest mistake I’ve made.'” CTV Atlantic. September 5th, 2013. 

Rosenfeld, Arno. “‘N is for no consent!’ Sauder first-years led in offensive chant.” The Ubyssey. September 6th, 2013. 

Other Resources and Articles:

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Vancouver Sexual Assault Support Centres/Crisis Lines

Draw The Line Ontario (explore your attitudes/responses to various types of sexual violence)

“Bitches and Drinks”: What I Overheard at Frosh Week at UBC

Yesterday marked the first day of classes for colleges and universities across Canada, and on my campus, like many others, the spirit of excitement was palpable. In spite of the rain, thousands of University of British Columbia students congregated on campus to celebrate “Imagine Day,” a day when undergraduate classes are suspended so that a variety of festivities and welcome events can be held. There were dozens of campus tours being led by guides in brightly-coloured UBC shirts, a frenzy of students gathering their supplies and course materials at the bookstore, and hundreds of people checking out the many booths that lined the streets near the centre of campus.

These booths offer a wonderful way for students to check out services on campus (especially those provided by the Alma Mater Society), to find a variety of clubs and activities that they may be interested in joining, and to familiarize themselves with some of their departmental student unions. As with many universities’ frosh weeks, a fair number of booths are also sponsored by various off-campus corporations and businesses, ranging from cell phone providers to banks.

However, one booth in particular got my attention, and not because I was intending to seek it out.

When I exited the Student Union Building after having run some errands, I heard extremely loud music. Now, loud music coming from a booth is not a particularly unusual or offensive thing in itself: it’s part of building the atmosphere and maintaining the excitement of campus events. However, when I heard Trey Songz’ lyrics “I’m only here for the bitches and the drinks, the bitches and the drinks,” I suddenly found that my sense of campus spirit faded away rather quickly. I turned the corner to find the source of the music, and, not much to my surprise, it came from a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, one which is generally frequented by undergraduate students. With that song still blaring, I walked away, troubled, and a bit angry, wondering if any other students had felt the same discomfort as I did.

Now, I’m sure that some of my critics might tell me that I am over-reacting, or that my tendencies towards feminist analyses and my work on sexual violence have simply made me sensitive to anything that might be vaguely construed as misogynist. So, too, it is possible that someone might remind me that free speech is a right, or that this music was played not by a campus group, but, rather, an off-campus company who claims no inherent affiliation with the university.

However, want I want to explore is not “whether or not” this song should have been played. Instead I want to talk about why I find it troubling to have heard it so loudly on campus, especially during frosh week.

For starters, we know that sexual violence, ranging from harassment to rape, is still a big problem on university campuses, both in Canada and in the United States.

  • I know individuals who have been the target of sexual violence on campus: one friend in particular reported being verbally harassed and groped during her first week on campus, an altogether unwelcome and unexpected treatment at what she thought would be a place of higher education, not a place of street harassment.
  • A number of American universities have recently been served with Title IX complaints after numerous allegations and incidents of sexual assault were either dismissed or improperly handled.
  • Even faculty are not immune.  In the U.S., Midwestern PhD candidate and blogger GracieABD has written a two-part series of blog posts about having been sexually harassed by a student.
  • According to statistics cited by the Canadian Federation for Students, 4 out of 5 female undergraduates on Canadian campuses are victims of violence in dating relationships.
  • Moreover, many incidents of violence occur within the first 8 weeks of the new school year (CFS). 
  • Undergraduate students in particular, who comprise the largest population on campus (and who are, indeed, the target of Imagine Day’s events) may have moved away from home for the first time, may be isolated without much support, and may be especially vulnerable to alcohol or drug-facilitated assaults at on- or off-campus establishments. UBC alumna Meghan Gardiner’s one-woman show on this very topic, “Dissolve,” has toured Canada for a decade.

“Bitches” and drinks, indeed.

We also know that sexual harassment and institutional sexism are still insidious in many campus cultures, whether overtly or covertly, whether within undergraduate or graduate populations, or amongst staff and faculty. Universities, including UBC, have policies against discrimination and harassment for a reason: university campuses are supposed to be safe spaces.

Look, I’m not here to rain on someone’s parade, or to act as the campus music-police. I realize that there are much more offensive and contentious things that have been displayed publicly by off-campus groups, and I don’t believe that playlists should be “filtered” by the university before they are used for campus events.  I am not interested in preventing off-campus establishments or companies from advertising themselves, nor am interested in suggesting that on their own time, and in privately-owned spaces that they choose to attend, students can’t listen and dance to whatever music they choose. I’m not trying to hold “UBC” responsible for anything. To be clear, I am also not suggesting that songs about “bitches and drinks” are the CAUSE of rape on college campuses.

That being said, I would like my university (an ostensibly PUBLIC space) to be a space where I feel safe, and where I can walk across campus without being reminded LOUDLY that as a young woman, my value to many people is still just as a “bitch” (or a “ho,” or any of those horribly derogatory terms). I want my university to be, as its slogan proclaims, “a place of mind,” where all community members and, especially, campus guests, are mindful of not perpetuating sexism.  When I heard “bitches and drinks” repeatedly for several minutes—at a location right near the Sexual Assault Centre, the Equity Office, and Counselling Services—I started to feel like I wasn’t really on campus at all.

Play whatever you want in your club: people pay to be there willingly with the knowledge that it is a particular kind of environment. But I attend my public university with the not-so-unreasonable expectation that I won’t have to listen to  misogynist lyrics when I’m just trying to walk across the quad.

Resources & Information 

Canadian Federation of Students Factsheet on Sexual Violence on Campuses

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Local Vancouver Sexual Assault Resource/Crisis Centres