British Columbia

Black UBC graduate student alleges racial profiling on campus

For Savoy Williams, getting accepted to a masters program at the University of British Columbia was a goal he was proud to have achieved. But that pride has been taken over by disappointment. 

Head of university security says officials are looking into the allegation

UBC graduate student Savoy Williams says he was the victim of racial profiling on campus last week. (Courtesy of Savoy Williams)

For Savoy Williams, getting accepted to a masters program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was a long-fought goal he was proud to have achieved.

Williams, 25, applied to the university's Social Justice Institute soon after earning his undergraduate degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. When he was accepted a year later, he was overjoyed. 

"This was my dream school. My absolute dream," Williams said. 

The recipient of a prestigious scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Williams is now in his second year of the graduate program. But that pride has been taken over by disappointment. 

Williams alleges he was racially profiled earlier this week as he tried to access his supervisor's office in Buchanan Tower, which he says he had her written permission to use. 

"I was just overwhelmed and completely just taken aback," he said of the incident, which occurred on June 8. "It's all the more of a slap in the face, turning this dream into a nightmare." 

'Very, very, very racist'

The week prior, Williams says he had called the security office to ask what he would need to safely gain access to the office. Most of the campus is currently closed because of COVID-19.

Armed with a letter from his supervisor — which he'd been told he would need — Williams says he approached a security guard to be let in to the building. 

He says the security guard looked him up and down, and proceeded to question the validity of the letter. Williams says the man then asked him for his student ID, and continued to question the legitimacy of the evidence Williams produced to prove he was a student. 

UBC says it's looking into Williams's allegation with campus security and it's hiring an external agency to provide training and support for UBC staff. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It really is very, very, very racist, the discriminatory practices of this security guard," he said. "He saw my credentials, looked me up and down, and didn't believe that they were mine.

"Black people, we are protesting for our right to exist in the world. And he thought that was an appropriate time to racially profile me, to belittle me."

'They were very belittling'

Williams says he filed a complaint with the campus security office. He says he heard back from them on Wednesday, but his request for an apology from the security guard didn't get the response he was hoping for.

"They were very dismissive. They were very belittling and disrespectful," he said. "One of the managers laughed at me — twice."

In a written response posted on the UBC website Friday, the executive director of safety and risk services, Rae Ann Aldridge, says the university is looking into the matter. 

Aldridge says UBC will hire an external agency to provide additional training and support for UBC staff to "better address issues of anti-Black, anti-Asian and anti-Indigenous racism and bias."

The incident comes on the heels of a message from UBC president Santa Ono proclaiming the university's commitment to "zero tolerance" for racism and bias.

2nd incident

But Williams says he doesn't want the university to say it's sorry for how he feels. He wants the university to acknowledge the incident for what it was — racial profiling. 

"I would like to see tangible actions taking place. I would like the university to take accountability for the wrongdoing," he said, adding it's alarming that he should have to prove he was a victim of racism to people in positions of authority who are mostly white. 

Williams says it's not the first time he has been racially profiled on campus. 

In the fall, he says, a UBC staff member singled him out from his fellow students for helping himself to leftover catering the class had been invited to enjoy. 

Two of his classmates filed a complaint on his behalf, he says, adding that he never heard back from university officials regarding the incident. 

Last summer a graduate student from Nova Scotia said he was racially profiled while attending a UBC-hosted congress put on by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Shelby McPhee claimed that on June 2, 2019, two other congress attendees demanded to see proof of his congress registration before falsely accusing him of stealing a laptop. He says they also photographed him.