Canadian university students use Instagram to reveal racism on campuses

More than a dozen Instagram accounts have emerged to allow students and alumni to post publicly about experiences with racism at universities across Canada.

More than a dozen accounts have been created this summer for students and alumni to share experiences

Kelly Weiling Zou, left, Cassandra Pascal, centre, and Meena Waseem created Instagram accounts to allow students and alumni at two Canadian universities to detail incidents of racism and abuse that happen on their campuses. (Submitted photos and The Canadian Press)

Cassandra Pascal graduated from King's College at Western University in London, Ont., five years ago. Hearing a white professor use the N-word in class while she was a sociology student is just one of several racist incidents at the school that have stayed with her.

"His follow-up to it was saying that he had adopted two sons from Haiti," said Pascal, 27, who now works in analytics. 

"It was sickening … I was mad. But I also didn't feel like I had anywhere to go. I was in a class full of people … and I didn't feel like I saw any other adverse reactions as I had, as physically uncomfortable."

Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year — and Pascal learning that her mother had similar experiences at Western more than 20 years prior — she took action to change the school's culture.

Pascal created the Instagram account Black at Western in early July as part of her work with a Black alumni group. It allows Black students and alumni to share stories of the racism and abuse they say they've endured at the school, anonymously if they choose, with more than 700 followers.

Cassandra Pascal created Black at Western, an Instagram account that provides Black students and alumni with a way of sharing their encounters with racism at Western University in London, Ont. She graduated from the school five years ago. (Submitted by Cassandra Pascal)

Pascal's account is one of more than a dozen Instagram accounts of its kind created by students and alumni of colour at various universities and high schools across Canada in the last few months.

Many account creators cite the account Black at Harvard Law as their inspiration. It was one of the first American Instagram accounts created in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in May and June to expose racism.

In Canada, the accounts are providing an outlet for students at Queen's University, York University, McGill University, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of British Columbia. There are also accounts for some private Ontario high schools.

Like Pascal, most of the university students and alumni who run these accounts say they are using the experiences shared on Instagram to hold their universities accountable and suggest actions they want immediately incorporated by their schools.

The universities contacted by CBC News indicated they have approached or are working with their respective Instagram account creators to help bring about change.

However, several account owners say that supporting students and negotiating with their universities is taking a toll on them — and that universities should be paying people of colour to take on this kind of work. 

Students and alumni of colour who run Instagram accounts for students at Concordia University, along with the people running accounts for business schools at UBC and Queen's, told CBC News that poring over stories of abuse is exhausting, and a reminder of their own traumas at school. But they all feel obligated to keep the accounts running as an outlet for students.

Alumni challenge legacy of racist prof

Since creating Black at Western, Pascal has published dozens of stories that detail anti-Black racism the authors say is perpetuated by current and former students and professors.

Notably, the Black alumni group Pascal works with sent 13 recommendations to the school at the end of June, specifically calling for the university to take responsibility for allowing J. Philippe Rushton to remain a faculty member until his death in 2012.

Rushton was a psychology professor who was faculty for 35 years who reinforced anti-Black racism through disturbing lessons that claimed race and intelligence were linked.

"Rushton was the culmination and manifestation of all my worst fears as a student," says one post from a 1989 graduate on the Black at Western Instagram account. 

Following calls from the alumni group, and after a 66-page report was published at the end of June detailing racism at the school, Western apologized for keeping Rushton as faculty. 

In a recent statement to CBC News, Western said the institution has taken multiple steps to "chart a better path," including establishing an anti-racism working group in the fall last year, and created a new staff position in May this year with its Student Experience department to support equity. 

They said the Black at Western group's calls and their intentions are aligned. 

While Western has made motions to work with Pascal and adopt changes the group has suggested, Pascal is still skeptical. 

"I have no feelings of excitement or anything until things actually happen," she said.

Instagram a 'powerful tool' for organizing right now

This year's Black Lives Matter events, in combination with the platform social media provides, are coming together in a way that could produce significant change, said Enakshi Dua, a professor at York University who studies anti-racism policies at universities. 

York is among the institutions being held to account through an Instagram account. Silenced at Schulich currently provides an anonymous platform for students to post their stories about racism within York's business school; it has more than 900 followers.

"[Students] know that by using these methods, they are more likely to get the attention of administration," Dua said. "It becomes a powerful mechanism for organizing in this moment."

Many schools do not have avenues for students to report experiences with racism. And if they do, they can be ineffective, she said. 

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Having little support when it came to wanting to address racism she had experienced on campus, led Kelly Weiling Zou, a business student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., to create the Instagram account Stolen by Smith.

The account, which has amassed more than 12,000 followers since launching at the start of July, has posted hundreds of student experiences at Queen's University's Smith School of Business — everything from racism to sexual assault.

"Queen's made me hate being Asian. Over the years, I've gotten everything from 'You're a cool Asian' to 'you're basically white,'"reads one post. "I've had racist Asian jokes said in front of me … I actively avoided making Asian friends so people wouldn't make a comment about us all looking alike."

Accounts created so students can support each other

Zou, who is 20, said she created the Instagram account out of frustration after years of pushing the administration to focus on anti-racism initiatives as a member of the student government.

Last year, she was hired for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office at the Queen's Commerce Society, which is composed of committees run by students, as she wanted to directly pursue equity work within the business school.

"But the work was continuously policed," she said. "I was frequently censored in what I could mention on our social media."

Zou then created the Stolen by Smith account and runs it with Meena Waseem, a 19-year-old student at the business school. Since its creation in early July, they have been flooded with hundreds and hundreds of posts from students and alumni wanting to share their experiences. The account now has more than 12,000 followers.

"I'm absolutely blown away by how many negative experiences other marginalized students have had at this school," said Zou. 

But spending hours reading the experiences and working to support other students has taken a toll. 

Kelly Weiling Zou, left, and Meena Waseem, business students at Queen's University, created the Instagram account Stolen by Smith in early July to allow students to publicly share their experiences with racism. It now has more than 12,000 followers. (Photo of Kelly Weiling Zou by Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

"I was getting direct threats that were targeted towards me," Zou said. They were sent over Instagram.

Zou says she quit her summer job working at the university's communications department and has not completed summer courses due to the energy and time she has given to Stolen by Smith, as well as meetings with the school. 

"It's debilitating work because it's exhausting," she said. "So much of the equity work done at this school has been led by racialized folk."

Waseem — who said another student called her a terrorist, and that she witnessed a white frosh leader say the N-word prior to creating the account— echoes Zou.

"There's a lot of stress, anxiety, exhaustion that's involved," said Waseem. "It's been painful. We would not be doing this if we didn't feel it was necessary."

Both Waseem and Zou are continuing to meet with the university, including Brenda Brouwer, dean of the commerce program. They hope their calls for action — which include developing a curriculum that addresses discrimination and sexual violence — will be adopted.

So far, Waseem says the school needs to commit to more concrete actions.

In a lengthy statement, Queen's University told CBC News that alumni and students have been "courageous" in their sharing of experiences. They've also detailed their commitments to addressing systemic racism at the school in a public statement.

"We are committed to achieving a culture of mutual respect and equity so that all of the Smith community feel safe, possess a strong sense of belonging and are empowered to thrive," the statement said.

Queen's has committed to investigating "all experiences of discrimination or other matters" that are detailed by Stolen by Smith and are "actively engaged" in directing posters to on-campus reporting resources, including their sexual assault office and non-academic misconduct process. 

"We are hoping that our administration will have enough humility … to give students the reins to create actual change at the school," said Waseem. "Because it's not going to come from those who actively contributed to this system we have here."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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