Not All Classrooms Are Created Equal

Through the years I’ve developed a thick skin; I have gotten used to snide remarks by teachers about my “special Aboriginal status”, and rude remarks from my peers about my free school and “special yearly Native cheques” the government apparently gives me because I’m Native.

The government is about 22 years behind in payments. 

There are few things I hear that surprise me or ever really hurt me, like they used to.  I’ve spent too many of my few years on this earth angry, hurt, and sad because of the words of racists… but every now and then, there will be something that is like a slap in the face: something will happen that usurps my outward shell.  Today was one of those days.

It was not so much bigoted words uttered, but instead a simple knee jerk reaction from a classmate.  I was giving a presentation in a class and had brought up Indigenous protest to the topic at hand… and there it was: this kid rolled his eyes.  It wasn’t a subtle, maybe-there’s-an-eyelash-in-there roll, it was a straight up dramatic, get-this-kid-an-Oscar-because his acting is on point, eye roll.  

My first reaction to my peers eye roll was to launch across the table and show him just what 500 years of colonization feels like … but instead I just let it go in that moment and left the class personally flustered, frustrated, and kind of empty: this is the reality of being an Indigenous student in academia.  I am privileged in many spaces because of how pale my father’s genetics made me, but it doesn’t negate the experiences I have had and the experiences my fellow Indigenous peers have in the classroom everyday. 

For the most part, due to my degree in First Nations Studies, most of my classes are safe spaces: they are spaces where we as Aboriginal students can freely learn and be without the pressures of bigoted peers or hostile professors.  But when we leave these spaces and enter our elective courses, minor requirements, or if we are not graced with being in Native Studies, we enter classrooms that sometimes feel like battlefields.  I know when I enter a classroom that doesn’t hold my usual cohort of FNSP peers or members of the UBC Aboriginal community as a whole, the space is unsafe.  I know, that at any point, something can be said or done that will make my heart hurt.  I have left classes feeling sick to my stomach because of the things that have left my peer’s or my professor’s mouths.

This isn’t a experience that is dedicated strictly to university, these feelings have existed since elementary school.  I have a plethora, as I am sure many of my Indigenous peers do as well, of anecdotes of racism from kindergarten to bachelors degree and beyond. This is not about pointing fingers at specific individuals or UBC, but there’s some cliché about snowflakes and avalanches that cements this feeling.  When you are Aboriginal and you enter a classroom, and the topic of Indigenous peoples arises, there’s a surge of adrenaline because you’re bracing yourself for the worst: you’re bracing yourself to hear the same colonial stories that have been playing out since Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Frankly, I’m sick of being poised and patient: I want action by my professors and non-Native peers to call out our fellow comrades in the classroom when oppressive situations begin to arise, because I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of leaving the classroom feeling like the only voice shouting, I’m exhausted from coming home feeling anger in the pit of my stomach, and I’m exhausted from having to shoulder the responsibility to try and teach every person who doesn’t take the time to educate themselves.  



10 Comments Add yours

  1. Lulu says:

    Oh my heart feels so sad when I read this. As a teacher in B.C. I hoped all teachers in our public school system are well educated enough to know and understand cultural sensitivity. But, I know that’s not the case. I am sorry to hear that these instances with instructors have numbered so many. I hope you will never stop sounding your voice because so many just do not know when they are saying something that is not appropriate. It must be trying and tiring, but I do hope you will not stop. The education needs to happen, and sadly, it is not yet a requirement for those who work with children in our province. As an aside, I love Christi Belcourt’s art. What a beautiful background for your blog!

  2. Guinevere says:

    Hey Dave, it’s not about sides. Or opinions. Samantha’s experiences with racism are not up for debate – they’re her lived experiences. This is about supporting people who are being oppressed so that they get a break from the fight. It is you who doesn’t get it. I’ve seen a million posts like yours on the net. Explaining, never listening. We can’t find a healthy place until people like you listen. That means Samantha here gets to suffer and white people like me can never bring enough thoughtfulness and love to bridge the gap. You’re assisting the shit hurlers by downplaying the harm they cause. Instead of getting mad at what I’ve written here, try to understand it please. Please.

  3. Jazz says:

    Dave and Sophie,

    I would have to agree with Sophie, though I see what you are saying Dave, that opposing views engaged in open discussion over disagreements and different points of view are necessary. As you say, however, “abusive language of any form should not be tolerated,” and rolling your eyes at someone is, I would argue, abusive body language. It is not constructive at all and does not invite any open discussion on the topic, and is maybe a small step up from just flipping them off outright. If you have an opposing opinion to what someone has said, then voice that opinion and engage them. If you think that the issue has been debated enough already and we don’t need to talk about it anymore, then have the guts to go out and say that and try to defend your point of view. Rolling your eyes is akin to saying “I disagree with you, and think this topic is pointless, but I am not willing to defend my point of view at all, so I’ll just hide behind this facial cue that you can’t really debate against.” It is the response of a coward.

  4. Sophie says:

    Hi Dave,

    I don’t think you got the point of this post. An eyeroll is not just an eyeroll; it’s indicative of an unwillingness to learn, of feeling above and -bored- with Indigenous topics. Like Sam said, it’s like 500 years of colonialism distilled into a muscle movement. An eyeroll might seem inconsequential to you but for Indigenous students like Sam and I, it represents so much more. It’s a slap in the face. It negates any possibility for a “healthy” and “reasonable” discussion. It’s the silent epitome of rudeness and disrespect. Why should we, as Indigenous students, be “reasonable” with peers who treat us, our communities, and histories with such disdain?

  5. Dave says:

    Thank you for having the courage to share your feelings online. I need to ask – is a classroom necessarily ‘unsafe’ if some people disagree? As a able-bodied straight cis white male etc. etc. etc. it’s always difficult to identify what are reasonable parameters for discussion. While I wouldn’t encourage it, I don’t think that we can (or should) prosecute anyone for eye-rolling or any other thoughtcrime. Abusive language of any form should not be tolerated, but I would contend that what ways to deal with the colonial legacy is a legitimate debate, even if some people get tired of it. It seems to me that the dynamic interaction of conflicting viewpoints is a vital part of the academic experience. Would it be reasonable or advantageous to expect everyone to share the same set of assumptions? You strike me as a highly intelligent and sensitive person, so I’ll just gently remind you that you’re not the only one who feels a surge of adrenaline and ‘here we go again’ whenever the issue arises, and sadly, I don’t generally feel that any side has a monopoly on insensitivity.

    1. Ryan says:

      “Abusive language of any form should not be tolerated” – Dave. Eye rolling is body language and body language is language. Abusive language of any form should not be tolerated. Duh…

  6. Gem says:

    Hi Sam,
    I’m sorry that the behavior of racist assholes is taking so much out of you. Don’t despair. Stay strong. You’re not alone. Also, one thing to keep in mind is that you can not change another person’s thoughts. Years of bad thinking is not going to be improved by anything you say.

    I did a University paper on Racism once, and it was during the research, that I found out that the heart of racism is dehumanization (as it is with the other ‘isms’). The dehumanization is there in EVERY racist comment, no matter how seemingly “harmless” it is said to be. What can I say about dehumanization? It’s self explanatory.

    Another thing about racism is that it is built on a fallacy. There is no such thing as “different races” of man. There’s actually only ONE race – the human race, and one genome.

    If you suffer racist comments by professors and other “professional” people, report them. You live in Canada like me, a country that has “anti-hate” laws. Use the laws against bastards like this.

  7. Anne says:

    Excellent statement. Stand strong and proud. You are an awesome role model. Don’t let ignorance get you down. You are handling the situation(s).

  8. Kevin Sooley says:

    I’m not sure what to say but I just wanted to say that I feel you exactly 100%. I expected that this sort of thing would fade away when I started graduate school, under some weird supposition that scientists should be reasonable and logical in all other aspects of life as well. Some of the worst racist bullshit I’ve ever personally encountered (I am lucky to be very, white-passing, at least) has come from people with Ph.D.s. We had to explain to a guy with a Ph.D. why is was racist to say “Indians from India or Indians like *old western war cry thing*” He later said that “Everyone would love to be part native, people just love that sort of thing.” Luckily, that time I had a quite good friend to stick up for me, but that’s not always the case. I’m exhausted, too.

  9. Sam, my heart breaks as I read this, yet I know you are SO strong, and amazing, and beautiful, and you are making a difference, you are learning your ‘self’, and I have told you before but I will tell you again, I couldn’t be more proud. ❤

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