Our first day-long and collaborative event, inter-realities: the lived experiences of marginalized bodies in art and the academia featured two panels and a follow-up community consultation highlighting the voices, experiences and stories artists and academics in our universities and our communities.
Black, Indigenous, POC, queer and trans academics, artists, writers and activists came together to discuss their experiences navigating the systemic obstacles, discrimination, and oppression inherent to the university and publishing and arts industries in Montreal and beyond. Examining their own careers, the inter-realities speakers described the kinds of support and resources needed for future generations to dismantle barriers to access for marginalized peoples.
Our first panel featured a discussion around the manifestations and enduring effects of institutional and colonial violence in the academy through a panel presented by Travis Wysote and Sundus Abdul Hadi.
Travis Wysote was the first of the day to share his experiences with us, Wysote is a Phd student in Humanities and [INSERT BIO]. To situate the university as a technology of settler-colonialism, Wysote spoke directly to the violent role of institutions of higher education in facilitating the ongoing occupation of Indigenous land throughout Turtle Island:
“The whole idea of education, as we understand it right now, the type of institution that we’re in right now naturalizes colonialism, it has to just to exist. And it’s an outcropping of religious teaching – missions and churches and all these sorts of institutions – that were created to more or less fabricate a ‘consenting paradigm’ in order to allow this land to be dispossessed. So, I think that in many ways the academy is still doing that. Dene political scientist Glen Coulthard has a fantastic book called Red Skin, White Masks (which is a play on Frantz Fanon’s excellent work Black Skin, White Masks). If you read that be really critical of his sexism, but it’s a very good book. What Glen Coulthard argues basically is that post-secondary is an extension of the residential school system because what it’s basically trying to do is take Indigenous people off the land and put them in schools. If they have jobs, if they’re literally not on the land, they’re not in the way of your pipeline. Period. The more Indigenous bodies you actually have on the land, that’s more obstacles you have”.
Wysote contextualized the specific, embodied effects of colonial violence on Indigenous university students and described the kinds of support networks and resources that are lacking for Indigenous students whose communities are working to resist ongoing and systemic projects of occupation and colonization:
“We’re being attacked on every possible level of our existence, our relationships are being poisoned, our families are being turned against each other, they’re being divided. This is my support network when I’m in school right? How many people have families at home that they call and they relate to, you know? But when you’re Indigenous sometimes your family is out fighting something crazy, fighting the government you know?”
In illuminating the particular barriers faced by Indigenous students, Wysote calls attention to reality that in order to support Indigenous students, universities must recognize and address the specific ways in which Indigenous students are excluded, their knowledges deemed illegitimate and their support networks threatened by ongoing colonial violence. And as a first step in interrupting colonial racism and oppression in the academy, Wysote suggests a collective acknowledgment of the ways in which our universities reproduce the colonial violence upon which they are founded.
Sundus Abdul Hadi complemented Wysote’s analysis with her own stories, as a current master’s student in communications born to Iraqi parents in the UAE in 1984 and raised in Montreal. Abdul Hadi is also a painter and multi-media artist, working around the concepts of media representation, and subverting existing images. Sundus Abdul Hadi shared her experiences in the university navigating racism throughout her arts education post-9/11. One story in particular, describes Abdul Hadi sitting through arts classes where violent and oppressive misrepresentations of Arab identities went uncontested and artistic expressions deemed ‘other’ were either silenced or ignored:
“And then I started having professors trying to tell me to stop and trying to tell me ‘you should do work other than about Iraq, try to move away from that subject’ and I’m like I can’t, this is what’s happening right now and this is what’s speaking to me and this is what I need to say. My critiques used to be a lot of silence”.
In comparison to her experiences as an undergraduate student in studio art, Adbul Hadi now recognizes how crucial supportive departments, professors and peers has been to her success in her master’s degree in communications, which prioritizes socially conscious critique and where ‘othered’ identities are represented and given space:
“I feel supported, I know that’s a very rare experience which is why I feel blessed every day. Thank God, thank God that I feel I have a support system with my professors who respect my opinions, who respect where I’m coming from who are not trying to change me or guide me in any certain way. I don’t have to compromise my voice and I know every day that that is not the norm and I know that a lot of people probably had to fight to get to that point. And I’m hoping it continues. And the more I see people like me, the more I’m feeling like there’s power in numbers, and that this is starting to change, things are starting to change a little bit and it’s about literally the work that has been done in the past creating more a welcoming environment”.
In contrasting these two experiences, Abdul Hadi highlights the transformative power of representation and collective commitments to carving out space for identities historically excluded from the university. She describes the alienation that is felt by students of colour whose classrooms lack both representation and culturally appropriate frameworks for understanding knowledges beyond the white, Western/Euro-centric academic standard. Her stories and expertise demonstrate the urgency of addressing institutional exclusion through self-representation and meaningful support for students, expressions and knowledges deemed ‘other’ by the academy.
Our second panel emerged as an intimate talk-show style conversation between artists Kai Cheng Thom and Kama La Mackerel discussing community, art, success and healing in the face of transphobia and racism across institutions.
Kai Cheng Thom is a fiery writer, performer, spoken word artist, drag-dance sensation, essayist, and poet. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir was recently published followed by her poetry collection a place called No Homeland. Thom is also as a social worker and co-founder of Monster Academy Montreal, a radical mental health initiative for youth. During her conversation and interview with artist Kama La Mackerel, Kai Cheng Thom shared stories, experiences and advice for women of colour in the publishing world – and transwomen of colour especially.
Thom spoke specifically to the realities of trans women navigating oppressive institutions in which financial precarity and employment discrimination are used as methods of exclusion from the resources and access that make art-making possible:
“There is one reality that I think most trans women of colour inhabit, particularly those of us who have transitioned or come out, I don’t like those terms necessarily but you kind of know what I mean, in our generation and generations before, is one of frankly economic hardship. You know, like employment discrimination is rife against trans women, particularly those of us who don’t conform to binary ideals of gender and what women are, quote unquote, supposed to look like or not. And with that economic discrimination also comes like a class culture, meaning that a lot of trans women, particularly trans women of colour are not equipped to enter the world of publishing and particularly literary publishing”.
Economic and institutional systems of discrimination are not only a barrier to art production but dually act to foster a ‘sense of scarcity’ and competition which Kama La Mackerel expanded on in response to Thom’s point. La Mackerel is a tio’tia:ke/Montreal-based performer, writer, poet, story-teller, curator and multi-disciplinary artist whose work explores aesthetic practices as forms of resilience, resistance and healing for marginalized communities. Kama’s work is both deeply personal and political, articulating an anti-colonial praxis through cultural production. Speaking between her experiences as an artist in community, activist and institutional contexts, La Mackerel described this scarcity as a function of the institution working to isolate marginalized people from collective power:
“Because that’s also what institutions do, institutions will give you the sense of scarcity, like only one of you can make it. As marginalized people we are always put into competition with each other, which leads to even more isolation, right?”
And for La Mackerel, resisting this ‘sense of scarcity’ is how to work towards emancipation, which requires working collectively to build ‘models of cooperation’ in the face of the isolation that marginalized artists are expected to embody:
“It’s such an important point: like for me it’s so important that if I’m going to make it there, I don’t want to make it on my own. I want to make it with all of my people, and part of the work, yes, for me, in terms of rethinking the question of integrity has always been around spaces. Or (…) whom do we carry with us. Because if you want to make it as the one trans woman who’s going to have a cover on a magazine, you’re going to be alone and do we want to be alone? I really believe in the model of co-operation as opposed to scarcity, as opposed to competition actually. Because our work is also about emancipation, and for emancipation to happen it has to be collective, it has to be every single one of us”.
Kai Cheng Thom followed-up with her own take on collaboration: “For me I cannot stress enough the importance of connecting with other marginalized artists, particularly women of colour”. And the two artists demonstrated this advice in the very design of their inter-realities panel as a talk-show style conversation between two trans women talking to each other. In doing so, Thom and La Mackerel consciously interrupted the mainstream and oppressive ‘singular trans women narrative’ that is so often expected by cis audiences. Thom summed it up for the group, simply put: “How you rise in institutions, while also making space for other people is that you just take other people with you as you go up”.
Kama La Mackerel furthered this idea, reminding us that we also resist competition and isolation and tap into our collective potential by loving each other! La Mackerel described this is in reflecting on her own strategies for resistance, asking, “how do we get rid of a capitalist, competitive, white supremacist system? And my answer, after all those years for me, is that true love is the answer”.
And finally, it is important that Kai Cheng Thom and Kama La Mackerel are not only creating art that represents trans women, women of colour and marginalized identities, but also that they are both dedicated to creating platforms for people to self-represent and express and share their own stories. Throughout their conversation, both artists contributed strategies for emerging artists working against systemic injustice and barriers, adding that facing and responding to these injustices, as La Mackerel suggests, becomes part of the work “because the angry trans woman poem is also a great poem, you know? It’s a literary piece”. And when asked how to tap into our individual and particular experiences, how to find our stories, Kai Cheng Thom offers us direction:
“We are born wanting, we live wanting, being hungry, needing more love, needing more attention, needing more space, needing more voice, needing more words, needing more strength, this feeling of just wanting. And I think we’re not given any space to acknowledge this, right? Like we’re taught just to be invisible, to disappear, to be self-sacrificing, to give away and those kinds of things. And I think honestly one of the most important parts of finding your story is giving voice to that wanting, like what is it that you want? How long have you wanted it? What did it feel like to have that desire? What was its shape? What was its colour? What did it make you dream about? Just allowing ourselves that room to be selfish. To be centred on the self, because we’re taught not to have selves as women and women of colour, right? To be completely self-less and when we can find that selfishness in ourselves, I wanted something, I didn’t get it. I needed something, it wasn’t given. This is your story, this is your story”.
The inter-realities event then culminated in our first community consultation, centred around the question of how to collectively transform our academic spaces, facilitated by our own Outreach Coordinator Annick MF and freelance journalist, writer, consultant, filmmaker, and radio host Aimee Louw. We designed the consultation to be a platform for reflection and brainstorming in response to the stories, experiences and expertise shared throughout the day’s two panels and as a means to identify which issues are important to our community, what still needs to be done, and how best to support this work going forward. The consultation came together around five key realities identified by our community as foci for addressing institutional injustice:
- Building on Kama La Mackerel’s description of the model of cooperation, we must recognize, question and resist the ways in which our institutions encourage competition over cooperation and we must approach our alliances and allyship under a framework of friendship and care. From experience, we have seen that allies, particularly allies with privilege and power, risk appropriating the stories of the marginalized groups they are working with. Allies should work to protect and value each other’s stories rather than exploit them for opportunities, resources, careers or social capital.
- Accessibility is one of the primary barriers facing students, this includes physical accessibility, access to wellness and support on campus and access to alternative opportunities for learning for students with different learning styles. Our universities must prioritize accessibility as central to the project of fostering inclusion, not as an afterthought, and this will require the expertise and experience of marginalized members of our community who have been navigating inaccessibility in higher education.
- And relatedly, we must focus on mental health and improving mental health services in our universities. Mental health is essential to student success, and yet across universities, students face difficulty accessing adequate mental health services and face oppression in the bureaucratic processes required for access. Students are often penalized (attendance, late assignments) for prioritizing their mental health while their needs are not being met by student services, at times, students feel their only option is to resort to a performance of desperation in order to be seen and supported as only in moments of crisis is student mental health taken seriously.
- We must acknowledge that part of what keeps meaningful inclusion from moving forward is that we are speaking across a ‘divide’ within the institution where efforts for inclusion and building open and sustainable care networks seem to get lost. What we are trying to create is a space and environment we have not yet seen, and the reality is that those in positions of institutional power have, for the most part, never experienced and do not understand the systemic injustice that students are trying to address.
- And finally, in addition to navigating institutional injustice, marginalized students are tasked with educating members of the university who are not informed about systemic oppression. In classrooms and spaces lacking representation and populated primarily by white and cis professors, peers and staff, this unrecognized and uncompensated labour is expected from marginalized and underrepresented students who are repeatedly called-on to explain injustice to the privileged. Especially in accessing student services or classroom support, marginalized students must first inform professors and staff about their realities, as staff lack adequate training for the support of all students and student realities.
Some of themes that come out of our inter-realities consultation, especially around frameworks of care, were reiterated and expanded upon in our follow-up bordered-realities community consultation.
We acknowledge and thank our participants and speakers for joining us in consultation and for their generous and essential contributions to this work. We also want to thank you for the work you do to make our communities better places in which to learn, live and create. And if these experiences and stories resonate with you, or if you have your own story to share, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you.
And we would like to thank our hosts at Concordia’s Milieux Institute, our co-organizers the Committee for Equity and Visibility in the Academy (CEVA), and our sponsors the Concordia Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS), the Concordia Student Union (CSU) and the McGill Black Students’ Network (BSN).