An Excerpt from Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University

The presence and experiences of Black people at elite universities have been largely underrepresented and erased from institutional histories. Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University by rosalind hampton engages with a collection of these experiences that span half a century and reflect differences in class, gender, and national identifications among Black scholars.

In this post, we share an excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book: "The Idealized Elite University."

***

I have preserved the anonymity of interviewees by assigning each a two-letter pseudonym. In order to further protect their identities, at times I attribute a quote to a student or professor without using their pseudonym or identifying their gender. This is particularly the case for professors, given the small number of Black professors at McGill. rosalind hampton

Chapter 4: The Idealized Elite University

My expectations for university were quite idealistic: I thought of university as sort of a hallowed place where you were going to have all these wonderful discussions – it was the idealized university. (GR)

McGill is well known as an elite, international university, consistently ranking first or second in Canada and among the top in the world.[1] While the primary reason professors report being drawn to the university is the availability of a job in their field, almost all of the students I interviewed had chosen McGill because of its excellent reputation. Students had been advised by family members, peers, and faculty members at other institutions that if they had the chance to attend McGill they should take it. As DN was told: “If you get into McGill then go – for sure!” KB said that everyone he consulted, “from teachers to parents to any family member,” strongly encouraged him to “apply to the presumed best university in Canada,” based on the belief that the “elite university experience would give a certain amount of prestige.” Both international students and those from Canada referred specifically to global rankings and the renowned reputation of the university internationally. Indeed, one student appeared to feel trapped by the university’s reputation even as they called it into question: “I just feel like, I don’t know, I’m one of those people who despite what I know about the world I still adhere to this meritocracy bullshit, so in my head I’m like I have to go to the best schools.”

Especially among members of local Black communities, myths of meritocracy intersect with race and class to make McGill seem generally out of reach. As one former student shares: “There was, I remember growing up, in CEGEP and stuff, this perspective, particularly in … the anglophone Black community, a sense that McGill was inaccessible and that we all go to Concordia. There was nothing that aggravated me more than hearing that.” This “common knowledge” of McGill constructs Black students who do attend the university as great exceptions. Another student, BR, describes an interaction that further exemplifies this:

I play basketball on Saturdays with some predominantly Black guys. So, the first time I got there, this guy said, “Where are you from?” I said I’m from [Caribbean Island] and I’m here studying at McGill. And the guy was like, “McGill?” He was like really, really shocked, that I was from McGill, in graduate studies, and actually playing basketball. Because I think where I play basketball is close to George Vanier metro in Little Burgundy, so it’s a more, I’ve heard it described as a deprived area …

So, he said he was really surprised at me, even though I was Black, y’know what I mean, that I was there playing basketball with them, and I was studying at McGill. And I told him, “Well, I mean, I’m from the Islands, and I’m just here to study, I don’t live here. I mean I’m just heretrying to get out with some friends.” He said, “Well, I mean McGill. I mean McGill is a …” [gestures as though at a loss for words].

So I think, and it reminds me of [University of] Bristol [in the United Kingdom] as well, ‘cause I think there’s the issue of McGill, in terms of universities, in terms of anglophone universities in Montreal. There’s McGill at the top, and there’s Concordia somewhere below. And that is the impression I get. Because I said I’m studying at McGill and he said, “Oh, wow, I’m just at Concordia trying to get my degree.” And I was like – it reminded me of Bristol.

Another student, who had lived in Little Burgundy, explains coming to terms with the disappointing realization that despite her unique affiliation with the elite school, being a “proud McGillian” did little to mitigate the way she continued to be racially profiled by police in her neighbourhood:

STUDENT: I was very proud to wear my McGill [faculty] jacket and I lived in [Little] Burgundy, but I often would get stopped when I wore that jacket, and I used to think to myself –
ROSALIND: Sorry, stopped?
STUDENT: Stopped by police. I used to think it was really strange. Because I thought that now that I went to McGill, the police would leave me alone. We often got stopped in Burgundy because they could. That’s just the way it was … I always thought that when I wore my McGill jacket I felt like I had this cape, and that they wouldn’t talk to me because I’m a McGill student and what do you mean Black people can’t go to McGill, right? So I used to get highly offended by being stopped by the police when I was wearing these McGill items. I was that very proud McGillian; I used to wear my sweater, my McGill sweats, and I used to get extremely offended when I got stopped … But then I came to the realization that when it comes to police brutality it doesn’t really matter what country you’re from or what island – it’s the colour of your skin. It didn’t matter what station I was in life, if they wanted to stop me they were going to stop me. [This realization] didn’t decrease my power in McGill it just increased [my awareness of] the reality that I was always going to be in the battle of being a Black person. No matter what I was doing in my life, they were still going to look down on me.

This student was among several participants whose parents had been teachers or had placed tremendous value on formal educational attainment. She shares that when her mother had been pregnant with her:

My parents would walk around the campus together and they would talk about how I was going to go here. So, it was always kind of drilled in my head that McGill was my destiny, because my parents used to walk around here pregnant and my mom used to work at the bookstore.

Reflecting how level of parental education is a key indicator of university educational achievement,[2] several students had parents who attended university, and two of the interviewees’ fathers had attended McGill. One explains, “there was McGill in the air since I was a kid,” while the other describes growing up aware of “an unsaid expectation that we’d all end up going to McGill.” McGill’s long-standing international reputation associates it with notions of what GR, quoted at the opening of this chapter, refers to as the “idealized university.” This idealized university has been shaped by dominant ideas about knowledge production and enlightenment, and popular depictions of old British institutions and the Ivy League in the United States. These ideals are thus both racialized and associated with class privilege and upward mobility. As VR describes:

McGill is the bastion of white power-type- looking institution … I know it sounds disturbing, but I kind of enjoyed that kind of, the old-looking university … Y’know, you see the movies, with the professors and the podiums, and the halls, and I think that I thought that was the university experience and I actually am glad I had an experience with a historical university.

Several people I interviewed similarly describe the downtown campus as “traditional” and “historic” and commented on the “old buildings” and “very British, perhaps Victorian architecture” that reminded them of the United Kingdom. One student mentions that he thinks that because his mother was British and he was very familiar with “British culture,” he “felt at home, in a way, architecturally” on McGill’s downtown campus. Another student feels that the Britishness of the environment communicates a particular tone and set of expectations:

It’s one of the things I’ve noticed about McGill, we have an old-school style. I don’t even know, I don’t know the different architecture styles but I just know it’s very old-school. It’s very British, it’s not even American. It’s very British and it sets the tone; it very much sets the tone. But I think that’s what McGill’s tradition is about, it’s about setting the tone, and it’s kind of like when you come into McGill, [it’s] setting the tone of what they expect from us in a weird way. (SB)

Some participants state that the architecture of buildings on campus makes them feel uncomfortable: “I’m certainly more uncomfortable in those [older buildings], that’s for sure. I’d never say that I can be totally myself in those spaces.” Buildings that participants most often describe as uncomfortable to be in are former Golden Mile mansions associated with exclusivity: Chancellor Day Hall (location of the Faculty of Law), Thomson House,[3] and especially the Faculty Club, located in the elaborate former mansion of sugar magnate Baron Alfred Baumgarten. As GR recalls:

The Faculty Club was a weird place anyway, it was always a weird place. And I only went there on invitation because you have to remember, I don’t know if you’re aware that the Faculty Club had only started removing all its restrictions on women not that long before. Twenty years before, a woman couldn’t eat in the dining room of the Faculty Club, as amazing as it seems.

Another student describes their conflicting feelings about the prominence of the Redpath family name on campus (i.e., Redpath Museum, Redpath Library), knowing that family’s wealth was built through the sugar industry and plantations in the Caribbean:

It’s like on the one hand it almost feels, sometimes it makes me more paranoid, like I’m kind of walking around like, looking at these huge buildings and I want to know … who’s this, what this name represents, or what history this is implicated in. And it kind of, like it sometimes feels like it’s engaging a sort of paranoia or sort of schizophrenia, right? But on the other hand, it’s really more a kind of empowering feeling to have that knowledge.

Many of us experience the campus setting and this discord as haunting, an embodied and sensuous experience that draws us into a “transformative recognition” of what is “living and breathing in the place hidden from view: people, places, histories, knowledge, memories, ways of life, ideas” that are no longer being adequately contained or repressed.[4] This kind of haunting, as Avery Gordon theorizes, represents an opening of time through which the past becomes visible, pointing us towards something-to-be-done.[5] It is an experience that at times generates flight, and at other times, we fight. Similar to the student quoted above, a professor expresses a sense of empowerment in knowing and undermining histories of white supremacy represented by and reflected in the campus environment:

I think some people are like: “Let’s not go to the Faculty Club, that place is a racist baron sugar guy’s house.” I’m like: “Let’s go occupy the friggin’ Faculty Club!” Like why aren’t we making that our space? There’s two ways to go about it right? … You know what I’m saying. I have a right to take up space in this [place], on this campus, built by this racist slave owner. I bet he didn’t think I’d be teaching here when he gave that money! [laughs] You hear what I’m saying?

***

Click here to order your copy of Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University.

***

[1] McGill and University of Toronto are ranked as the top two universities
in Canada, McGill ranking first in 2011, 2012, and 2015–17; U of T ranking
first in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018, and 2019. See https://www.topuniversities.
com.
[2] Abada, Hou, and Ram, “Ethnic Differences.” See also McMullen,
“Postsecondary Education.”
[3] See Luxion, “Whose Campus?”
[4] Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 8, and “Some Thoughts,” 2, 3.
[5] Gordon, “Some Thoughts.”