It was only Meena Waseem’s second day of orientation at the Queen’s University Smith School of Business last fall when a white orientation leader started rapping and shamelessly said the N-word.
No one protested, which made the incident even more uncomfortable, Waseem said.
The same situation has played out in Canadian business schools, which have come under scrutiny during the recent Black Lives Matters protests, over and over. Four of five racialized women who spoke with VICE News for this story recounted how white peers publicly used the racist slur.
White people using the N-word is just one of several recently reported racist incidents highlighting endemic racism in Canadian business schools—racism that inspired Kelly Weiling Zou, 20, to start the Instagram account @StolenbySmith a week ago. The account shares anonymous stories of racism, as well as homophobia, transphobia, and sexism, taking place at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. (Queen’s is the same university that has come under fire for its cultural appropriation and coronavirus parties.)
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In only seven days, Zou’s Instagram account has amassed nearly 9,000 followers and inspired students at the York University Schulich Business school, the University of British Columbia, Western University, McGill, and more to create their own pages. They all follow social media accounts at top U.S. institutions like Harvard (@BlackatHarvardLaw) and Cornell (@BlackatCornell) that have been doing the same.
Stories from Queen’s commerce range from bad—only white students getting picked to participate in business case competitions—to worse—Asian female students avoiding a male peer “known for having an Asian fetish.”
“As a white presenting Indigenous student I have been privy to numerous conversations where I have overheard my fellow classmates talk about how Indigenous people’s lives are worth less than the company’s bottom line. How we all get handouts from the government. How we should all ‘get over’ the trauma of residential schools,” one anonymous post says.
"Most students at Smith, to put it bluntly, come from rich and white bubbles."
Zou has her own stories too. During her first year, a white student used the N-word and repeatedly taunted Zou’s Chinese and Singaporean identities. Zou was also part of a group chat in which white students made fun of a brown substitute professor. In screenshots obtained by VICE News, students make fun of the man’s English and compare him to Jabba the Hutt and the Pokemon, Muk. Another message says “#notmyprofessor.” Zou was also accused of gatekeeping by a white man after she put a call out for racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous folks, to share stories of environmental racism. VICE News obtained screenshots from that conversation as well.
“In my first year in Queen's commerce I experienced so much racism and microaggressions to the point that I couldn't believe it,” Zou said. Racism was so frequent, Zou started skipping classes after her second year to avoid it.
Zou started Stolen by Smith to hold the school’s faculty and administration accountable; she and other racialized students want to see concrete measures taken that will make the school’s environment more inclusive. A spokesperson for the school said they support Zou’s account and are taking steps to improve conditions for racialized students, including more training for staff.
Five racialized current and former business students from Queen’s and the University of Alberta, including Zou, spoke with VICE News about their experiences. They said fratty, white, and rich environments often encouraged by professors and administration have excluded racialized students from reaping the benefits of campus clubs as well as professional and academic opportunities. The students and alumni said expensive tuition, particularly at Queen’s where one year of business school costs about $16,288 CAD (the average cost for a year in undergrad business school across Canada is about $6,900 in comparison) also ends up limiting who can attend.
Drinking culture has also made it difficult for Muslim students to network in business schools, which is particularly detrimental considering commerce programs emphasize networking as a means for climbing professional ladders, the students said.
Waseem said she decided to enroll in the faculty because many students and alumni said, “You’ll be with so many people who are driven and passionate and it will feel like family.”
“It doesn't feel like a family,” Waseem said. “Maybe it feels like an abusive family.”
The 19-year-old is of South Asian descent and wears a Hijab. She’s received off-putting comments about her name as well as an anonymous text calling her a “terrorist.” Waseem said she’s tired of racialized students only getting “crumbs” while rich, white students “get to feast.”
“Most students at Smith, to put it bluntly, come from rich and white bubbles,” Waseem said, adding that she hopes the administration will treat the Stolen by Smith account like “data” that can inform new diversity and equity measures on campus.
And it’s about time, Waseem said, considering students have repeatedly reached out to administration with complaints about Queen’s commerce, but little has been done to make the environment kinder to Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.
Jane, a current Smith student whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said a group she belongs to asked the school’s executive director, Lori Garnier, and dean, Brenda Brouwer, for diversity data last fall. And even though the administration was initially keen to collaborate, it effectively ghosted Jane and her peers after one in-person meeting, Jane said.
VICE News reached out to Garnier and Brouwer for comment, but didn’t receive a response directly. Instead, a spokesperson, Mark Erdman, responded with a statement in support of Zou and the Stolen by Smith account. When asked what concrete steps are being taken at the school to support marginalized students, Erdman listed equity training for faculty, diversity and inclusion programming in classes, Indigenous student recruitment, and diversity and inclusion contact points for students.
But the students say these steps aren’t going to cut it.
Jane called the administration's response a “blanket, performative statement” and said she’s frustrated that leadership is treating accounts of racism like they’re “new and shocking.”
Leaders “have known for a long time that minorities feel alienated on this campus,” Jane said. “This should not be shocking to them and they need to take ownership.”
According to Zou “this program needs to take dramatic systemic change, including financial support, non-merit-based support, and changes in the ways (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) are treated.” Zou also wants to see financial compensation for students and faculty who do volunteer work in the name of inclusion and diversity.
This racism problem isn’t unique to Smith. Students at the University of Alberta’s School of Business have also reported racism on campus.
Fatima Mohamed, a Black Muslim woman, graduated from the U of A’s business school as an international student last year. She recounted how students of colour started off enthusiastic in their first year—ready to socialize, join clubs, and gun for the best internships and jobs—but over time would become less outgoing and excitable. There was also noticeable segregation, with clubs led by racialized students attracting other students of colour and mainstream clubs attracting white students.
“Your first year, you have orientation and they push you to get involved, you're sold a dream that if you are an X, Y, Z-type student you'll get all these things,” Mohamed said. “Then you notice that the people getting all of those things look a certain way and they don't look like you.”
Mohamed said part of the problem is networking culture. “You need time and money to go to all these events”—events that introduce students to professors and industry leaders who can later hook them up with jobs, she said.
“Many (people of colour) who didn’t come from affluent backgrounds had multiple part-time jobs, so they had to work so much they couldn't attend events,” Mohamed said, adding that as a Muslim woman who doesn’t drink, attending networking events that rely on drinking culture were also inaccessible to her.
"Business school feels like a white space. It doesn’t feel like a space for us."
Several incidents compounded to create a clique-y environment.
Mohamed said she witnessed white students talk poorly about international students, saw a white male peer rap the N-word on Snapchat, and noticed how her white colleagues would treat white professors with more deference than professors who are visibly people of colour. To make matters worse, only one of Mohamed’s professors was Black and most of them were white, Mohamed said.
Rahique Handoo, a 24-year-old who graduated from the University of Alberta School of Business in 2018, said she was stunned when she found one of her professors—a white woman—on Twitter liking and re-tweeting tweets from far-right media as well as posts about refugees and Muslim immigrants “coming here to steal Canada’s resources.”
“We didn’t really do anything about that Twitter account because business school feels like a white space. It doesn’t feel like a space for us,” Handoo said. “But every minority student kind of knew about it.”
Handoo also remembers how yet another professor said, “We would never work with a Syrian company because there might be bomb parts” while teaching management accounting.
“I thought I was in a fever dream,” Handoo said, adding that because business school was so white and the racism was so casual, racialized students would often second-guess themselves. “I was like, ‘maybe I’m being overly-cautious or sensitive,’” Handoo said.
Handoo was the only woman interviewed for this story who hadn’t seen a “fratty biz bro” (or woman) spout the N-word, but said it’s because she avoids them at all costs. “I honestly went into self-preservation (in business school) and was like ‘I’m not going to hang out with these people’,” Handoo said.
The University of Alberta did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
In addition to limiting club and job opportunities, the overwhelming whiteness of business schools take a toll on the well-being and even mental health of racialized students.
Handoo said she’s actively trying to forget her time at the University of Alberta, while Zou said her time at Queen’s has resulted in anxiety and depression.
“Commerce is a deeply racist place and the administration hasn’t responded; they always issue a PR response,” Zou said. “I started Stolen by Smith because I want to place pressure on administration to make actionable change and hold them accountable on a public platform.”
Combatting racism “shouldn't always be on me and other Black, Indigenous, and students of colour,” Zou said.
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Correction, July 13, 2020: A previous version of this article said Schulich School of Business is at the University of Toronto. Schulich is actually at York University.