Conveniently brown

Please see the note at the bottom of this op-ed in regards to updates made within the piece. 

I came home after a long, gruelling day of honours project bullshit to an email that was equally bullshit.

An employee of the King’s advancement office asked me if I was interested in taking part in a photo-shoot on campus for King’s’ promotional material on behalf of Adriane Abbott, the King’s director of advancement.

Later, I found out I wasn’t the only one.

Abiezer Cuevas is a first-year student at King’s. His friends call him Eddie. So does the advancement office, in an email almost identical to the one the communications officer sent me.

In fact, at least five other students of colour received the same copy/paste email en masse, the exact same day.

“For universities, the image of diversity is more important than to actually be diverse,” Cuevas says.

Cuevas moved to Oakville, Ont. from the Dominican Republic when he was 11 years old. As an Afro-Latino living in Canada, Cuevas is familiar with being a minority in his community. He says Oakville is “not racialized whatsoever – very, very, very white.”

He was however, mildly surprised when he arrived at King’s. He thought there would be at least a few more people of colour in his class.

“I didn’t want to promote the idea that King’s is a diverse school when it quite obviously isn’t,” Cuevas says. “I think it’s important for us to say ‘no’.”

I guess the advancement office didn’t get the memo that targeting students of colour to partake in promotional and recruitment practices for a mostly white school is misleading.

In March, I wrote an investigative piece for the Watch about the lack of racial diversity at King’s. The students of colour I spoke with all had similar things to say about King’s promotional material: they misrepresent the truth.

Dorsa Eslami, Julia-Simone Rutgers and Itai Kuwodza were all approached by the school’s communications officers in their first year of university. It wasn’t until after their pictures were published, that they realized they were the only students of colour in their class.

In fact, it didn’t dawn on them that there are hardly any people of colour at King’s until after they arrived. Kuwodza, an international student from Zimbabwe, did not visit King’s before deciding to travel 11,696 km and pay upwards of $30,000 a year to study at the institution. Her only knowledge of King’s and its student body came from promotional material on its website.

Now, if Kuwodza saw several black and brown students on King’s’ website she’d think it would be a diverse school.

It is not.

At the time of publishing the article, the exact number of racialized students at King’s was unclear. In a data set collected by the King’s Student Information System, four per cent of the 2015-2016 King’s student population self-identified as a visible minority. But that number only reflects admission applications. So it’s only an estimate.

King’s acknowledges it’s lack of diversity as a problem. Their 2014 Strategic Enrollment Plan outlines ways in which they plan to tackle this issue.

But, after consulting with King’s registrar and board of governors member, Julie Green, and King’s former vice president, Kim Kierans, during my research, it became apparent to me that their goals were not being accomplished. Despite efforts in reaching out to socially and economically disadvantaged people.

I came to King’s thinking it was going to be at least a little more diverse than my country-ass, rural Nova Scotian high school. Boy was I wrong.

I arrived at King’s, desperately trying to fit in with white, upper-middle class Torontonians and Vancouverites to little or no avail. All of a sudden, my race, my social class, my upbringing, became magnified. And to think, little 18-year-old Fadila couldn’t wait to not be the only brown girl sitting at the lunch table.

The only thing that changed about lunch was that I was sitting with richer white people.

For years, I’ve struggled to find my identity as a Canadian-born, Lebanese woman. I was too “white” to fit in with the Lebanese girls at DAL and too brown to fit in with the rich white kids at King’s.

There’s something disingenuous about taking the only handful of non-white students at your school and featuring them in all your promotional and recruitment material. Not only do those pictures misrepresent the school’s social and racial makeup, it makes students of colour feel targeted because of their race.

My feature-length story got a lot of attention. Not just from students, but from faculty and staff. Green sent Rutgers, Eslami and I an email asking if we could meet with her and Abbott, to discuss ways in which King’s can “better promote and reflect diversity in student recruitment.”

I sent my fellow women of colour a Facebook message asking what they thought. We all agreed to meet. But none of us knew what to say. The onus was on us to teach a university, an institution that’s worth millions of dollars, how to not take advantage of the only students of colour in their establishment.

We told Green and Abbot that King’s needs to be honest with future students about its lack of diversity. We asked for more support groups for racialized students. We asked for more professors of colour, and for more racial representation in curricula and social functions. Finally, we asked them to not target us for promotional material just to fill a quota.

So, when I opened my email – months after our little discussion – to see a message from the communications officer, I was disappointed. To say the least.

Editors’ Note

This op-ed originally included the name of an employee of the advancement office at King’s who was given names of students to email about appearing in promotional materials for the school. It has been removed. More information on why can be found here.