Public Reparations: SFU is concerned with its image, not Black students

SFU is reacting to, rather than preventing, Black trauma

A large Black Lives Matter protest
SFU needs to do better when no one is looking. Credits: Life Matters/ Pexels

By: Chlöe Arneson, News Writer

In 2020, after violence against Black citizens produced intense public pressure, universities across North America leaned into equity and diversity initiatives. SFU, for its part, has issued statements of support and announced a partnership with Resilience BC Anti-Racist Network. That’s all great; however, SFU is stuck playing catch up when violence against its Black students occurs, rather than pre-empting racist incidents out of a sincere desire to protect its Black students and staff. 

That’s not to say that SFU hasn’t made significant strides in listening to its Black students and staff in recent years. At the start of 2022, the school created a new position for vice president equity and inclusion at the recommendation of student activists. 

Despite the new position, it’s worth noting anti-Black racism in academia is deeply intertwined with the university’s most basic structures. Professionalism standards and human resources practices that deal with misconduct or conflict are often unfairly targeted toward Black employees and do not consider the role race plays in the workplace. The university system itself thrives on exclusive excellence, giving ample opportunity for racial bias and discriminatory admissions processes to contribute to the underrepresentation of BIPOC students we see in Canada today. 

Black students, already facing those systematic barriers, suffer from a system and locale intrinsically linked with white supremacy. When SFU does act on student concerns, it’s largely in response to a surge in public attention on the problem. Case in point, on December 11, 2020, a Black alum was tasered and pepper-sprayed on campus by a Burnaby RCMP officer before being taken into custody. While a third-party investigation ordered by SFU followed proper policies, it remains an incidence of excessive violence towards a Black member of the SFU community. In response, SFU Health and Counselling opened up a space for Black students to discuss racism and receive support. 

For Balqees Jama, president of SFU’s Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry, it points to a larger trend. At a public anti-racist symposium earlier this month, she said,It seems like conversations surrounding Black students, supports, and implementation only seems to progress at a reasonable pace when there is Black trauma involved and white guilt.

 “We’ve been asking for Black health and counselling forever, when did that happen? The conversation started Summer 2020, but it took another case of Black trauma where there was a case of actual police brutality in December 2020 to even get the ball rolling.”

Waiting to see high-profile violence against Black people before implementing important support programs is bad enough, but even when SFU does move forward with promising programs, they require the beneficiaries of those endeavors to bear too much of the cost. There’s still only one Black counsellor on the clinical counselling team. While I’m sure Tricia-Kay Williams is an exellcent counsellor, how can one person be expected to heal the entirety of the Black student body? Ebony Magnus, SFU Samuel and Frances Belzberg Library’s head librarian, criticized the reality that university protocols are ultimately designed to protect the institution from seeming racist, and not to protect Black community members. Systemic issues can’t be fixed with counselling.  

“Campus safety operates as protection against the liability of the institution more than the commitment to the dignity of Black people. Campus safety staff dismissing racist verbal assaults against Black staff members as non-violent because there was no act of physical violence is not mutuality,” Magnus said.

SFU needs to listen to its Black students, not just when the public is outraged about racist violence, but all the time. Jama was involved with the campaign to hire 15 new Black faculty at SFU to better represent the Black student body. The problem, she said, is that in discussions about Black students, “white administration and institutions make it about themselves.” Instead, she argues, the solution lies in representation at the highest levels. “We need Black admins,” she concluded.

Policies and protections made within the university are shaped by its inherent realities of upholding white supremacy. The school needs a change. And it can start by keeping its ear to the ground when they think no one is watching.