Photo by Kyle West
By: Maryanne Oketch
One of the reasons I chose to enrol at McMaster University was for the diversity that the school claimed to offer. Coming from a predominantly white secondary school, I was excited to attend a new school. I was hopeful that I would make connections within my program and maybe gain a support system consisting of people that could relate to the experience of being Black in academia.
When I entered the integrated science program in 2016, I was disheartened to realize that in my year of entry, I was the only student in my program that was Black, alongside two other individuals with mixed backgrounds. Within the week, this dropped to two, as one person switched out. Within the month, it then became clear that the two of us were not just the only Black students in our year, but in the whole four-year program.
This lack of Black peers created a feeling that I had to be the best of the best, and when I couldn’t reach that goal, I would withdraw rather than reaching out. This caused damage to my grades, reputation and relationships with my peers.
It is a well-known fact that there is a disparity between the Black population and our representation in higher education. This gap can be seen more in supplementary-based programs that McMaster offers, and my experience unfortunately is not an isolated one.
Multiple students from different programs stated that the lack of Black students in their programs made them feel like there were few people who could relate to the struggles that come with being Black.
There was also another complexity that I did not consider — the fact that there are more Black women in academia than Black men. One health sciences student, upon realizing that they were the only Black man in their whole year, experienced feelings of isolation.
In addition, a justice, political philosophy and law student was the only Black man in their program, and though he is friends with Black women, he notes that it is not fully the same.
Regrettably, the issues that stem from the lack of diversity do not just have interpersonal effects, but also affect the learning experience. A student in the arts and science program said that there were times when a professor or student would ask a question that pertained to race, and the question would seem pointed at them, the only Black student in their year.
This student can also recall a moment when a professor made a comment about how some students may be used to hearing racist jokes, and then locked eyes with them, creating an uncomfortable situation.
Another former arts and science student had a class where a classmate attempted to defend slavery, and a professor who taught a class about oppression but refused to use the term “racism”. The student states that they never felt challenged by the program, and felt that they had to do the challenging rather than their instructors. This was due, they say, to the structure and instruction of the program being catered to their affluent white peers and not to them.
The catering of programs does not seem limited to just arts and science but can also be seen in McMaster Engineering Society programs. A student within the program switched out after one semester due to the lack of actual inquiry in the program, but a focus on the marks received.
When a peer in their program stated that “the disadvantaged [in Hamilton] aren’t doing enough for the more privileged to help them,” the professor did not immediately shut down this false and insensitive statement, but instead was complacent. In addition, the structure of the program encouraged students to repeat the same statistics because that is what is needed for a good grade, and not because the students wished to learn more about societal issues.
If multiple Black students in different years and different programs are saying the same thing, there needs to be some sort of change to support these students when they are in the program. I am not suggesting these programs change their selection process, because this lack of diversity is a systemic issue, and I do not have the knowledge to provide suitable solutions to help mitigate the effects.
Regardless, if McMaster strives for diversity and does not have the necessary structure to support the diverse students that they already have, then their efforts are just a baseless claim to obtain more money from a diverse group of students.