Editor’s note: The story has been clarified to reflect the celebration will complement the University of Toronto’s convocation ceremony.
TORONTO – Organizers of a special and unique celebration for black students at Canada’s largest university say they wish their event to acknowledge the barriers they face wasn’t necessary.
“It’s one of those balancing acts between not wanting to have to fight but knowing that you do,” says co-organizer Jessica Kirk.
The ceremony is being held Thursday at the University of Toronto after two students took it upon themselves to organize the event for black students completing degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level. All the students taking part will still go to commencement with their respective classes.
While the event is organized and run by students, it is going ahead on campus with the university’s blessing and financial support.
Kirk says the event, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, will give about 80 black graduates a chance to celebrate the accomplishment of overcoming systemic barriers unique to racialized groups seeking higher education.
She says black students face subtle racism in the classroom, contend with societal barriers that make it more difficult to pursue their studies, and often lack the benefit of black faculty members and senior academics to offer guidance and mentorship.
She also says that the special event, which will take place in addition to traditional convocations, seems appropriate in light of the students’ extra efforts.
“We wanted to take a moment because of the different forms of adversity that they’ve had to face while at university and kind of congratulate them for making it to the finish line,” Kirk said in an interview.
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Kirk became involved in the event when her friend Nasma Ahmed returned from a black graduation ceremony held at a university in California. Other American universities, including Harvard, have held similar celebrations in the past.
Kirk and Ahmed submitted a proposal to the U of T in February making sure to note the difference between convocation and celebration and received a favourable response within days.
“This is for black students by black students,” says Kirk. “That’s been the focus.”
Kelly Hannah-Moffat, the university’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said the school had never been approached with such a proposal before, but said it would be happy to consider any similar suggestions from other racialized groups in the future.
She said the black graduation tied into the university’s focus on inclusion and fit in nicely alongside other diversity-related projects, including efforts to adopt recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to make the campus welcoming for indigenous students.
“The goal is to create a strong pipeline of people who want to make U of T a place to study and encouraging those students to come to U of T and look at U of T as an option, a space where they can come and learn and feel very comfortable and contribute to that community,” Hannah-Moffat said.
Kirk acknowledged that the school’s endorsement of the black graduation ceremony was a positive step, but said more long-term efforts will be necessary to combat barriers that remain in place for black students.
She encountered no blatant racism during the five years of her undergraduate degree, but said “microaggressions” were part of every-day life.
“I’ve experienced, and have seen, that black students are more likely to be talked over and interrupted in the classroom,” she said. “Although those are smaller experiences, it takes a toll.”
Systemic barriers beyond campus also pose difficulties, Kirk said, adding attitudes towards blacks and disproportionately high instances of contact with police make it harder for workers of colour to find a job to pay for higher education.
Just last week, the City of Toronto released a report stating that the unemployment rate among black residents stood at 13 per cent, about twice the provincial average.
Against this backdrop, Kirk said it’s been difficult for black students to find a foothold in academia.
She said she encountered only one black professor or teaching assistant during her undergraduate degree.
According to Canadian research, under-representation is a national problem.
Malinda Smith, political science professor at the University of Alberta, said she is among just two or three black women teaching her discipline across the country.
She said a recent study of university department heads and executives revealed only between three and four per cent came from a visible minority group.
Smith praised U of T for its support of the black graduation celebration, saying it sets a more inclusive tone.
“It sends an important message that you can actually have a commitment to valuing diversity and a commitment to excellence at the same time,” she said.
“It also sends a message to the students in the university that the university values them.”
Others, however, criticized U of T’s position.
A column in a local right-wing newspaper accused the school of “manufacturing victimhood” by endorsing the black graduation, while many social media users decried the decision as a backward step.
“U of T black students want separate graduation ceremony, for years fighting for inclusion, now want segregation, King wasted his time,” wrote one Twitter user.
Both Kirk and Hannah-Moffat emphasized that the event was a complement to, not a replacement for, an official U of T convocation ceremony.
Kirk, who plans to begin masters studies at the school in September, said she hopes it marks the beginning of ongoing initiatives to make all students feel included.
“Yes, we’re happy that we got the support and we’re definitely thanking them for that, but we think that the conversation does need to continue beyond the event.”
With files from Mike Drolet