Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why Gupta’s Casual Racism Should Worry You


GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — In this bustling lakeside town I spent a wonderful Christmas evening baking pizza in an outdoor oven, sipping a cold bottle of the local Primus brew. Earlier in the day, I was at a lakeside café reading a good book, watching families dressed in their Sunday best, as they strolled toward the adjoining restaurant for their holiday meal. Little children in their miniature suits and gowns paused to take photos with the Santa Claus cut-out propped next to the entrance.

This American Jew had a lovely Congolese Christmas–a perk I was able to enjoy as a UBC student studying abroad in South Africa, where my holiday trip began. And yet I felt guilty.

I felt guilty because I neglected to heed the call of my university’s new president, Arvind Gupta, and ask the locals celebrating here on December 25 whether they knew it was Christmas.

Perhaps the several thousand cases of Ebola, currently solely concentrated in the adjacent West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, had gotten these folks so mixed up that they weren’t actually sure what all those small, colorful orbs were doing decorating their restaurant. And why, they might have wondered, were faux fir trees scattered around the lakeside?

If that sounds a bit absurd, that’s because it is. Even in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country routinely ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, the Christian population sure as heck knew it was a day of celebration.

Maybe if I could have reassured President Gupta that the Congolese, residents of what the West has variously termed the “Heart of Darkness”, the “Bleeding Heart of Africa,” and otherwise written off as one more “War-Torn Region in Africa,” were happily celebrating Christmas despite a public health crisis ongoing thousands of miles away – for perspective, the epicentre of the outbreak, Sierra Leone, is closer to Berlin than Cape Town – he would not have felt the need to “challenge” UBC’s 300,000 students and alumni to join a campaign led by an aging British musician to generate pity for supposedly sickly Africa and donate around $20 to an opaque foundation seeking to “fight ebola.”

“Tonight, we’re reaching out and touching you,” Gupta crooned in the grainy webcam video, posted on UBC’s official Facebook page, singing lyrics from “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” before the clip fades to black.

Creepy. But not nearly as creepy as what a closer examination of Gupta’s participation in the Band Aid 30 challenge, as well as what an assortment of his public statements tell us about the type of university he intends to run.

Gupta has repeatedly said the path forward for UBC must include close collaboration with the private sector, but his endorsement of Band Aid 30–a simplistic, patronizing, racist and ultimately destructive campaign–shows a disturbing lack of the critical approach essential to ensuring our university doesn’t become an industry lapdog.

Gupta’s Ignorance on Aid Debate a Distressing Sign

Anyone who has shown even a cursory interest in current events knows that foreign aid to African countries is a fraught topic. “Aid” is an enormously broad category and includes everything from controversial voluntourism trips to long running, small-scale NGO projects, to work funded by the Catholic Church, and debt forgiveness by foreign governments. Scholars and pundits are divided on the effectiveness of various types of aid in successfully tackling issues like reducing infant mortality, combating HIV/AIDS and addressing food shortages and on the question of whether ongoing, large-scale development aid prevents governments from becoming self-sufficient but many are harshly critical.

“This money has bred dependence and inflation; it doesn’t allow people to ever really become productive,” Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, explained to Der Spiegel.

Many also criticize Western development aid, which often includes stringent conditions – anything from requiring recipient governments to hold regular, free elections to forcing them to restructure their entire economies and privatize industries – as a form of neo-colonialism.

(Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which Gupta advises on matters of science and technology, has been widely criticized for folding its foreign aid agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and tying aid to foreign policy objectives and economic opportunities for Canadian companies.)

While hardly universal, this critique is prevalent enough that the director of the European Union’s aid program in Africa has called the practice of tying aid dollars to democratic reforms “like blackmailing,” adding that such conditions were often seen as a “colonial tool.”

But while there is much nuance in the foreign development debates – Africa is a Country has a particularly great critique regarding foreign aid – there is a broad consensus in progressive circles around what kind of aid is racist, patronizing and destructive: campaigns like Geldolf’s Gupta-endorsed Band Aid, for one.

“Representing Africans–yet again–as helpless and without dignity while representing ourselves as knowledgeable problem-solvers (who give up nothing in our attempts to do good) IS part of the problem and NOT part of the solution,” Cecelia Lynch writes in a succinct takedown of Band Aid on the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa blog. “[W]hat we need is to target the neoliberal austerity policies that have led to the breakdown of health systems in West Africa as well as other areas of the world (including many parts of the U.S.).”

For Gupta to buy into Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” song suggests an utter lack of awareness of the fact that throwing Western money at African problems is anything but entirely noble. Gupta’s participation in the campaign reeks of an increasingly popular white saviour complex that views Africa as an opaque box of humanitarian suffering that responsible Westerners are obligated to help in the most base manner: if there is a famine, ship food; if there is violence, send peacekeepers.

As Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole writes in a critique of the White Saviour-Industrial Complex:

“His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’”

Au Bon Pain bakery's Christmas decorations in Goma

Au Bon Pain bakery’s Christmas decorations in Goma

Gupta’s Aid Ignorance Jives With His Support for Industry

That President Gupta views Africa in this way, coupled with his other public comments, suggests he sees the world through an uncritical capitalist lens, and that he intends to integrate UBC more tightly into the corporate world in Canada and abroad.

Gupta has said the right things about UBC’s role in society, but his actions from the Band Aid video to his allocation of tens of millions in research funding at a time when the Board of Governors is hiking students fees and complaining about a lack of funding for the university, say far more about his plans.

“We should think about our role in creating great Canadian citizens,” Gupta told the Georgia Straight. “And great Canadian citizens have to be engaged with the world. They have to be engaged in their community. They have to want to give. They have to want to volunteer.”

These are platitudes of the finest order, but examining Gupta’s past actions suggest a leader enamoured with private-public partnerships alongside corporations that contribute to the societal ills Gupta wants us as students “to give” and “volunteer” to eliminate.

From 2000 until his inauguration as president Gupta served as CEO of Mitacs, a Canadian nonprofit that works with the federal and provincial governments and over 900 industry “partners.” The foundation brought in $10.4 million in private-sector investment in 2013, money that went toward research projects and internships equipping students with “vital business, interpersonal and  entrepreneurial skills.”

One Mitacs project had an SFU student measure a particular kind of pollution from Vancouver-based mining company Teck Resources’ stacks of mine waste. While measuring such pollution is ordinarily “very difficult and costly to measure” – an obligation that a mining company like Teck, which made a profit of $3.7 billion in 2013, would be required to take – Mitacs only provided a team of interns for the project.

Meanwhile, environmental organizations are protesting Canadian mining companies’ refusal to make public exactly the sort of pollution data being gathered by Gupta’s Mitacs interns. And elsewhere, other Canadian mining companies have abysmal human rights records in their operations overseas, including in Botswana, Kenya, DRC and Zimbabwe.

Yet amidst all this, Gupta, in his inaugural speech as president, announced his intention for UBC to “continue to support the resource sector, the traditional mainstay of the BC economy.” He added that industry “challenges” would be put front and center in the classroom, saying, “…we will reach out across civil society, always ready to address the challenges facing governments, industries… We will integrate their needs into our research mandate… And we will integrate them in our teaching mandate.”

READ MORE: Industry ties at UBC’s new mining institute have been widely criticized and student activists have been waging a grassroots campaign to shut it down.

While Gupta told the Straight he wants to create “great Canadian citizens” who are “engaged with the world,” it appears he is unable to “think constellationally” when crafting a university that can meet these aims. Real social justice work involves a critique of capitalism, or at least of the way large corporations operate in our capitalist society, but as detailed above Gupta has enthusiastically worked with industries that do serious damage both in Canada and abroad.

Gupta has repeatedly made clear he views the university as a means to boost Canada and BC’s economy, even suggesting that Mitacs was funding scholarships for 282 undergraduate students from India, Brazil, China and Mexico to study in Canada explicitly because, “Many of them will go back to their home countries and give us connections.”

His Band Aid endorsement suggests a worldview wherein there is no contradiction between offering sustained support for a Canadian industry alleged to have been culpable in brutal massacres in the Global South, and crooning off-key pleas for pocket change to be sent to the same populations affected by research coming out of Gupta’s university and foundation.

As Teju Cole further explains, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

 Band Aid Endorsement a Red Flag For Gupta’s Vision of UBC

The reason Gupta’s apparent attitudes toward Africa, as witnessed in the Band Aid video, are so crucial is because it is one of the few indications we have about how he plans to run the university. Still early in his term as president, it is hard to pass judgement before Gupta has taken concrete action. Yet the Band Aid endorsement shows that Gupta falls squarely within the mold of the classic Western businessman: believing in the inherent good of Western society, believing in the inherent inferiority and subservience of the Global South and believing that the West should dedicate its primary resources – its capital, both human and financial – toward areas that will help it grow.

In a deeper exploration of the Band Aid campaign, New African attacked the “politics of pity” embodied by Geldolf and Gupta’s attitudes toward the continent. The politics of pity stand in contrast to the “politics of justice,” and those who pity are compelled to simply offer cash or food to those who are damaged by unjust actions on the part of Western corporations or governments, rather than fight for structural change.

“A five-minute song cannot argue for a certain worldview of widely-accepted stereotypes; it can only tap into and enhance those that already dominate the cultural and political environment,” James Wan wrote.

Gupta’s endorsement of the campaign, then, shows that he already holds the worldview of a white saviour and accepts the stereotypes of “Africans” as helpless, sickly and in dire need of assistance. He is not a president who will run a university in a way that helps change the oft-problematic Western worldview and the view of the Other embedded in it.

 What the Future Holds

Our new president has big plans for growing UBC’s role internationally and within provincial life. He envisions a university working hand-in-glove with industry and government for the betterment of society at large. The danger is that it is all too easy for a university to become a government or business lackey. It is a far greater challenge for a university to be an agent for positive change within those sectors.

This should be taken as a warning to the student community at UBC. If we aren’t careful, we could soon be studying in the service of Kinder Morgan and Stephen Harper.

More importantly, it should be taken as a warning for Arvind Gupta. The protests against student fee hikes have shown that we aren’t a group of students that will take whatever the administration throws at us lying down. I’ve strayed from The Ubyssey, my typical campus journalism stomping ground, to publish this piece in UBC’s new alternative press, partially for the symbolism: there are more eyes watching you than ever, Gupta, and you ought to be careful what you do with our university.

Special thanks to editors of the The Talon, and especially Maneo Mohale, for their suggestions and guidance in the editing of this piece.

Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet: UBC’s Indigenous Histories and Presence

Every day, thousands of UBC students pass by a totem pole that comes from the depths of Viner Sound near the former Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w village of Metap.1 Hockey players at Thunderbird Arena haul their gear past a duck depicted in mid takeoff, crafted with the copper-leafed remnants of an old Volvo car, and a 41 foot tall depiction of the renowned Musqueam warrior qiyəplenəxʷ looks out for law students at the new Allard Hall. But for the most part the stories behind these places are untold.

Instead, we define the history of UBC through images like the one below. It shows former UBC president Leonard Klinck in front a shack filled with the dynamite used to blast the remaining stumps of the cedar rainforest that once stood here. The official caption recognizes this as the first building on campus, effectively erasing the possibility that there was something here before.

University of British Columbia Archives, Photo by Fred Lewis Hacking [UBC 1.1/2]

University of British Columbia Archives, Photo by Fred Lewis Hacking [UBC 1.1/2]

For myself and my colleague Sarah Ling, the many Indigenous stories of UBC, symbolized through art, architecture and place names, offer opportunities to reflect on our position as visitors on Musqueam territory. The həm̓ləsəm̓ transformation stone offers teachings about taking care of the land, and the q̓ələχən village reminds us of why Musqueam warriors chose this place to live and why settlers later followed their lead.

We hope that through sharing these stories more widely, we can change the way students, staff and faculty understand UBC and know the land they occupy.


Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet

Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet (KLBF) is a new initiative that we’re excited to be leading. It provides a digital walking tour highlighting the artworks, buildings and places that tell of the deep histories and continued presence of Indigenous people on the land now known as UBC’s Point Grey Campus. Supported by an initial grant from the Equity Enhancement Fund, we’re currently in the project’s pilot phase, testing out new curriculum models and a web-based tour platform in 12 classes across 6 disciplines. The project is a partnership between the First Nations Studies Program (FNSP),2 Aboriginal Initiatives at the Centre for Teaching Learning and Technology (CTLT), the Coordinated Arts Program (CAP) and Digital Media Technologies. Together with a team3 of instructors, advisors and staff, we’re working to turn the walking tour into a robust learning tool that can eventually be adapted to a variety of classroom and public uses.

For team member and FNSP chair Daniel Justice, the project is an important intervention in the way we understand UBC and its relationship to Indigenous peoples both historically and today. “We have responsibilities to this place, to our Musqueam hosts, to the histories and the futures of the land and those who call it home,” Justice says, “and Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet helps motivate a different understanding of these living legacies and ongoing relationships.”

It’s important to realize that UBC’s 100-year history4 has been built upon thousands of years of Musqueam history. Sarah Ling, who is the project’s co-lead, reflects on the many teachings we receive from friends and colleagues from Musqueam: “Our initiative is following in the footsteps of incredible work and ongoing initiatives led by the Musqueam Nation to educate visitors to their lands and pass on teachings within their own community. A recent example is the series of stunning exhibitions at the Museum of Anthropology, Museum of Vancouver, and Musqueam Cultural Centre called c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before The City, which encourage people to witness and share vital parts of Musqueam’s language, culture, history, and values.”

David Gaertner, member of the KLBF development team and postdoctoral fellow in FNSP, is excited to see the impact of the project when put in the hands of UBC students, instructors and community members. Gaertner, who piloted the tour last semester in his class on Indigenous New Media, says the tour “employs a unique instance of augmented reality, layering Indigenous history and stories onto physical locations, and in doing so, it makes the land our text – the campus our classroom.” As an instructor, he sees KLBF “as a means to investigate the ways in which technology can respectfully deepen student engagement with land, history and Indigenous peoples.”

As students ourselves, we’re committed to keeping our project open to student input. First Nations Studies Student Association President and Talon editor Matt Ward was one of the first students to test out a preliminary version of the digital tour last semester. He sees the potential for the tour to remind people of their relationship to this land. “I’m really excited about this project and the opportunities it will give students that are looking for ways to engage in difficult conversations that they might feel nervous about having.”

Another aspect of our pilot phase is ensuring that Musqueam and other Indigenous communities connected to the tour are properly consulted. We’ve sought permission from Musqueam to begin our work, and will be reviewing and strengthening our site descriptions for the tour with them. We also plan to enhance our current materials by adding audio and video commentary from community members to the digital walking tour platform. For the time being, students will experience a beta version of the digital tour that won’t be published until we have full approval and have collaborated on the next important phases of development.


Continuing Our Journey

This isn’t our first foray into campus change and activism together. Back in 2011, Sarah and I successfully facilitated a community-led naming project that resulted in the first UBC buildings named using hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the Musqueam language, and Musqueam’s orthography. This initiative was sparked by how troubled we were with the egregious misuse of Indigenous names at Totem Park Residence. For instance, as a resident of Dene house in 2006, the floor above me thought it appropriate to call their Day of the Longboat team ‘the Savages’ with costumes and Pocahontas chants to match.

We had learned so much through our time in FNSP, and felt a need to pass on some of that knowledge to other UBC students, specifically a basic understanding of historical and ongoing forms of colonialism, problems with cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, and an understanding that these names are connected to Indigenous communities. Now Totem Park Residence has two Musqueam place names, həm̓ləsəm̓ and q̓ələχən, that were shared through consultation with the community whose unceded land UBC is located on and gives students a deeper sense of the history of UBC in relation to Musqueam and Vancouver.

Names alone won’t create the kind of lasting change we’re looking for. At Totem Park there are still very few ways of accessing basic, introductory reading materials or of hearing the stories of this land. Sarah, through her work at CTLT Aboriginal Initiatives, has been creating a film series to educate students about the origins of each house name. The series of 8 films feature the voices of individuals who come from these communities and are connected with UBC.

Knowing the Land Beneath Our Feet has been a natural progression from the naming project. It’s our effort to reach farther than Totem Park, because the problem of misrepresentation and erasure of Indigenous histories and presence exists throughout our campus. The idea was really sparked when one professor heard the story of our naming project and saw the potential for a learning tool that would help her communicate to students the relevance of Indigenous issues to their daily lives.

After hearing a CBC radio interview about the Totem Park naming project we did back in 2011, CAP Co-chair Kathryn Grafton was intrigued by to the potential for our work to tie together larger Indigenous issues to her students’ everyday experiences on campus, many of whom lived in Totem Park. The following year, she asked Sarah and I to speak to her students. “When they agreed, we talked about how, ideally, we would leave the classroom,” Grafton reflected, “so that students could have an embodied experience – a place-based experience – hearing stories while standing together in front of sites that they frequently passed during their daily routines. Spencer and Sarah then created a custom tour that prompted students to reconsider their place in this territory.”

For the next two years we built on that original tour, adapting it to other classrooms and presented it at international conferences, pecha kucha nights, and most recently at the installation of UBC President Arvind Gupta.


Moving Ahead

After nearly 5 years of working with Sarah on decolonizing initiatives on campus, we can see the end of our time together on campus in sight. We hope that when this project is complete, we won’t be needed to lead tours anymore. And more importantly, we hope that what we’ve accomplished, the small ways we’ve been able to change the way UBC represents, interacts with, and teaches about Indigenous peoples, shows other students that they can do the same.

We’re planning a major public launch close to September 2015, when our materials are complete and have been reviewed and approved. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting updates on our project, or you think your faculty or unit should be one of the first to receive our educational materials when they’re ready, please join our mailing list.

Spencer Lindsay graduated from the School of Community and Regional Planning with a specialization in Indigenous Community Planning in November 2014. He’s now working as a community development worker at Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House and Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House. Spencer is Métis and grew up on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen people in Victoria, B.C.

Sarah Ling was born and raised as a 4th generation Chinese-Canadian in Prince Rupert, Northwest B.C., on the traditional and unceded territory of the Tsimshian people. She is currently completing her master’s regarding the history of Chinese market gardening in the Musqueam community through the Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program. She works at Aboriginal Initiatives in UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.


  1. Neel, Ellen and Ted. Four Tests of Tsi-kumi. 1948.
  2. The First Nations Studies Program will soon be changing its name to the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program. It will join the First Nations Languages Program, soon to be called the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program, to form the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies.
  3. The KLBF team is: Sarah Ling, Spencer Lindsay, Daniel Justice (Chair, FNSP), Kathryn Grafton (Co-chair, CAP), Evan Mauro (Stream Leader and Sessional Instructor, CAP), David Gaertner (Post Doctoral Fellow, FNSP) and Amy Perreault (Aboriginal Initiatives Strategist, CTLT).
  4. Throughout 2015 to 2016, UBC will be celebrating its centennial.

Clearing the Fog: A retrospective on lessons learned from campus activism

Trigger warning: sexual assault, violence, racism

A Timeline of Violence, Sexism, and Student Activism at UBC Vancouver (2013):

  • April 19th/2013: “Stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported on UBC Vancouver campus
  • May 19th/2013: Another “stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported; goes unreported to the campus community
  • Sept 7/2013: CBC News reports Sauder School of Business FROSH Rape chant
  • Sept 28/2013: Third “stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported on UBC Vancouver campus in 2013
  • Oct 13/2013: Fourth “stranger in the dark” assault reported
  • Oct 19/2013: Fifth assault reported outside Totem Park Residences
  • Oct 27/2013: Sixth assault outside Gage Towers
  • Oct ~20-30/2013: Take Back the Night Rally Facebook Page gains over 800 attending and generates thousands of comments, trolls, and conversations
  • Oct 30/2013: Take Back the Night marches through campus from Museum of Anthropology to the campus RCMP headquarters on Wesbrook Mall
  • Nov/2013: Sometime within mid-October – mid-November, the “Don’t Walk Alone” campaign begins on campus, with posters and bus announcements on major UBC lines repeating the phrase, “Call Safewalk to escort you to your destination”.
  • Nov 5/2013: Composite sketch of suspect released, with a height discrepancy of half a foot between all the witnesses.
  • Nov 22/2013: March to Reclaim Consent

It’s been over a year since any violent stranger assaults have been reported on campus, but take a moment to remember the atmosphere it triggered in the fall of 2013: the weeks of thick fog that covered campus; the hushed conversations; posters, bus announcements, professors and peers admonishing us “Don’t walk alone.” I saw women check in with each other constantly, asking, “Do you have a ride home?” and a few well meaning men discussing vigilante action plans (none of which came to fruition). The anxiety hung thick in the air, and suddenly, the conversations about sexual assault that some of us have been having for years were in the forefront of everyone’s minds. It was as if the anxiety and fear some of us have felt our entire lives was suddenly released, and suddenly visible to everyone.

In the autumn of 2013 I helped spearhead the March to Reclaim Consent. There were a lot of people who were confused about why we were creating a conversation about consent when the issue was, according to RCMP, just one individual attacking women in the night. There were some people who told me I was wrong, annoying, and should just shut up, and more who congratulated me on my “values”, as if valuing the lives and safety of women is some kind of special trait.

There is a lot to be said for hindsight, and there are a few things I wish I’d better understood a year ago. What good is education and raising awareness if we never put our words into actions, and if we do organize action, what does it accomplish? How do you explain to a CBC news camera the importance of understanding the intersections of colonialism, poverty, race, capitalism, gender identity, and sexism, that these events are just a small town on the roadmap of a violent history? What is the point of fighting within this state of constant emotional exhaustion, if there are always going to be more people who don’t get it? This reflection is a retrospective of what we might take away from the events at UBC Vancouver in the fall of 2013.

What constitutes a protest?

During the planning phases for the March to Reclaim Consent, I was terrified that I wasn’t cut out for whatever I was doing, especially after the media frenzy of Take Back the Night. I had this feeling I hadn’t read enough feminist theory, and that I was a fraud for not actually retaining any information after reading Foucault, and for being very confused after hearing Judith Butler speak.

It turns out there isn’t a list of qualifications in order to be political, or an activist (aside from being a good listener). As a person who holds a ton of privilege, who has navigated UBC and various institutions with relative ease, I had access to a lot of great people who guided and connected us to resources provided by UBC and the Alma Mater Society. There were closed meeting spaces provided to us within 24 hours of asking. I had fairly jovial meetings with campus security. We had a loudspeaker system provided to us, and a number of amazing poets, professors and community activists spoke at this event. While the March to Reclaim Consent did not generate as much news or controversy as Take Back the Night, I felt confident that we had worked hard to consult one another, to create a safe and inclusive space.

The March to Reclaim Consent occurred because a group of activists felt like they needed to do something in an atmosphere of fog and anxiety. I tried to facilitate spaces where people felt safe to voice concern and ask questions without shame, because my priority was always that we were taking care of each other.

There is a little voice of doubt though, that asks what kind of impact did we actually have?

The issue with organizing a protest against rape culture is that the symptoms are so wide and varied that the point is often lost. Constructive changes turn into finger pointing. There is a devolution of organization, and then the deluge of attacking comments and derailing conversations. Once the major fires of the inciting incidents burn down and the newsfeeds turn back to cat videos, many of us are left to stoke the smoldering ashes, having tired, ineffective conversations such as, “Yes, catcalling is offensive”, or, “No, Anita Sarkeesian is not lying about death threats, being doxxed, and terrorist threats for speaking publicly”. These tired conversations, all on different topics, lead to the same conclusion: we are steeped in cultures of violence, and that violence disproportionately affects some people more than others.

These conversations have made me tired, and I, like others, carry enough privilege that I can sometimes hide from them.

I once met someone who believed if you were not willing to be arrested during a protest, you don’t care enough. While I disagree, because there is something deeply privileged about being certain you’ll survive the justice system unscathed, I was impressed by the conviction this person held. Part of me wanted to hold myself accountable to my own words that often call for change, no matter the price on my position in society. It takes a deep, unwavering energy to want change that hard, because there is often a high personal cost and loss of safety nets as a result.

It turns out that the biggest impediment to organizing activism, in my experience, is not any individuals or groups working or speaking out against us. It is our own lack of availability. We all had projects, papers, deadlines, jobs, and families, and the only reason I was able to do the organizational work I did was because I only had one course in my final year. “You do you” is my go-to mantra for myself and friends I work with, but what if the work needed is greater than yourself or your own comfort?

I organized by cooperating, obtaining permits, and promising to walk on sidewalks, and while that demonstration had its time and place, I wonder if we could have been a bit more disruptive. I wonder why I was so afraid to shake people out of their safety nets. Cooperating with UBC ensured safety, yes, but it also ensured those with power could glance at us over a cup of coffee from their glass offices, filing along the sidewalk, and then dismiss us as a “non-issue”.

We are young in a time of great change. But our voices need to be sustained. Are we protecting our safety nets, or are we settling into our hammocks? We don’t have time to be afraid to shake it up.

Remembering history and land

It seems fitting that I am writing this article from a crowded coffee shop at Oak Street and 12th Avenue, the location where the original Fairview campus of the University of British Columbia opened nearly a century ago. This land which now hosts a hospital is the unceded territory of the sḵwx̱wú7mesh, sel̓íl̓witulh, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm nations. That this is stolen land is not a footnote or an afterthought – it is the first act of violence in a long history of violence and atrocities that occurred and continue to occur on this land.

I wish I had been more mindful of this fact in all of my conversations a year ago. I know, acknowledging colonialism as a settler is confusing and disconcerting at first to those whose complicated family histories allow them to call a new place home. It dismantles ideas that you never thought to question as a child, like the legitimacy of a nation built upon oppression and abuses, white-washed versions of history taught in our government approved high school curriculums, and the efficacy of our current systems of government. Tacitly accepting the continued oppression of people around you (whether you see it or not) is a much easier way to spend a sunny afternoon – but it does not contribute to the culture of equality and consent most of us say we’d like to be part of.

Fostering a consent culture depends largely upon people being able to meet each other on equal grounds. This is why any equality movement occurring on this land must give power to Indigenous voices, those who have been here all along. This is why we must actively give amplification to the voices with less power or ability. We can’t wish equality into existence because we actively have to create those equal connections.

“But all of that stuff happened in the past, Laura. We should all have a clean slate and live peacefully in our meritocracy!”

DNA is not destiny, but you exist on the shoulders of your ancestors. The tangible clues of forgotten histories are all around us, peppering our consciousness with street signs, building names, park names, statues. These pieces of history reflect whose power has shaped our society, and whose children benefit because of that power. Remembering that this land was taken without consent and with violence reminds me of the less tangible clues of our forgotten histories that continue unresolved – learned fears, poverty, depression, anxiety, cycles of violence. These cycles can continue on for generations, until an individual chooses to stop it by building a community of care around themselves. But violence cannot simply be forgotten; it rises like a thick fog, or a ghost, seeps into your life again unexpectedly, and is sometimes impossible to dispel on your own.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the causes of violence, whether it is a symptom of hunger and pain, and whether there actually is enough food, water, shelter, and love to go around. It sometimes feels like we live in this perpetual drought of resources in spite of the almost sickening abundance of North America. It is possible for this land to support those who call it home. It’s possible for other lands to yield abundance to the people who call those lands home. Call me an idealist, but if we can give all humans an equal and fair chance at access to sufficient food, shelter, and love, looking at those needs as human rights rather than comforts to those who can afford them, we might accidentally solve a lot of issues.

We also need to give an equal amount of respect to the land that provides those resources. I am thinking of the brave protesters on Burnaby Mountain who understand that everything we need to survive hinges on respecting our land, which is what Indigenous teachings have acknowledged for time immemorial. Instead of allowing these warnings of climate change to sink in and change our lifestyles, we continue our placid and comfortable existences (in which I am just as comfortable), waiting for something to force us into change.

But no one can force you to change, and I am realizing more and more every day that this is the basis of my feminism.  Any change incurred by force does nothing to change your heart, or true belief. This is why you cannot legislate violence and bigotry out of society. This is why the idea that we should have automatically become more progressive because “this is the future, man!” and “It’s 2014, I can’t believe we still _______” is false.

The passage of time does not effect change – people do.

This is, and is not about me

When I came into feminism and politics a handful of years ago, my discussions were very much centred on the personal – personal hurts, how social norms and body policing on the personal level affect representation on all levels. It was safe to discuss “feminism light” issues, because it is well-treaded territory, and most everyone experiences body insecurity on some level. But what I have come to know is that the discussions of our personal hurts go much deeper, and social expectations and body policing happen on a much larger, incomprehensible scale. What I have come to know is that my voice, opinion, and being are fairly insignificant against a pounding waterfall of issues, injuries, and atrocities. My story is no less and no more significant in the stream of this world.

Paradoxically, I have also come to know is that my voice, opinion, and being are indispensable to change.

Last year, depending on who I was talking to, I was simply an event organizer, helping an activist cause that I was only lightly invested in. “This isn’t about me,” I kept insisting to friends, reporters, journalists, all asking why I feel this issue, the conversation about consent, is so important. I felt okay to discuss the theories, the case studies, the evidence stacked to reveal social inequalities and continual apathy toward systemic violence. Yet, if you were to ask me a year ago why these stories of violence resonate so deeply within me, I would have probably given you a vague answer. I was, and still am, afraid of my own story, and continue to grapple with what to tell, whom to tell, and whether my mom will be reading it.

I’ve thought about sharing personal stories time and again, and then wondered whether it would do me any good to delve into details about that time in residence, or that three-year relationship, or that time he was drunk, or that time I was drunk, or the time I believed in God. I have several stories about times I was not asked, which has also impeded me from speaking. This is another thing we have to get over – you are allowed to have more than one story. Our current narrative allows you victimhood the first time, and anything past that you’re asking for it. We are multitudinous beings, with many stories and identities. These are things that have happened to me, but you don’t need to know these details in order to know me.

If you’re stepping on someone’s foot, they don’t need to describe the pain of the crushed toe in detail for you to realize that you should probably get off their foot. We don’t need the details of any one violent story in order to cease the action. The simple knowledge that an action has hurt an individual should be reason enough. Yet a lot of people will ask for details, look for the lie, or make it more dramatic in its repetition. The story, separated from the human, is talked about for a week, in its hundred incarnations, and then forgotten by the next terrible incident. Unless there is a personalization to the pain, a name and a face, we tend to forget or abstract the idea.

There is this hunger by media, and social media, for scandal. Six stranger sexual assaults on a campus is newsworthy, but hundreds of instances of domestic abuse and sexual assault by an individual known to the survivor, which also occur on the same campus – no, that is just personal, and it is not a social issue. A lot of people think these kinds of violence are just an ugly inevitability of life. The anonymity is required, but without the names and faces, many people don’t actually grasp the vastness of the amount of violence surrounding us. These things happen to other people, in other places, sometimes reported by an impersonal news outlet so we can all collectively gasp at individual atrocities, and never ask why we allow them to happen in the first place.

The personal is the political, and our bodies are the war zones of political histories. Our bodies, that we tell ourselves are not tall enough, white enough, rich enough, thin enough, and able enough, take all of this information in. Our bodies take in the time I was seven in Niagara Falls on family vacation and a white man muttered, “Fuckin’ Japs” as you walk by. Our bodies take in the “Fattie”, and the “Too chinky to date”, and the “You’re like a Twinkie”. Our bodies understand what it means when you walk in on a conversation of boys rating and comparing the bodies of women who live on your residence floor. Our bodies understand what it means when a police officer shoots another Black boy in America.

This is, and is not about me. While the details of my own story are unimportant, it is important that I help add words to this story being shaped in my community, and the stories of those around me.

What does this mean in retrospect?

Violence continues to be part of the thread that weaves our planes of existence, in spite of the largely unknown work of activists for hundreds of years. We all have a story, or know a story, or are so grateful to not have a story, even if we doubt ourselves that our story actually counts. We have all turned away or tolerated violence because there is very little we can do as individuals, without organizing.

So, in my mind at least, the activism on campus, no matter how organized or disorganized, big, small, hostile or passive, through petitions and demonstrations or in the conversation between friends, is valuable. The frustrated conversations you have with your mom’s friends, or with a coworker, or a fellow student on Facebook is valuable. Being wrong and then coming back to a conversation to correct yourself, or allowing yourself to change your mind, or holding to your opinion in spite of multiple naysayers is valuable. Do not let them tell you your conversations, learning, and teachings are not valuable.

I am not a person who thinks violence can be entirely eradicated. No matter how many people we educate, or bring to justice, no matter how many organizations we form, or protests we stage, tragedy will always continue to occur. However, I would someday like to feel a tragedy as being a tragedy, instead of inevitability. I would like to be shocked again. I would like to be surprised again.

I haven’t written as much or been as vocal this past year. I’ve been learning how to ask for what I need. I’ve been learning how to let go of what I don’t need. I’ve been learning how to love this year (it turns out this is all quite difficult to do, and there is more of my snot in my friends’ hair than I care to admit). Build a community of care and consent, even if it is just a community of two to start. Ask for embraces by holding your arms open and pausing. Be mindful of the burdens of others. Be mindful of your own burdens. You will constantly have to remind yourself and your community when consent is taken for granted, so be gentle but unyielding.

Eventually the fog might clear, and we might surprise ourselves again.

Social Justice Synonyms #14: “I raped that midterm”

Content note: This piece discusses rape, rape culture, child sexual abuse, colonialism, violence against sex workers, and transmisogyny.

In honour of Sexual Assault Awareness Month here at UBC, this week’s Social Justice Synonyms will be dedicated to phrases which trivialize sexual violence, such as “I raped that midterm” or “that midterm raped me.”

Casual use of the word “rape” is common in a culture that continuously condones sexualized violence against women, against genders that don’t conform to colonial gender binaries, and against men, often used as an attempt to emasculate or feminize them. Whether or not you believe we live in a rape culture, you would still most likely understand that people shouldn’t rape, that getting raped is a horrific violation of autonomy and privacy. Whether or not you have an understanding of rape as a tool of war and colonization, you may still find rape to be a devastating crime, or encroachment upon deeply sacred codes of human conduct.

In other words, you don’t have to be a feminist or anti-violence activist to know that rape should not be taken lightly.

If rape is so common and horrid, as well as so commonly reviled (even if not in a structural or survivor-centred sense), why should it be okay under any circumstances to use the term “rape” casually, in contexts other than acts of sexual violence themselves?

Being the first time I am writing a “Social Justice Synonym,” I find myself asking the following basic question about this series as a concept, as a tool to end oppression, and as a way of thinking about language:

What is it about a word and its meanings that make it unacceptable to use in a certain way?

In the case of “I raped that midterm” or “that midterm raped me,” this question can be taken up in several ways. One is the normative claim that rape as an act of violence should not be trivialized, and therefore the word “rape” should not be used out of context. Simply put, misuse of the word “rape” is offensive, connoting profound disrespect of rape survivors as well as social orders that take seriously each person’s bodily and sexual autonomy (i.e. a consent culture). Barring readers who think the principles behind The Talon’s SJS series wage “a war on humour,” most readers can probably swallow this argument.

But another approach is to explore this question further, by examining the structures underlying our world, the way our world conceives of sexual violence, and the limits of language to adequately describe that violence in the first place. In other words, here I want to explore some disconnects between the world of sexual violence and the language we use to describe it.

The Language of Sexual Violence

Truth be told, the word “rape” and its meanings haunt me, both as a writer and a racialized woman, just as sexual violence haunts me as a form of violence. The way it haunts me can be attributed to the ways in which rape is commonly spoken about: as something shameful we are not to speak about in polite company, as a capital crime that should be met with the rapist’s immediate execution/eternal imprisonment, as something that happens so infrequently that most survivors’ testimonies are not believed…unless their rape is reported to the police, taken up and tried in supreme courts, or exposed in highly public ways.

Indeed, the ways in which sexual violence is first introduced to a person (often: young girl) as a concept is never through this word directly, but through gestures, warnings against talking to strangers (i.e. men), and silences. Certainly these silences precede my initial encounter with the word “rape,” which didn’t happen until I came to Canada and learned English.

Having spent my pre-teens and teen years consuming North American media, what introduced me to the world and language of rape are songs like Sublime’s “Date Rape,” Nirvana’s “Rape me,” news stories depicting individual incidents, as well as episodes of Dr. Phil and Oprah speaking of sexual violence in highly sensationalized ways. In the case of Sublime’s “Date Rape,” the natural fate of rapists is depicted as rape in prison. Meanwhile, gang-rape had been primarily depicted as a phenomenon of primarily poor, “sketchy” neighbourhoods, as well as distant colonies of India and Africa, creating a false sense of security for the well-policed modern city in the Global North. All these depictions limit what a person can imagine rape as being.

Meanwhile, I was still a preteen when I read about Michael Jackson being charged with “child molestation.” Had the newspaper used the language of rape, I would have understood immediately what these cases were about. Instead, as a new speaker to English I was left to guess what Michael Jackson had done. After all the word “molestation” has four syllables; “rape” only one.

On this note, it’s important to remember that for many, their first encounter with the world of sexual violence is through first-hand experience: as in, through child sexual abuse. In these cases the word “rape” and related words describing this profound abuse of power and violation of trust is often nowhere near the table. Adults (or other children) who violate children in this way would use language to conceal the violence they inflict by using the language of sexuality, of seduction, of children and young people’s so-called hypersexuality. When the statutory rape of young girls by adult men is colloquially deemed “the Lolita effect,” so popularized by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, you know our culture actively aestheticizes and normalizes such violence.

Even the phrases “child sexual abuse” and “child molestation” suggest some difference from rape, though child sexual abuse is just another form of rape. To understand these acts of violation through language that does not acknowledge rape, then, hides just how prevalent rape is in our world.

In 1983 when a slew of important changes were made to Canadian laws pertaining sexualized violence, the word “rape” was replaced with “sexual assault,” connoting a crime that violates any person’s sexual integrity, rather than a property crime that only men do to women outside marriage. In some ways, this shift in language suggests a disavowal of (though not necessarily a genuine commitment to ending) the incredibly patriarchal ways that “rape” has been conceived throughout history. But it also acknowledges that “rape” is not the same as a wider range of violations more accurately conceived, by Canadian law, as sexual assault. A question I want to raise is: why is this distinction necessary in the first place? And why do some organizations, such as RAINN, use the term “completed rape”?

On the one hand, why does the media so frequently perpetuate rape culture by avoiding the word “rape” in their discussions of sexual violence, by resorting to calling it “non-consensual sex” or similarly victim-blaming language? On the other hand, what ideological differences are being connoted by differences in how feminist support/crisis centres name their organizations? What are these rhetorical effects?

Rape, reputation, and hyperbole

To take up the first question is to appeal to the principle that I hope even readers who are skeptical of SJS can get behind: that rape is so serious that we ought to never misuse the word.

Take for instance the fact that Canada’s media and criminal (in)justice system take the greatest pains not to call a spade a spade and name rape when it happens. While they do this out of a failure to highlight the systematic nature of rape culture, their reluctance to employ the language of rape also reveals the social attitude that rape is so vile and shameful that it would be devastating to falsely accuse someone of rape.

To label someone a rapist is to cast them into the outskirts of society, to ruin their reputation forever. Several months after Sauder frosh’s rape chants became widely known and circulated in the media, I found myself roped into a conversation with a business student from another Canadian university, in which they gloated about how no such chants exist (though they could have said “were discovered”) at their institution. Furthermore, this person had heard through the grapevine that Sauder students actually blame the person who tweeted out the rape chants that got them into trouble in the first place. It’s as if the only reason the rape chants are so condemnable is because students got caught. It’s as though people’s main incentive to avoid such language is to save face, especially at an institutional level where reputation has financial implications.

In a social environment where institutional and personal reputation seem to matter more than safety and autonomy, UBC students who care about the former should still avoid using “I raped that midterm,” or “that midterm raped me.” When you say that a midterm raped you, you are bulldozing over survivors’ experiences (as accounted in this piece The Talon published), and contributing to a world that could not care less about survivors’ safety. When you say that you raped a midterm, you are comparing yourself to a rapist. As I suggested earlier, who would want to be compared to a rapist?

According to Lucia Lorenzi’s account of David Choe’s “joke-making” in the name of art, apparently not even rapists themselves.

Not satisfied? Consider then another question: What is it about the word “rape” and its meaning, for instance, that make people want to use it inappropriately?

When a UBC student says that a midterm raped them, what they intend to say is that they feel as though they’ve failed. They might also mean to say that they feel that an exam has conquered them, that they feel dominated by it in a significant way. Conversely, when a UBC student says they just raped a midterm, they mean they feel like they’ve conquered its questions, that they’ve aced the test. They are using the word “rape” as a literary device, as a hyperbole to describe subjective experiences: i.e. merely a feeling. That means when they misuse this word, they are implicitly acknowledging that rape is a horrific experience. Their error is to assume there’s no social repercussions to that misuse, and no damage done by using rape as hyperbole.

Ending rape culture ultimately means not pretending what’s at stake is merely rapists’ reputations. It also means that we use the language of rape to describe the action itself: the act of violence, the active refusal to honour someone’s affirmative consent, to hear their “no.”

Misuse of “rape” for ideological reasons

I want to turn here to the ideological differences connoted by feminist uses of the word “rape.” Given that Vancouver has several centres which support survivors of sexual violence, and that their respective politics around supporting survivors vary, often quite dramatically, this question has broader implications for feminists’ struggle to end rape culture.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the language of rape is better or worse than the language of sexual assault. The language of “rape” has a specific history that needs to be highlighted, remembered, and honoured. Furthermore, the language of “rape” is especially powerful for understanding experiences with sexualized violence when the rest of the world uses victim-blaming language to invalidate survivors’ experiences. Meanwhile, the language of “sexual assault” is useful to engage with for legal reasons, as well as for acknowledging a broader ranges of violations that some survivors may not feel entirely comfortable calling “rape.”

However, I don’t think feminists are exempt when they also misuse the language of “rape.” To move forward as a movement such misuse needs to be examined and held into account.

One especially important example of this misuse occurs when trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) paint trans women as men’s rights activists who make cis women vulnerable to rape when they enter women’s bathrooms and community spaces. Not only is this claim horribly transmisogynistic, it also implies that rape can only be committed by “males” (of course, trans women are female, so this point is moot), that all men are necessarily rapists (warning: the following link contains grotesque transmisogynistic vitriol).

Furthermore, to think of sexual violence as merely men’s violence against women is to deny that sexual violence on these lands is rooted in ongoing colonialism and settler-colonialism, in gender violence against Indigenous peoples. If rape is a form of taking power away from its victims, men’s power against women is not the only form of taking power.

TERFs, and transmisogynists more broadly, thus use the language of “rape” against an entire marginalized population before any attempt to verify their presence as threats. Such fear-mongering ought to be resisted for our discourse around sexual violence to be respectful, because it forces an entire group to be responsible for acts they have not committed. In this way, not only do TERFs perpetuate violence against trans women by denying their linguistic self-determination, they also dilute the ways in which we talk about sexual violence, crying wolf about rape. Understanding rape as solely penis-in-vagina, they also replicate outdated conceptions of criminal law around rape that continue to uphold patriarchy.

Diluting the way we talk about rape means that we overgeneralize rape, as well as flatten and erase the complexities of people’s experiences with sexual violence. If survivors (or however someone wishes to self-identify) themselves do not call their experience rape, it would be further injustice to speak for their experiences.

One example of such overgeneralization occurs when abolitionist feminists (who are often but not always trans exclusionary radical feminists), who are not sex workers and who haven’t had a history with sex work themselves, use the language of rape to paint prostitution as nothing more than systematic rape that’s paid for. As argued in this article by Naomi Sayers and Sarah Hunt, the discourse that sees sex work as victimization is especially damaging to and infantilizing of Indigenous women who engage in sex work. Furthermore, the troubling discourse of seeing sex work as sexual slavery also fails to understand sexual slavery as a product of war, that occurs within a different set of conditions, as well as denies survivors of slavery and the slave trade their own assertions about these experiences.

In other words, how we use language around sexual violence, and violence in general, matters. The words we use shape how we understand that violence, even if the very nature of rape means that some experiences can never be adequately described through language.

Who has the power to determine how we use language? If we are committed to creating a juster world free of violence, only those marginalized by that violence themselves should determine how they describe their experience. As much as I disagree with abolitionist ideology, if women who have been in the sex trade see their experience as rape, their usage also needs to be respected. Beyond avoiding using phrases like “I raped that midterm,” a culture of consent would honour the language of those who experience violence, who resist ongoing sexualized violence and the profound culture of silence surrounding that violence.

Systematic ‘language fascism’ is certainly not “Social Justice Synonyms.” Rather, language fascism is Canada’s criminal (in)justice system insisting that a survivor of rape cannot use the term “rape” to describe their experiences. If a legal framework cannot equip survivors with justice, we must all at least seek justice where we can ourselves: in the words we use.

Use/Context Alternatives
I raped that midterm. I feel like I excelled at that midterm. I aced that midterm.
That midterm raped me. I feel like I did horribly on that midterm. I think I may have failed that midterm.
Those bullies raped my mind. Those people emotionally and verbally abused me. I am traumatised by how they treated me. They manipulated me.
I raped that game! I won that game. I beat the final boss and it was glorious.
I’m gonna go up the rape stairs now. I’m going to take the shortcut across campus from Totem Park residence.
 Rape jokes  Just don’t.

Jane Shi edits at The Talon and The Garden Statuary. She also volunteers at Women Against Violence Against Women: Rape Crisis Centre, and studies literature. She would like to thank editors Kay, Alex, and Justin for their insightful feedback, as well as friends who encourage her to write about this issue in spite of endless perfectionism. 

Every Year is the Year of Feminism


A week ago today, The Terry Project hosted a BARTalk that sought to assess how feminism fared in 2014. Panelists Lucia Lorenzi (PhD candidate in the English Literature department), Jarrah Hodge (blogger at Gender Focus) and Scott Anderson (professor in the philosophy department) discussed the events that gave feminism major media coverage over the past year, and whether they represented any “watershed moments” or, at least, “teachable moments” that progressed the struggle against the patriarchy. Eventually, the emcee closed the panel by asking (and I’m paraphrasing slightly here): will 2015 be the “year of feminism”?

I don’t want to dump on the Terry Project here, who I know to be great feminist allies that do important work on campus. However, I am interested, more generally, in this idea of the “year of feminism,” because it’s a trope that seems to pop up in a lot of places. Time magazine recently published an article, for example, entitled “This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time.” I have also seen this “year of feminism” narrative appear in feminist discussion spaces and communities. Intimately connected to this is the idea of “watershed moments” or “breakthroughs” that are conceptualized as single turning points in the state of global gender relations. I understand the impulse to look back on a year, the desire to subtract the bad from the good and then extrapolate from the remainder. But overall, I think our desire to classify this year or that year as the one pivotal “year of feminism” is an impulse that we should resist and question. Why?

We live in a consumerist culture of instant gratification. For those of us privileged enough to have the internet at our fingertips, we are frustrated when our connection lags and makes us wait an entire minute to get the results of a google search. Here in the West, my generation grew up watching action-packed movies that tell the story of a lifetime yet reach resolution in an hour and a half. We were taught that if you have a need and you have the financial means, you fill it by going to the store and purchasing something. In sum: in a culture of constructed wants, we have gotten used to getting what we want, and we have gotten used to getting it immediately.

In the conversation around feminism, this culture of instant gratification encourages us to see every event and development in isolation, to forget the ongoing struggles and the long histories of struggle that came before. We’re on the edge of our seats waiting for ‘the moment’ that changes everything. We want to be able to proclaim that “feminism has won, once and for all” after one major incident. We are unaccustomed to the idea of long, slow battles that can’t be won overnight, that require years upon years of community organizing and coalition building.

I remember the aftermath of one of 2014’s highly publicized events, back when Emma Watson’s UN speech was going viral. Quite a few people messaged me and asked me what I thought this meant, whether I thought this was the beginning of the feminist revolution. Emma Watson’s speech, however, was far from the beginning. As Black feminist blogger Mia McKenzie wrote at the time: [Watson] seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. […] This is an absurd thing to suggest. Women have been trying to get men to care about oppression of women since…always. Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing.” Not to forget that the text and spirit of Watson’s speech has roots in white feminist “equal rights” discourses that have been around and evolving since at least the 18th century.

The struggle against the patriarchy has a long history on this continent, longer than conventional (white) narratives would have us believe. Before I go further, I want to situate myself here as a white settler, and stress that there is an important role for settlers to play as allies in the processes and struggles of decolonization. And as someone who originally came to feminism through academic writing, learning about decolonization has had vast consequences for my understanding of feminist resistance and its history.

As Cherokee feminist Andrea Smith writes, we tend to speak of feminism in waves that begin with the suffragettes. As a result, “this periodization situates white middle-class women as the central historical agents to which women of colour attach themselves. However, if we were to recognize the agency of indigenous women in an account of feminist history, we might begin with 1492 when Native women collectively resisted colonization.” When we look at the mass media feminist conversations of 2014 – Beyonce at the VMAs (see 10:26), Emma Watson at the UN, GamerGate, the rise of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, the pushback to Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, the reaction to Elliot Rodger, #YesAllWomen, Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win, and so on and so on – as important as these moments are, we need to situate them in relation to the feminist struggles that have existed on these lands since before European contact.[*] We also need to remember that gender oppression, as it operates on Turtle Island today, was brought to this continent as a tool of colonialism and enforced through physical violence and racist/sexist legislation. Indigenous women have resisted patriarchal oppression every single year for centuries and continue to resist. So… no, Emma Watson’s speech was not the “beginning.” Far from it.

These origins and histories of resistance are essential to grasping where we are today. In the words of scholar Kiera Ladner: “There have been and will continue to be countless seemingly “little things from which big things grow” on Turtle Island. […] Little things like the women (including Sandra Lovelace, Jeanette Corbière Lavell and Irene Bédard) who refused to leave and/or returned to their reserves after they had married non-status men, gotten divorced or been widowed and who brought this gendered inequality to the Canadian Courts, the constitutional talks, the United Nations, and the International Court of Justice. […] The echoes of these past resistances continue to be heard.” Likewise, the legacies and ongoing struggles of Black feminism, Muslim feminism, trans feminism, and all other feminisms are the context to any “main event” we see play out in the contemporary moment. Though long-form narratives and nuanced contexts may not satisfy our generation’s desire for immediate gratification and simple resolution, we can’t erase these histories to make a conveniently blank page for a single, pivotal “year of feminism.”

I’m also not swayed by the (milder) retrospective tendency to classify this year or that year “a good year for feminism.” As far as I’m concerned, every year that feminism persists is “a good year for feminism.” The resilience of women and allies who continue to resist a system that suffocates and silences them, who continue this fight against all odds, is a powerful thing – whether those struggles make it onto the six o’clock news or not.

So, to finally answer the question, ‘will 2015 be the “year of feminism?”, my answer would have to be: of course it will be. Just as 2014 was the year of feminism. And 2013 before that. And 1492 before that. Because every year is the “year of feminism.” And us feminists know that we can’t let the anticipation of “watershed moments” stop us from building a movement.


[*] Note: I want to acknowledge here that this tendency to erase the struggles of Indigenous women and overlook their contributions to feminist organizing is by no means limited to reflections on feminism’s past. The work of Indigenous feminists continues to be erased. It is telling that the organizing around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on Turtle Island – including the hashtags #MMIW, #ItEndsHere and #imnotnext/#aminext – is largely absent from mainstream/whitestream feminist retrospectives of last year’s events. I encourage you to read the writings of Indigenous feminists on these topics, such as the articles here, here, and here. This article, which challenges the mainstream conceptions of what “gender equality” looks like in Indigenous nation-building, is also a transformative read.

Special thanks to Sarah King, Matthew Ward, Samantha Nock, Kay Ho and Jane Shi for their editing help and wise words. I learned a lot in the process of writing this piece.

Razor-sharp Professionalism: Your LinkedIn Photo is Ready for Download

Last night, I got an email from Centre for Student Involvement and Careers. The subject line was: Your LinkedIn Photo is Ready for Download.

On October 1st, 2014, the last day of UBC Career Days, I headed to the Party Room to get my photo taken for LinkedIn. As I walked into the room, a woman at the Build Your Career booth called out, “are you here for your LinkedIn shot? Please sign up here. Oh, also take a free razor! Here!”  and handed me a box of Gillette razor. It’s a razor for men. Sweet. I walk over to the back of the lineup for the LinkedIn shots. A girl walks in, and lines up behind me. Wait, she doesn’t get a razor? I look back to the booth again. The booth only hands out Gillette razors for him. “How inclusive,” I laugh internally.

But as I was waiting in the line, I had some thoughts of how that razor symbolizes our world’s problems in many ways.

Razors are marketed as a gender-based product.  Razors should be doing the same job for all genders – removing hair. But razors for women are typically pink, with floral designs slapped onto its package. Venus. Embrace. Goddess. Soleil Bella. Daisy. These are some of the brand names for razors for her. Razors for him? Power. Turbo. Magnum. Flex. Titanium.

Hmm. So maybe UBC was trying to be inclusive after all.

Another thought – razors help you look professional. That means we ought to be clean shaven in professional settings. It’s something we’re all used to, but why? Alright. Ten more people until my LinkedIn shot.

The guy in front of me is wearing a nice, clean, ironed white dress shirt. He probably shaved in the morning. The girl in front of him is wearing a black pantsuit. The girl in front of her, a tailored black dress. The dude in front of her, white dress shirt, shaved. This is starting to look like a pattern.

I remember the “ultimate tip” presenters give me when I go to interview preparation workshops.

They tell us, “And most important of all, be yourself!”


Here are some suggested dress codes:

“Gentlemen, wear a nice dress shirt. But you don’t want to look too casual, it isn’t professional.”
“Ladies, wear a nice pantsuit! It subtly shows your confidence and that you are ready to work!”
“They want to get to know the real you!”

“Don’t wear too much makeup! It is unprofessional!”
“Ladies, if you are going to wear a dress, make sure it’s a neutral color, and that it’s conservative!”
“Don’t show cleavage or show too much skin! It’s unprofessional!”
“Be yourself!”

“Remove any body piercings! It’s not professional!”
“Cover your tattoos!”
“No big bling or statement accessories! They are immature!”
“Show your personality! They want to get to know you!”

“Boys, you should shave.”
“And most important of all, remember to be yourself.”

Do you see where this is going?

Clothes, accessories, make up, beards, you name it – they are function as tools of personal expression.

How can I be “myself,” when I am constantly being showered with encouragement and instructions to fit into this mold of professional identity? It’s restricting, to say the least.

If the purpose of the interview is for the interviewers to get to know me, it must be restricting for them as well. How can they get to know me if I can’t freely express who I am, because I fear that I will appear “unprofessional”?

I walked into the LinkedIn Photo session, the Gillette Razor pack still clutched in my hand.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” I shake my hands with the cameraman.

“Alright Sam, I want you to give me a big smile, lean over to me as if you are having an enthusiastic conversation with me.”

I give my best professional smile, my upper body awkwardly twisted towards the cameraman.

I see the camera flash.

Get the most out of technology: a stress and self-care guide for the new year


As the term progresses, it gets harder and harder to stay on top of things while taking care of yourself. We at The Talon would like to remind our readers to put your mental, emotional, and physical well-being first. Know your own body and know that it is not worth sacrificing your life for a grade. Sometimes, that all-nighter is necessary and not detrimental in the grand scheme of things, but hopefully with these resources, student life will be a little bit easier.

  1. Organization


Who doesn’t like games?* HabitRPG aims to turn life into a game by turning your tasks into quests, or monsters to be defeated. By completing tasks and building habits, you can earn gold to reward yourself, level up and go on quests, collect eggs to breed pets and mounts, as well as decorate your avatar.


*We understand that gaming culture has become quite negative for some, especially in light of the misogyny and harassment female gamers receive as a backlash of GamerGate. Gaming itself, however, can be beneficial to mental health when separate from negative gaming communities.

  1. Time Management

StayFocusd for Chrome or SelfControl for Mac OS


StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that lets you set a designated amount of time you can spend on certain websites. Once the time runs out, if you try to access a page you have on your “Blocked sites” list, you’re redirected to a page that reminds you to start working.

There’s also a “Nuclear Option” which lets you block websites for a designated time, regardless of how much time you’ve already spent.  You can either block all websites, all websites except for those on your allowed list, or only websites on your blocked list. This is especially helpful when I’m up late trying to finish that final paper, though I’ve accidentally set it on before putting UBC Connect on my “Allowed sites” list, so be careful!

SelfControl is a free downloadable application for Mac users. According to the website, it “lets you block your own access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the Internet. Just set a period of time to block for, add sites to your blacklist, and click “Start.” Until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites–even if you restart your computer or delete the application.”

Tomato Timer or Moosti


Known as the Pomodoro technique, the goal of these apps is to encourage users to work for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. In the 25 minutes, promise yourself to stay on task and block distractions like social media or texts. This method not only helps me stay on track, but also helps me gauge how long it takes for me to complete certain tasks.

Tomato Timer beeps at the end of each countdown, which might be alarming for some. Moosti, on the other hand, has a pop-up notification, which one might miss if they’re not working directly on the computer. While I suggested two websites, there are numerous apps available for you to choose from that does the same job! 

  1. Reading

BeeLine Reader

Reading long articles on your computer is tiring, and it’s been shown that people read about 25% slower on the computer than on print. However, sometimes printing is not an affordable option when you’ve got a 50 page article or an entire textbook to read. BeeLine reader helps you read faster by changing text from a flat colour to a gradient that guides your eyes. No download necessary, just load your PDF onto their PDF Converter or copy and paste paragraphs into their Pasteboard. This app is especially useful for students on the autism spectrum, as well as students who have ADHD or dyslexia.



If you get distracted while reading like I do, you can paste your readings onto Spreeder, which flashes the words one at a time. It keeps me on focus because I can’t look away, or I miss a chunk of the sentence. You can adjust how many words flash per minute, font size, text colour, and background colour.

This app may cause eyestrain as it does have flashing images, so take caution before using!

  1. Health and Wellbeing

Background Noises

If you’re like me, you can’t work in complete silence. Grab a pair of headphones if you need to, and put on a bit of background noise while you work.

  • Rainy Mood and recreates the ambient sound of rain
  • Songza and 8tracks lets you explore and choose playlists depending on the activity you’re doing
  • sounddrown lets you choose and combine up to ten background noises, ranging from coffee shop chatter to the sound of moving trains, all with individually adjustable volumes
  • The Talon’s own Soundtrack to the Revolution



Ever notice how your computer or mobile screens look fine during the day, but look incredibly harsh as the sun sets? It’s because screens are designed to look like the sun. F.Lux (Alternatively, Twilight for android) dims and warms your screen to reflect the time of day, which allows for a better night sleep, or at least makes working at 2 A.M. a little more comfortable for your eyes.

Social Justice Synonyms #13: “Pig” and other Speciesist Terms

This week’s phrase is “pig”.

“Cops are power-hungry pigs”
“Men can really be pigs at times”
“They’re a bunch of capitalist swine”

All are fairly common sentences that emerge even in the most socially and politically aware crowds.

I don’t doubt that there are often very justified reasons for anger against cops, men, or whoever else you may be disgusted at. But unless you sincerely mean that cops, men or the persons you are referring to are smart, brave, and fiercely dedicated, using the term ‘pig’ to insult others would not only be grossly inaccurate of pigs, but also deeply speciesist. In other words, it would reinforce oppressive thought systems that subjugate thinking, feeling beings for arbitrarily being ‘too’ different – just like how subjugating others for being a different sex, race, class or sexual orientation is arbitrary and illogical.

Using the term ‘pig’ as a derogatory label may seem especially tempting, since few of us have actually met pigs in person, and hence the social risk of accidentally offending someone is very low. Ever been called out for using a sexist/racist/ableist or homophobic term? I know I have. There are a lot of problematic currents running through our daily vocabulary, and fortunately more of us are actively trying to push ourselves and our communities to adopt increasingly inclusive language. However, speciesist slurs like ‘pig’, ‘chicken’ and ‘bitch’ almost always escape unchallenged. When they are challenged, arguments against the these slurs focus on how ‘dehumanising’ it is, and consequently how morally repulsive it is to equate a human to a nonhuman. Arguments rarely focus on how inherently speciesist it is for animals, and often operate on the unspoken assumption that nonhuman animals are inferior, and are worthy only for objectification. 

Why exactly is using speciesist language harmful anyway? It’s not like pigs will ever accidentally overhear us and feel hurt, right?

This is true – pigs nor any other animal may never be offended at referring to them in such an objectifying light. However, objectifying language hurts the objectified group via multiple pathways. Most will agree that even if I’m out drinking with my straight cis male friends, it still wouldn’t be appropriate for us to make sexist or homophobic remarks, despite there being no women nor queer people present. Why? Two main reasons:

  1. Our perception of the world is very largely controlled by the language we use to describe it. Consider the very limited ways in which the media portrays Islam, why these limited set of personas proliferate and how this directly forms the Western perception of Muslims. In short, even if animals are not able to suffer directly from oppressive words we use, the words we use to represent animals affects our collective perception of animals. Thus, using words like ‘pig’, ‘chicken’ or ‘bitch’ derogatively only supports the oppressive doxa that pigs, chickens, and bitches are indeed vile and repulsive objects only useful instrumentally.
  2. Our actions reinforce social norms, and social norms in turn inform our attitudes and actions in a cyclical manner. Essentially, what we deem as appropriate or moral behaviour is picked up by the community we surround ourselves with. By extension, every time we propagate a hurtful behaviour or idea in our community, we are giving social credit to that behaviour or idea, thus encouraging its future survival and giving it potential to be weaponised.
    This is one of the same reasons why making sexist remarks even in the absence of women is still not okay. Using a derogatory label for women is a social signal to others that you think women are worth less than men – and this signal indirectly gives social approval to other sexist ideas, behaviours and actions. By the exact same logic, using labels for animals in a speciesist, demeaning way indicates one’s social approval of other speciesist ideas, behaviours and actions.

Speciesism has also been used against folks of colour and Indigenous people. The ‘animalisation’ of racialized people was, and still is, a method to justify discriminatory views and even racial violence. Racism and speciesism are often found coupled and mutually propped on one another.

A well-known phenomenon is the depersonification of Black people by recasting them as non-human animals. One of the starker incidences centered around Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman – a South African Khoi woman who was paraded around Europe to exhibit her ‘strange’, more ‘animal-like’ proportions relative to white women. Her different biological features were sensationalist fuel to prevailing racist stereotypes – that Black people were more animalistic and thus worthy only of the way animals were (and are still) treated. While this example was in the early 19th century, it still has lasting, oppressive effects today. Even US President Obama suffers from having his Blackness equated to non-humanness in a derogatory way.

As well, colonizers use(d) stereotypes of ‘savagery’ and ‘animalistic barbarity’ to dehumanize Indigenous people and justify ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands.

One of the more memorable examples of speciesism and racism combining was ironically propagated by world famous ‘animal advocate’ and vegetarian Morrissey. In response to a case of animal abuse in China, he said: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.


Of course, even disregarding the fact that Western diets actually comprise of far higher amounts of animal products and so are more cruel on a per capita basis – it is strange Morrissey does not see the hypocrisy in fighting for animals by condemning its oppressors as animals. Speciesism and racism is clearly deeply entwined in one another within Morrissey’s mind – and illogically, speciesism is used to justify his pre-existing racist view of Chinese people.

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking isn’t confined to Morrissey or other eccentric individuals. Sadly, even many well-known animal rights organisations like PETA and Sea Shepherd often play on racist undercurrents of Westerners for their gain.

Speciesism used to further poison racism is especially sensitive to me as a person of colour. However this is just one of the many ways speciesism can and is used to justify other oppressive ideologies. Feminist academics and activists like Carol J. Adams have done amazing work in exposing how our inherent speciesist biases are used to further oppress women, and more generally how similarly sexism and speciesism are structured with many examples from mainstream media.

Will fully abstaining from using speciesist terms and insults end the oppression of women, people of colour, and other oppressed groups? Likely not. But, I sincerely believe that disrupting and refusing to accept speciesist vocabulary  neutralise one of the most common and potent weapons oppressors use: language. More importantly, it does this without sacrificing or impeding the animal rights movement. It turns out we can (and more effectively, too) resist the oppression of humans without having to throw nonhumans under the bus.

In short, we should strive to disrupt the normalisation of speciesist expressions not just for the obvious value for animals – but also for all other groups who have been oppressed by speciesism.

Use/Context Alternatives
Cops are power-hungry pigs. Cops are abusers of power and responsibility.
Men can really be pigs at times. Men can really behave disgustingly at times.
They’re a bunch of capitalist swine. They’re a bunch of capitalists who are only hungry for profit.
I’m sorry, I’m sweaty as a pig right now. I’m sorry, I’m really sweaty right now.
(Like dogs, pigs don’t actually have sweat glands and can’t sweat)
Last I saw, he was pigging out at the buffet table. Last I saw, he was busy inhaling food at the buffet table.

Wilson Wong is a recent UBC Materials Engineering alumni and activist passionate about animal and poverty issues. He is a member of Direct Action Everywhere, a professional dog petter, and probably spends too much time arguing on the internet.

Note 1: A previous version of this post originally included: “Arguments rarely focus on how inherently speciesist it is for animals, and often operate on the unspoken assumption that nonhuman animals are inferior, are dumb, and are worthy only for objectification.” A reader (rightly) notified the me that the use of ‘dumb’ in this context is, and/or appears, ableist. I’ve since revised the post to remove the word. To be clear, I do not believe moral worth is based on intelligence – I was attempting to illustrate that many people use the perceived lack of intelligence of nonhumans as a justification for oppressing them. I intended to illustrate this without also implying my support for this rationale – but clearly this did not work and I had not been clear enough in my writing. I apologise if my writing was upsetting.

Note 2: In my original post, I claimed that pigs, like dogs, did not have sweat glands and do not sweat. As pointed out rightly by a reader – I was wrong for both species. Apparently all mammals have sweat glands – although pigs and dogs sweat negligibly (and so they appear to never sweat). I’ve edited the piece to reflect the facts.

“Where there is a word, there’s a history”: Two-Spirited Community Organizer Harlan Pruden Comes to UBC

On Thursday, January 8, 2015, the Pride Collective at UBC hosted a fantastic presentation in Irving K. Barber, located on the traditional territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. Harlan Pruden who is First Nations Cree, spoke to themes of sex, gender, sexuality, and the complexities of Two-Spirit identities within Indigenous contexts, both historical and contemporary. Settlers and Indigenous peoples alike were invited to learn about the ways in which Two-Spirit people challenge colonial norms of gender and sexuality, and Pruden showed the effects that settler-colonialism has had on the experiences and histories of these marginalized peoples. First established in 1990 at an academic conference, the term “Two-Spirit” works as an umbrella term to encompass the vast number of gender identities and sexual orientations that exist outside the heteronormative gender binary within Indigenous communities that have existed since time immemorial.

Pruden has worked on a number of initiatives, including a recent appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Originally from the Cree Nation on this side of the border (Canada), Harlan now works in New York with the NorthEast Two-Spirit Society. Here Pruden facilitates workshops, pow-wow dancing, and other events for Indigenous peoples, all of which are specifically tailored to welcome Two-Spirit and LGBTQAI+ Indigenous identified individuals.

“It would do my heart so good [if] you left with more questions than you had…for you to start finding out and answering those questions for yourself and doing research and adding more and more knowledge,” Harlan said to the packed room, reminding the audience that this work is not just for Two-Spirit people, but the broader Native community and the dominant society as a whole. Through this communal work we have “to see if we can build upon the experiences of…Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, and to share that so we can make this a better place, ultimately working for social justice”.[1]

Harlan Pruden was also kind enough to share a working list of words that specific Indigenous communities use to identify Two-Spirit people. The importance of this list cannot be understated. With dozens upon dozens of words identifying Two-Spirit people in diverse communities tells the audience “where there is a word, there’s a history”. While Pruden acknowledged the imperfections of the working list, it was also pointed out that Indigenous people struggling with their identities might be looking for these words to help position themselves. By sharing these words Pruden is undoing the erasure of these identities that many Two-Spirit people have felt due to colonialism. By sharing this list, we are reminded, settlers and Indigenous peoples alike that each nation has its own words, language, and understandings of the world, including gender and sexuality.

As a Queer Indigenous person, I felt empowered by the presentation and the complexities of identity that Harlan shared about the multitude of Indigenous communities. One of Pruden’s strongest points of the presentation was the emphasis on positionality. In particular, how a person’s identity may change depending on the context of the situation. As Pruden said, who is asking, where are you being asked, and why are you being asked can reveal very different answers about how one chooses to position themselves – especially in terms of sexuality, gender, and race.[2] For example, in one space I may personally feel safe to identify as a Queer Indigenous person because there might be other self-identified LGBTQAI2+ individuals. However, if I was in a homophobic, racist, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly uncomfortable space, I may only choose to offer my name, and that I am a student. These thoughts on positionality take into consideration who is present, where I am, and why it matters.

For more information on Harlan Pruden’s work you can visit their website here.

For more information on the Pride Collective at UBC and the work they do on campus, check out their website here or like them on Facebook.

I would like to thank Harlan Pruden, the Pride Collective at UBC, and all the organizers and attendees for making the event so welcoming and thought-provoking, and for playing an integral role in my on-going learning here on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory.

hiy hiy.


[1] Pruden, Harlan. “Two-Spirit People: Then and Now.” Lecture from Pride Collective UBC, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory, January 8th, 2015.

[2] This point is also credited to Harlan Pruden in S.M.’s article “Social Justice Synonyms #12: Indigenous Identity and Terminology”.