by Caroline Grego
When I heard about the rape chants at the Sauder School of Business on UBC’s campus in September 2013, I was not surprised. I know how prevalent that mentality is in a graduate residence where I lived, on a campus that prides itself on progressive attitudes. I was appalled, of course, but after two years of living on campus and witnessing and participating in a culture not dissimilar to that of those chanting frosh leaders, I could not muster shock.
What happened at this residential facility at a university in Western Canada did not convert me to feminism. I had concluded my undergraduate experience at a liberal arts college in Vermont with my personal feminist philosophies firmly set. I’d declared myself a feminist when I was seven years old and read New Moon magazine (“by girls, for girls!”) to which my parents subscribed.
What did happen to me after two years of living on campus was, however, no less radicalizing or upsetting just because I thought I understood what it meant to be a feminist. I wasn’t completely naïve. I did not think that higher education was free from prejudice (my feminist-professor mother made sure I did not cling to that illusion), nor, having grown up in South Carolina, did I think anywhere was lacking in institutionalized discriminations. I did not think that living in this residence, however beautiful its setting and profound the friendships I found there, would be an entirely smooth ride. It is, I know, a testament to my privilege as a white cisgender woman that I had not previously endured such apathy to progressive politics or repressed examples of misogyny that still make me upset by the memories of it, even months after moving out.
This essay unfortunately casts this university residence in a negative light. That is not my intention. It is an incredibly beautiful place, provides valuable forums for academic talks, and fosters a warm, tightly bound sense of community. I formed friendships that will undoubtedly be with me for life—indeed, those friends, through their support and consultation, have helped make it possible for me to clarify these thoughts and given me the courage to discuss them. I also had an immense amount of fun, at parties, at suppers, acting in plays, in the kitchen, all with my fellow residents. This isn’t a thorough indictment of the residence; it is a critique of aspects of its culture and an exploration of my personal experiences there over the course of two years. What I want to do, rather than tear down a place that I love dearly, is to acknowledge the long history of misogyny there, and to question how its community dynamics promote inertia despite the need for change. I want to challenge my complicity in that inertia, while maintaining hope for a more progressive future at the college.
Admittedly, it took me some time to connect these events and to react—but by the time I left, and in the months after, I grew more and more disconcerted by the events and by my own reaction to them, which fell short of what standards of activism I thought I ascribed to.
As elsewhere in academia, members of this residence have gotten away with so much without much consequence: with overt contempt for feminism and activism; with men dominating the visible accolades and awards; and worst of all, with sexual assault. An on-campus group of women and allies have done a great deal of good over the years, but they have always felt restrained by a certain obligation to the residence as an institution. That’s the double-edged sword embedded in the sense of community that the residence helps foster; fearing the general consequences for our community if punishment were ever dealt out, both at institutional and personal levels, we made excuses for sexist behaviour. I had this fear that advocating for deep change at the residence—which we would have had to theoretically justify by revealing all of these dark, gross secrets—would also lead to its downfall. It was a sticky trap. To ensure the continuance of the residence’s existence on campus, I tricked myself into thinking that real action towards the exposure of a latent rape culture would have been destructive.
To be clear, while the wider culture is certainly at fault, individual repercussions and individual responses to situations matter. And graduate students are a particularly stubborn group: well-educated and usually liberal, we often believe that we are already progressive enough and therefore without the need for further self-reflection or instruction along those lines. At our residence, however, certain efforts to suggest that jokes could be hurtful or that offhand comments about race, gender, or sexuality could damage (especially in the context of a community that strove for diversity and that had its own troubled history) were often met with resistance and confused stares.
How do you balance the preservation of a well-loved community with the need for change? I don’t like feeling complicit in an unsafe system, but I also do love the residence and think it deserves to persist. I don’t believe we should think of one as the exclusion of the other—but I also don’t know where that line falls. I have since finished my Master’s degree and recently began a Ph.D. program in the US, but I think about the residence often: I regret that I did not do more, I would like to be there to help now, and I have hope for the residence’s future because of its profound strengths. A place that ostensibly encourages open dialogue, intellectual engagement, and care and compassion within its community—as the residence does—should also be able to weather serious internal critique and reform. I just wish that I had had the courage to recognize that, and to stand up for change more determinedly when I was still there.
Part One of Rape Culture in Academia was released on Monday. Part three will be published this Friday