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Photo courtesy of Rhea Shahe.

Interview with BIPOC Liason: Rhea Shahe

Written by
Aras Mommertz
and
February 24, 2021

The Trent and local community of Nogojiwanong has a general feeling of “Whiteness”. And I don’t mean Whiteness as just “oh, I have European heritage”, I mean Whiteness as an act of othering people and creating climate to discourage people of colour from gaining access to anything similar to their White counterpart. This Whiteness doesn’t only exist physically but acts as an entire entity to systematically affect people’s lives in various intricate ways. In the Statistics Canada report from 2016, Peterborough’s population was just over 81,000 people with only 6.1% of that labeled as a visible minority. Whereas the general Ontario population is 29.3% making up over half of Canada’s total of visible minorities.

Interview with BIPOC Liason: Rhea Shahe
Photo courtesy of Rhea Shahe.

As I look at the relationships with Trent University and those who historically are placeholders, community outreach workers, and establish clubs and groups through the University, it is uncommon to see anyone who isn’t White. While many White folks hoard jobs or get hired on the basis of connections, it is harder for many people to get the same experiences.

For example, upon numerous instances of talking to international students and BIPOC folks there is equal mention of not obtaining work, housing or other social privileges. This not only leads to further anxiety about living, but leaves individuals with dreading questions based on their self-worth. Some of them say things such as “was it me/my fault? Was it because of my race? Why didn’t I get this? I have 2+ years of work experience.” 

I’ve witnessed over the years of living in Peterborough people hiring BIPOC individuals as a diversity hire and those people doing the majority of the work without acknowledgment. Whereas the White counterparts still get the social credibility and equally paid hours. There are often events showcasing power dynamics. These slip in through micro aggressions and “politely” racist ways of navigating finally working around someone else who isn’t White. These instances cause people of colour more stress. With becoming the “backbone” or the “workhorse”, they are more susceptible to scrutiny from employees and employers, oftentimes under a microscope. While you walk on these eggshells, just be happy that you got the job because at least you’re paying the bills. I know this sounds bleak, but honestly, this is some people’s real experiences. As the power dynamics persist, it gets harder to find people to relate to. Isolation shows up in the foundations of this city as it continues to run in colonial fashion. 

Just after the local Masjid Al-Salaam mosque fire, between 2016-2017, the increase of total incidents of police-reported hate crimes, motivated by religion, race and ethnicity raised by 32%. As a past Arthur article by Zara Syed reiterates, Peterborough ranked first in Canada’s reports of hate crimes. In 2013, Peterborough ranked 4th of Canada’s 33 major urban centres. After fewer reports through 2015, 2016 and 2018 we are seeing a spike of reports in 2019. If you convert this per reports by population, Peterborough’s hate crimes are ahead of Toronto, and Montreal. 

With the continuing growth of the city and international students both at Fleming College and Trent University, it may be speculated that everything known about this city is under a time of metamorphosis. With the colonial undertones of violence, racism and xenophobia still existing, what is the next course of action? How will we facilitate change for the future? 

The Centre for Women and Trans People (CWTP) hired Rhea Shahe as the BIPOC Community Liaison to facilitate a community consultation of the BIPOC population in Peterborough, addressing the gaps in the Centre’s programming. Below is a full interview on how this research project hopes to bridge communities and create intersectional policies for the future. 

Rhea Shahe: “Since the perspectives of individuals who belong to multiple minority groups are often erased, I wanted my research to be based on an intersectional framework. My goal was to highlight the discriminatory experiences of racialized trans people and women within the community. Additionally, I wanted to consult this group on their suggestions for BIPOC outreach and resources. In order to accomplish this, I conducted interviews with 13 BIPOC women and trans people living in Peterborough. These interviews were transcribed and coded for common themes via the methods of thematic analysis. The research, methods and results of the project are being compiled in a report.”

Aras Mommertz: How has the lack of BIPOC representation affected this group (CWTP), other Trent groups and/or the local community?

R: In my study, lack of representation came up repeatedly as an issue, particularly in the work and academic environments. Many of the participants felt a lack of BIPOC presence in their respective career and educational fields, which often leads to racialized perspectives not being prioritized. For example, one interviewee brought up how the Trent English department is dominated by White male profs, so inevitably, they end up reading literature written by old White men. A lot of these books push harmful racist narratives, but they are taught anyways with no real critique of the content. This ultimately creates a hostile learning environment for BIPOC students. Additionally, some interviewees expressed a need for more racialized mentors in the career and academic space. For these participants, a lack of BIPOC representation was connected to an unavailability of opportunities for BIPOC people.

For me personally, I can definitely relate to the experiences of my participants. I am a recent graduate of Trent’s Psychology program. Even though there were many positive aspects of my academic experience, I rarely encountered a visibly racialized professor or T.A in my department. Like the participant I mentioned before, we learned psychology theories that were almost always conceptualized by White men. I didn’t even realize the racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic history of psychological research until I took a Feminist Psychologies course taught by an Indigenous professor. That course completely changed my life.

A: Do you think there’s enough resources and jobs that consider hiring BIPOC/trans staff (not just as a diversity hire but because they’re great, qualified people)?

R: To answer this concisely, no, I do not think that there are enough resources and jobs that consider hiring BIPOC/trans staff. Fear of racism and transphobia in the hiring process was a huge anxiety for a lot of the interviewees in my study. These fears were often rooted in real life experiences with racism/transphobia in career environments. Even with jobs that do hire BIPOC and trans folk, there is the issue of tokenization. These organizations have to ensure that they’re actively listening to their racialized and trans staff. It’s not like, oh you hired a BIPOC or trans person and your work is done from there. Are you continuing to hire trans and BIPOC folk? Are you putting work on your BIPOC and trans employees that you should be doing yourself? You have to constantly ask questions like this. 

A: Do you think there is community for BIPOC/Trans individuals?

R: I do genuinely think there is a community for BIPOC and trans individuals living in Nogo/Ptbo. I think part of the issue is that Peterborough’s outward identity is very much associated with Whiteness and many people consider this area to be a “rich White town.” I think more work needs to be done with connecting BIPOC and trans individuals in Nogo/Ptbo to nurture and foster a community. I am working on some outreach that will hopefully help with this issue. 

A: What are some of your challenges and experiences living in Nogo/Ptbo?

R: I could go on and on in response to this question. I don’t want to elaborate too deeply on my personal experiences, but I found myself having a lot of the same experiences and challenges that the interviewees were bringing up. It was very validating. For example, I can definitely relate to the lack of representation in the career and academic spaces. It has been really difficult for me to find mentors and professors who actually understand what it means to be a Brown queer woman within the Psychology/Counselling field. Not to mention that so many mindfulness and counselling theories/techniques are appropriated from BIPOC spiritualities. It’s just extremely difficult to navigate a system that is built to subjugate people like you. 

A: What specifically affects queer BIPOC individuals? How is the dating scene, access to healthcare, jobs etc?

R: There were two issues that came up in my study that were specific to the queer BIPOC community. 

1. Queerness being Synonymous to Whiteness. 

This issue describes how White perspectives dominate the LGBTQIA+ community and subsequently invalidate the experiences of queer people of colour. This was often connected to a feeling of being “othered” by the White queer community. 

Interviewees described how queer spaces in Peterborough are mostly dominated by White LGBTQIA+ people. This makes it difficult for queer POC to find peers who can relate to their experiences. Participants also brought up how the societal archetype of an LGBTQIA+ person is almost always White. Therefore, queerness is typically associated with Whiteness. Furthermore, certain fashions that are associated with queer culture are also associated with White people. Queer POC who do not display these cultural markers of their gender/sexual identity may be othered by White LGBTQIA+ folk.

2. Conflicts with Queerness and Racial Identity
This issue describes a disconnect between the individual’s sexuality/gender identity and aspects of their culture. LGBTQIA+ people of colour have to navigate between two marginalized identities. This can be complicated by heteronormativity and cissexism within their own cultures. This is not to say that the dominant Canadian culture is not homophobic, however, for racialized participants conflicts with gender/sexual orientation and racial identity emerges as a separate and significant issue. Some participants described instances of prejudice based on their sexual orientation/gender identity from their family members. These individuals also mentioned feelings of disillusionment with their culture. 

A: What changes are you hoping to bring to the community by working with the Centre?

R: I am hoping to bring a more intersectional approach to outreach to the Centre. It’s great that we provide resources for women and trans people, but what about trans people of colour and women of colour? Their experiences exist at the intersection of gender, race and/or sexual orientation. This population requires outreach that is more nuanced to the collective impact of racism, gender discrimination, anti-Blackness and cissexism/transphobia. 

A: Are you feeling optimistic about the changes? If not, why so?

R: I am feeling optimistic about the changes! I love doing this work. I hope the Centre will continue to hire BIPOC employees to help sustain these changes in the long term.

With the wheels in motion and months of consulting community members, identifying gaps in the Centre, and providing analysis of the findings this compiled report will soon be available to the public! Be sure to check out BIPOC Archives Nogo on Instagram for updates.

Another great initiative that’s in the works is that the CWTP and the Trent Queer Collective (TQC) are creating a community self-care zine that amplifies BIPOC artists within the Nogojiwanong/Peterborough area. They are looking for BIPOC creators to showcase original artwork (poetry, photos of textiles, fashion, graphic design and more) to this project. If you’re interested in this please fill out this online form at www.tinyurl.com/BIPOCZINE or in the TQC’s linktree! The deadline is March 3rd, 2021 so be sure to submit and showcase what self-love means to you.

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