Stolen: A Bachelor’s in Commerce, a Master’s in Code Switching

On July 3, an account named Stolen by Smith appeared on Instagram. On the royal blue branded profile, one by one bit-sized anecdotes took centre stage, each outlining the personal experience of a different anonymous student at the Smith School of Business.

On July 3, an account named Stolen by Smith appeared on Instagram. On the royal blue branded profile, one by one bit-sized anecdotes took centre stage, each outlining the personal experience of a different anonymous student at the Smith School of Business. The allegations detailed an overwhelming number of firsthand accounts of the racism, sexism, classism, and sexual assaults that had taken place at the prestigious business school over the course of a decade. The majority of the stories centred around the experiences of students of colour as they struggled to conform to the institution’s insidious reputation for upholding white supremacy. Many of those who spoke up, albeit anonymously, referenced the inherent gap between a set of “haves” and “have nots.” In this case, the “haves” were often white, affluent students from “good” private schools who had no perceived problem using their network (either their families or older students from their previous school) to succeed in the program. The “have nots” were almost always students of colour, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who either had to mute their differences to survive in the intensive program or were outwardly ostracized and excluded for failing to submit to the unmistakably white capitalist atmosphere endorsed by the Smith School—also defined as the program’s “exceptional student experience.” I was sent the Instagram page three days after it launched and, although it had not been live long, I found myself engulfed, reading through dozens and dozens of stories. I found bravery in the narratives I read. In some stories, I found immense grief and pain. And in some I surprisingly found myself. 

I left my hometown of Whitby to study business at Queen's University in the fall of 2009. At the time, the program hadn’t yet received its $50 million “gift” from philanthropist Stephen J.R. Smith, which was, at the time, the largest donation ever to be made to a Canadian business school. As a result, the name on my admissions offer was the Queen’s School of Business, and I giddily accepted for the prospect of graduating from Canada’s premiere undergraduate business program. The year 2009 is also one of cultural significance for me. It was the year Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, becoming the first African American to hold the office. It was the year Kanye West notoriously interrupted Taylor Swift, a white woman, at the VMAs with his infamous “Imma let you finish” zinger to state his belief that Beyoncé, a Black woman, deserved to win. It was also the year that Viola Davis was recognized with her first Oscar nomination for her harrowing role in Doubt. I probably saw Doubt when I was too young to understand the silent nuance of her performance but, in her brief seven-minute scene, Davis portrays a mother, Mrs. Miller, whose son is a student at a parish school in The Bronx, New York. It is assumed that Mrs. Miller comes from a low-income household and pushes her son to attend the school, as the first Black student, as a portal to better opportunities and to shield him from abuse at home. When Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the parish school principal, played by the magnificent Meryl Streep, informs her that she believes her son is being sexually assaulted by a priest at the school, Mrs. Miller responds with stoic resignation, sternly pushing Beauvier to continue to allow her son to finish his term and trying to end the conversation. “It’s just till June… If Donald can graduate from St. Nicholas he has a better chance at getting into a good high school and that would mean a better opportunity at college.” She even exclaims “Let him [the priest] have him [her son] then!” when the principal mentions how difficult it is to remove the priest from the school. In this small vignette, Mrs. Miller acknowledges that her son will need to give up parts of himself, physically and emotionally, to be better set up in a world that was not created for someone like him. That is: someone Black. She recognizes the power that comes with sponsorship and accreditation from white institutions and is willing to put her son through the worst treatment a child can face for a glimpse of a better future. In doing so, she allows the institution to continue to steal her child's adolescence. Although I am very fortunate that this was not my experience, it is loosely emblematic of what I went through and the stories I read on Stolen by Smith, in which marginalized individuals had to mute different parts of themselves in order to survive and get ahead. The year I enrolled at Queen’s, I already had the examples of Kanye and Obama, two heroes of mine at the time, who had very different approaches when it came to challenging the tenets of white supremacy. Through them, I was given case studies, more diverse than the ones I would later study in class, of how white institutions reward or ridicule Black people who maneuver or threaten systemic power structures. And, whether I knew it or not, through Viola Davis’s exquisite performance, I empathized with the will to give into white supremacy, which actively harms and steals your identity, for a chance at getting ahead in the system that oppressed you in the first place. 

Being a first generation Canadian, the only child of West Indian immigrants growing up in a  conservative upper-middle class Ontario suburb, I was familiar with flexing and suppressing the fabric of my identity in order to excel. Despite my hometown of Whitby being called “White-by” by my older cousins from “Blacker” suburbs, I grew up around multiple ethnicities, mostly thanks to the diverse public school system. This, paired with my knack for stretching myself over too many extracurriculars, forced me to interact with a variety of people outside my own identity at an impressionable age. Through my participation in the school’s ski club (I was the only Black student on the team), I became versed in suburban affluence. I recall struggling down the hill, pizza formation, in my rental skis while Aryan Abigails and Archibalds breezed past expertly, their skill perfected by years of vacationing to private ski clubs with family. Through my participation in student council, I met tons of other like-minded overachievers, a lot of them first generation Canadian like me with watchful immigrant parents pushing them to “do more and do better.” I attribute a lot of my ambition to my parents and my mother’s words, “You need to do twice as well to get half of what they have.” “They” being my white peers. My role in both my school’s main band and jazz band (first trumpet—obviously) landed me an in with all the band geeks as I learned the depths of Coheed and Cambria lyrics and discussed new levels to unlock in Zelda. And I was Black—which meant I was automatically “cool” with all the Black people at my school across all social statuses and cliques. When I think back on it, most of my best friends in high school were Black and were all also equally skilled, if not better, at navigating a white majority school and succeeding. We were all little Obamas in the making.

I do not recall experiencing major culture shock at Queen’s. Of course, the workload was intense, the social game was times ten and class with more than 300 overachievers became a hopped-up networking session on quaaludes, but I felt like my adolescence in which I extended across a variety of communities aided me when it came to making new friends and “fitting in.” Queen’s Commerce, as it was called in my era, was very much like a high school: four years of students all within one building. The only difference was that this building was in the process of getting its own Starbucks. That should have been the first red flag. One of the first things I noticed when entering the elaborate Goodes Hall atrium was that everyone knew each other. A lot of students came from Toronto private schools where QSB was known for accepting five to ten students per graduating class. Meanwhile, I could only think of two other students from my high school in all four years of the program. I had never met anyone from a private school before and had only heard about them in Gossip Girl so, internally, I was curious, just as I’d been in high school, to meet this new breed of people. The part about QSB that was similar to high school was the dynamic between the “upper years” and the subsequent class below them. The “lower class,” pun not intended, looked up to the “upper years” socially and professionally. It wasn’t uncommon for an upper year in a field of business you were interested in to mentor you or take you under their wing. Queen’s Commerce also had a substantial amount of “legacy students”—students whose family members were past graduates. It was an annual exercise to see whose last name you could find in an old class photo on the wall in the atrium or donning a conference room thanks to a new donation given in conjunction with a child’s admittance to the program. The most important thing was, upper years often held the keys to the coveted positions on executive committees (essentially Queen’s Commerce’s answer to the fraternity and sorority system) that would grant you status, help build your personal brand within the school, and amplify your networking opportunities. These could be clubs that focused on industry-specific areas like the Queen’s Marketing Association Conference or Queen’s University Investment Council, or social initiatives like the party committee All Year Social or the philanthropy driven Queen’s Non-Profit. These were almost all application-based and you had to interview against your peers, who may have a leg up on you, for a role. Oftentimes, these networks would lead to jobs, which is the ultimate goal of going to the business school with the highest graduate hire rate in the country. 

I observed the disparity when I walked into recruiting information sessions on campus, in which companies would orchestrate a Hunger Games-like speaking engagement where keen students would claw each other out of the way to ask rehearsed questions and shove their business cards into the almost-always-white company representatives’ hands.

Pretty quickly, it became quite clear to me who was running the show. I watched as first-year representative positions on the execs got snatched up by former-Head Boys from Toronto private schools who had known the co-chairs previously. I didn’t even know what a Head Boy was. I saw when midterms came how the girls from legacy families had access to past exams and study notes from siblings who had taken the course a couple years earlier. I observed the disparity when I walked into recruiting information sessions on campus, in which companies would orchestrate a Hunger Games-like speaking engagement where keen students would claw each other out of the way to ask rehearsed questions and shove their business cards into the almost-always-white company representatives’ hands. I watched as the students of colour cowered around the edges of the conference room. I saw the way students of colour were silenced when a conversation with a rep and three other white students quickly switched to summering in Muskoka or a game of “who knows who.” I watched as my white peers confidently spoke about their experience working at their parent’s company in the summer while all I had as references were Old Navy at the Oshawa Centre and Tim Hortons. 

For the first time, I felt disadvantaged and out of my league. The rules of the game had changed, and I soon grasped I was not on a level playing field. My mom’s words, “You need to work twice as hard to get half of what they get,'' suddenly became clearer and, unconsciously, I tapped in and decided to play ball. In a slow, uncalculated way, I made adjustments. None of these changes were intentional or premeditated but, after reading the Stolen By Smith posts, I’ve had the opportunity to interrogate the slow evolution that I went through over that four year period to succeed. University and adolescence are saturated with stories of flirting with the rules of conformity and individualism and, looking back, there are few things I did at Queen’s that high school Brendon would have gawked at. Once known for having the freshest, most exclusive Nikes in high school, I traded in my sneakers for Sperry boat shoes—a WASP-ier variety. I started attending Tumbleweed Tuesday, a country music night at a local bar, despite famously hating country music, and threw back pints of light beer with my peers. After a failed attempt at on-campus recruiting in second year, I took an unpaid internship at an advertising agency in Toronto and worked at Old Navy on weekends to cover the cost of my GO Train trips in and out of the city. I kept the fact that I still worked at the mall a secret. Just like in high school, I became friends with everyone. I didn’t have an issue fitting in with the “haves” or the “haves not”—nor did I have preferences for who was my friend. To this day, the peers I keep in contact with are from both sides of the spectrum and it’s difficult for me to categorize friends today under those definitions after nearly a decade of growth since entering the program. It’s also hard to think of anyone who graduated from Queen’s Commerce as a “have not.” When I look back at my “student experience,” the most critical thing I did was become heavily involved in executive committees, ranging from industry associations, to student government, to social committees. In my final year, among other positions, I chaired a now de-ratified party committee that, since I graduated, developed a reputation for promoting exclusivity and is now notorious for hosting a themed flip cup tournament with costumes that promote racist imagery. I remember being aghast when the story made headlines a few years after I graduated, wondering how it got to that point and if I had possibly contributed to it. By engaging with a number of executive committees at Queen’s, whether I knew it or not, I was submitting to white supremacy. Unknowingly, I chipped away bits and pieces of my old identity to make myself more palatable, less threatening, less Kanye.

Before you assume, this is not a Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls conformity story. Never at one point did I want to be like the “rich white kids'' nor did I plan to vie for their acceptance. As someone who grew up with a learned fluidity to adjust to different types of people, I felt like I could do this at ease without sacrificing much, if any, mental welfare. And what was interesting was that what made me different, my Blackness, actually gave me agency and power. I learned that, for most people I met, I was their first Black friend. This came with its fair share of microaggressions and blatant racism but was nothing I hadn’t experienced already in Whitby. It gave me the ability to lean further into my Blackness and use it as a focal point for my identity when beneficial. Throughout my years at Queen’s, I developed a sense of pride for being one of the only Black people in the program. I was doing well academically, socially, and extracurricularly so, on paper, my race didn’t appear to be a hindrance to my success. And maybe that’s what I told myself too at the time. However, looking back, I can now see that I was only able to thrive because my Blackness was not perceived as a threat to the factions of white supremacy embedded in the capitalist roots of the program. Perhaps I was viewed more as an Obama than a Kanye, deemed “respectable,” “eloquent,” and other coded descriptors given to people of colour, and as such, I did more to propel myself forward than to actively reach back and help out other marginalized people around me. I thought being the example was enough for others to like me to catch up, but did little to challenge or dismantle the structure that oppressed us all. Sure, the year I chaired an executive committee, I hired a record number of people of colour, and we supported each other academically, but it wasn’t enough. Slowly, I noticed other people of colour in my program begin to drop out or switch to other programs when they couldn’t get traction academically, socially, or extracurricularly. It could be true that a scarcity mindset was woven into my subconscious, where I thought that there "could only be one," because I didn’t really think to reach out and help. Perhaps I was still doubting my own achievements, feeling imposter syndrome. How could I think I could help others be successful, when I hadn’t even seen evidence of one “successful” Black person in commerce as an “upper year?” There was nothing represented in a business case in a lecture, not a single professor or guest speaker. Heck, the only time I saw a Black person speak at Queen’s was an athlete at a sports conference. What I didn’t realize was that not only was my perceived success playing into a dangerous black-on-black warped “model minority” trope, it was pacifying any white guilt that my peers may have had surrounding the lack of diversity and further fuelling inaction. “Well look at Brendon, he’s Black and he’s doing better than me. The others really have no excuse!”

I often wonder if things would have been different if I went into another program. I love the Netflix series Dear White People in which the protagonists go to college and live in an all-Black residence. Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary touches on the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to build solidarity and learn Black history. I remember reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me, an attempt to decolonize my mind post-Queen’s, and he referenced his experience at Howard and I remember feeling so jealous, so robbed that I never got the chance to meet one person who looks like me in the field I wanted to pursue. There are no Black colleges in Canada, and ultimately, I decided to apply to the school that was considered the best of the best at the time I enrolled. Similar to Mrs. Miller, I chose getting ahead over preserving and protecting my identity, and I am curious about how it would have been for me to go to an institution that not only acknowledged Black lives and achievements but centred them. At the same time, I can say that Queen’s has delivered on its promise. It has prepared me to thrive in a corporate world that is predicated on white supremacy. With coded words like “fit,” “culture,” and “professional maturity,” I now know how to navigate in a way that I could not prior to Queen’s. It taught me how to code switch in meetings, if I’m speaking to a 65-year old exec about hockey (literally bullshitting my way through the conversation) or talking to another Black person at an agency about a cultural integration we want to do for a campaign. 

Is it the responsibility of universities like Queen’s to prepare students to excel in the capitalist, corporate world today? Or is the role of universities to build diverse, empathetic leaders who fight, sometimes unsuccessfully, to break the mold so the future is better for everyone?

I treasure my experience at QSB so much that I would send my future children to the program in a heartbeat. The irony is, the same student experience that alienated so many also produced a tight knit community. The intensity of the program that encapsulated a heavy course load, hours of group assignments, a semester abroad that over 80% of students participated in and years of on-campus recruiting created unshakable bonds among my classmates and I. After those four years, we all came out different but stronger. And despite QSB homogenizing us into a particular “type” or “fit” that leaned a tad WASPy, we were all in it together. Thankfully, and perhaps in response to Stolen by Smith and the global racial reckoning happening this year, outside organizations have now created partnerships with the university to provide one-on-one mentorship to Black+ students, and I am ecstatic that I can provide the visibility and coaching I so desperately needed ten years ago in the program. I would not have gotten to where I am today if it weren’t for Queen’s School of Business and the Bachelor of Commerce and Code Switching it gave me. But this self-interrogation brings into question the purpose of educational institutions. Is it the responsibility of universities like Queen's to prepare students to excel in the capitalist, corporate world today? Or is the role of universities to build diverse, empathetic leaders who fight, sometimes unsuccessfully, to break the mold so the future is better for everyone? I have built an awesome life for myself—most of it can be attributed to the dedication of my parents and the decision to go to Queen’s Commerce. But at what cost? My Black best friends from high school? I have none of their numbers now. I think it's normal to drift, especially given I moved three hours away for four years, but I can’t help thinking that my submission to the culture of Queen’s Commerce may have fuelled this drifting even further. Maybe I saw something in them that reminded me of the part of myself I was trying to mute. Maybe I knew that I was never going to be able to suppress myself in front of the people who knew me best. I look at their Instagram pages today and we toss each other the odd Like and DM every now and again and it's clear that, not only have I changed, but they have also. We all have new friends and new lives. I know that’s part of growing up, but ever since reading the stories on Stolen By Smith, I’ve been thinking about them a lot. Thinking a lot about the Brendon before Queen’s. Thinking about what else has been stolen. 


About the author

Brendon Holder is a writer and creative from Toronto who has an affinity for film, fizzy drinks, and fried, not grilled, calamari.