4. Perspective: Being one of few

What it's like to be one of few Black teachers at McGill

Rachel Zellars  Photo: McGill University

Rachel Zellars Photo: McGill University


A story by Verity Stevenson

Rachel Zellars says she is one of 12 Black lecturers and professors at McGill University, which represents 0.0075 per cent of the faculty population.

“That is so, so below any decent threshold,” she said over the phone in February. 

Though the university has initiated efforts to track its progress on representation of minority groups, there remain subtle forms of pushback, Zellars says. 

“The response has always been the same: ‘Show us the proof,’” Zellars said. “Yes, but we’re, like, four and we know each other.”

Zellars moved to Montreal after completing a masters degree from Cornell University and studying philosophy at Howard University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She grew up on a farm in upstate New Yorl. 

She completed her PhD last year, focusing on on slavery in Canada, the history of public schooling, and critical race theory and founded Third Eye Montreal, a collective led by Black women organizing against state and intimate violence experienced by Black women. 

She is also an attorney and has three children.


Zellars has spoken candidly — before groups of students and in media interviews — of the discrimination people of colour experience in academia and specifically in Montreal. 

She says the lack of representation at McGill has repercussions throughout the lives of minority students and staff. 

“Black women suffer greatly in a way that I haven’t seen in universities before.”

She says many of her students of colour relate stories of micro-aggressions to her, that they experience everyday. Many have left before finishing their degrees or moved to universities in other cities or countries.

Lecture halls are largely mall and are often presided over by white men, making debates slanted, students have told her. 

The lack of Black professors means that hundreds of Black students do not see themselves reflected — not only in most of the subject matter taught at the school, but at the head of the classroom as well. 

To Zellars, there is no one solution, but she believes students must be a large part of the change and that change must happen at every level.