Last week, the Sil posted an online editorial [“Editorial: Our MSU pres has other qualities, too” – Sept. 7] about a CBC Hamilton interview with the McMaster Students Union’s president, Siobhan Stewart. The editorial argued that the interviewer focused too heavily on the fact that Stewart was a black woman in power, neglecting other aspects of her leadership. Among the feedback the Sil received was a response from Sarah Ali, which appears below.
In an ideal world, everyone would be equal – our prisons would not consist primarily of one racial group, one gender would not be regularly assaulted, and we would all attain status and prosperity through our “merit.” This concept of merit would not have been created and defined by one particular group – it would be something to which everyone could aspire. And in this magical, ideal utopia, this editorial would have been spectacular. It would call out a person who dared to upset the special harmony we all lived in by insinuating that race and gender had any real consequences for any person, particularly one in power.
Unfortunately for Sam Colbert, we do not live in this utopia. We live in a world where socially constructed myths about race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability play an enormous role in our lives. These myths are institutionally and culturally coded – when a North American child is born a non-white female, her earning potential is immediately capped. She’ll likely not make more than 53 cents for every dollar earned by a white man (white women earn, on average, 78 cents on the dollar). Her risk of falling into poverty is two times higher than that of a white woman. Her risk of being sexually assaulted, particularly if she in Indigenous, is two to five times higher than white women (one in four white women will be assaulted throughout their lifetime). This little girl will regularly see herself portrayed negatively in popular media, and she will find that normative conceptions of beauty do not include dark skin, or bodies that do not fit within a narrow range. It is a certainty that she will be exposed to hundreds of thousands of images that imply (or downright tell her) that her worth is measured by her fairness, her waistline, her breast size or her ability to be sexually attractive (but not too sexually attractive, then she might give the wrong message).
This girl will have been born in a country where People of Colour make up majority of the prison population and cash poor, are regularly the victims of discriminatory hiring and firing practices and are regularly reminded that they are, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens. When she is born, she is interpellated into a world where women are regularly the victims of violent crime, often at the hands of their partners, and where those who assault women are only convicted 35 per cent of the time, and 78 per cent of those convicted are given sentences under two years.
She’ll likely watch her male peers (some of which she may have trained) consistently move up employment ranks, while her position stays static. She’ll likely be blamed for being too “feminine”, or perhaps not “feminine” enough to be a competitive choice. If she does make it into a position of political power (be it the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, Senior Partner in a law firm or President of a highly competitive and ambitious Student Union), as so many inspiring Women do, she will be consistently scrutinized, and under extraordinary pressure to perform. As my mother used to tell me, “If you ever want to succeed, you have to be twice as good as everyone else: once because you’re a girl, and once because you’re Brown.”
Now particularly in a University with a history of conservative values, and in a Students Union that has not prioritized social issues, being a female President is an extraordinary feat. Last year, along with many strong Women of the MSU, current President Siobhan Stewart drew attention to the gender disparity in Student Politics during the Leadership Summit for Women. Of course our Women presidents have had other qualities – Mary Koziol is an ardent environmentalist, Siobhan Stewart has striking dedication, but they are still Women. Inspiring, extraordinary Women who had to fight gender bias, a culture of sexism and patriarchy, and a concept of “merit” defined by white men in order to get where they did. And Being a Person of Colour makes that achievement even more significant. Indeed, Siobhan Stewart shatters the glass ceiling that Women of Colour in the McMaster community know so well. To acknowledge that is not “condescending,” it is crucial. These Women are leaders and role models to the young Women and People of Colour in the McMaster community, acting as trailblazers and torchbearers for a new generation of McMaster students.
But when we tell a Person or a Woman of Colour that we “see past race”, we tell them that, to us, race and gender mean nothing. This sounds like a good idea – not seeing colour appears to eliminate the problem, but truly it exacerbates it. As Dr. Monica Williams writes, “most underrepresented minorities will explain that race does matter, as it affects opportunities, perceptions, income, and so much more.” Dr. Williams calls this phenomenon a culture of colorblindness. She writes, “[w]hen race-related problems arise, colorblindness tends to individualize conflicts and shortcomings, rather than examining the larger picture with cultural differences, stereotypes and values placed into context. Instead of resulting from an enlightened (albeit well-meaning) position, colorblindness comes from a lack of awareness of racial privilege conferred by Whiteness.
When we tell a Woman of Colour that she “got where she did on merit… independently of her skin colour,” we tell her that her experiences of racism and sexism are illegitimate, and that we are going to show her that by pretending they do not exist. Colourblindness perpetuates racism, while simultaneously denying its very existence.
Truly, it is understandable why Sam Colbert does not acknowledge the significance of Siobhan Stewart’s race and gender. For him, like for many others, this is not a groundbreaking achievement. For him, this is not a testament to the tenacity and strength of the McMaster community, and the Women of Colour who inhabit it. For him, this is just another MSU Pres. And that is really not his fault. He did not grow up knowing that his identity is transgressive, that he would be more likely to die from racialized sexual assault than to finish University. For him, race and gender have never really meant anything. I suppose when you are on the privileged end, you never have to be bothered with that sort of triviality.