I’d like respond to Spencer Fernando’s opinion piece, “Why we are more than the colour of our skin.” To be clear, I hadn’t heard about the creation of the racialized rep position before reading his article and I don’t have any personal stake in the issue. I simply wish to disagree with the analysis Spencer uses to support his opinion.
From the outset the notion of “racialization” or identifying as “racialized” is insufficiently defined. The concept is more nuanced than simply describing people as non-white, as the article suggests. Instead, it’s about understanding race as a social construct, as a series of generalizations and assumptions that are projected by those with privilege (and therefore power) onto those without it. It’s often closely related to stereotypes and histories of marginalization, oppression, and violence. Saying that identifying someone as racialized is all about focusing on skin colour does this powerful concept a disservice; it’s far less about biological characteristics and far more about the attitudes and assumptions of others and the harms that can result.
Spencer’s concern seems to be that creating a racialized rep position will a) single out students of colour and unfairly lump them together, and b) deny white students an opportunity. He thinks that the best way to maintain and continue striving for equality is to treat everyone exactly the same, to place no parameters around any position and let democracy do its own thing. He points to important historical events like the civil rights movement to say, “look, we stopped treating people differently, and we’re better off for it.” And he’s right, partly. But stopping the bad kind of differential treatment is only half of the story.
The other extremely important part of this story is to recognize that sometimes we need to treat people differently in order to obtain the most equal result. One example of this is to look at affirmative action policies. These policies recognize that, even once laws that prevent some groups from filling certain jobs are discontinued, the prejudicial attitudes of the past that informed those laws persist (even if unintentional or subconscious), and something additional needs to be done. Programs and policies are then created to acknowledge the historic disadvantage and to try to avoid perpetuating it in the future. This might mean giving priority to some people in hiring to ensure that non-privileged groups are not underrepresented or left out entirely. Our own Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the part of our Constitution that protects our human rights, contains an exception to its equality provision that specifically allows the government to treat people differently, so long as it is for the purpose of rectifying disadvantage.
In my view, having a disabilities rep doesn’t mean that all students with disabilities face the same challenges. Having a status of women director doesn’t mean that all women necessarily have identical interests and concerns. I’m sure the same would be true of a racialized student rep. These kinds of positions are about acknowledging that a higher degree of care may be needed in order to ensure that the needs of some students are not overlooked because they fall outside of the privileged, dominant group.