An argument against a racialized representative for U. Manitoba

Spencer Fernando: We are more than the colour of our skin.

Students at the University of Winnipeg, across town from U. Manitoba (Marianne Helm)

The University of Manitoba Students’ Union may add a representative for racialized students. Spencer Fernando, a man of mixed heritage, explained his opposition to the idea in this piece for The Manitoban, where is the comment editor. Agree? Disagree? Leave your comment below.

At the outset of this piece, I feel it’s important for me to state clearly that I believe those who favor the creation of the racialized rep. have good intentions. They are making a sincere effort to make the world a better place. My disagreement is not with their intentions, but the method they have chosen.

As we consider this issue, let’s ask ourselves a few questions: First, should there be an UMSU rep. elected on the basis of their skin colour? Second, is it fair to create a position that could exclude white students and discourage them from running or voting for it? Third, should every non-white student be grouped into one category and represented by one person? My answer to these questions is no.

Questions like these will be discussed as UMSU decides whether or not to create a racialized student’s representative, a position that could divide students into two categories: white and non-white.

In my opinion, this would be a serious step backwards.

I want to be very clear. By opposing the creation of a racialized student’s representative, I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, and I’m not saying that racism should be ignored. I must admit that at times I have made insensitive comments. And as the son of a black father and white mother I know that racism is still a reality. I have been called the “n-word.” When my parents were together and went to the malls in the 1980s, they often got stares and insulting comments thrown at them. My mother was even called an “n-word lover.” My family, and myself personally, understand the pain that racism can cause because we have lived it.

On a broader level, in Canada, the tragic legacy of residential schools and the inherent unfairness of the Indian Act is a constant reminder that we have some work to do ensuring equal rights in our own country.

Yet, it is also true that racism has lessened over time, often in dramatic fashion. Things are much different today then they were even 10 or 20 years ago.

Why has this progress been made? Was racial progress achieved by finding new ways to categorize people? Have we become a more equal society by finding new divisions to draw between each other?

I don’t think so.

The progress we have made is due to our increasing ability to see past skin colour and to recognize that we are all unique human beings, worthy of dignity and respect.

And when it comes to dignity and respect, I do not believe it is fair to create a position that clearly implies that white people are not welcome to run or vote for it. While this may not be the intention of the racialized representative, it is a possible side effect.

Excluding people because of their skin colour is what we are trying to stop. We have to be very clear on this principle: excluding someone—or implying that they are not welcome—because of their skin colour is not the right thing to do, whether that skin colour is black, white, or brown.

The way I see it, that would be going in exactly the wrong direction.

This isn’t about ignoring race. It is a fact that people have different skin colours. What I’m talking about is whether we should use skin colour as our defining standard for people. I’’s whether we will form our judgments of people based on what we can control (our actions and choices) or what we can’t control (our skin colour).

We must consider the context in which this position is being proposed. Look at our own campus. Our current UMSU Executive—a very diverse group of people—was elected in a free vote of students from all racial backgrounds. This is about showing trust in the students of this university. This is about trusting that we can see past race and make our choices based on our assessment of those we elect; or, to use the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “to judge people not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

People didn’t vote for our current UMSU Executive because of their racial backgrounds. They voted for them because they thought they were the best people for the job. That’s how it should be.

Now, I recognize that one of the goals of a racialized representative could be to create the room for a discussion about racism in today’s world. This is a worthwhile goal. The question is, is creating a racialized rep the best way to accomplish this? I don’t think so, and some of my colleagues here at the Manitoban don’t think so either.

Silvana Moran, the Manitoban’s Graphics Editor, whose family is from El Salvador, had this to say about the Racialized Rep. position: “I think it’s completely insulting to assume that my needs are the same as an International Student from another country. Just because I’m brown doesn’t mean my needs are the same as another brown person.”

Rachel Wood, the Manitoban’s Senior News Editor also stated her concerns: “The needs of a student from China are not the same as a First Nations student.”

The concern that many people—including Silvana, Rachel, and myself—have with the racialized rep/ position is that it is an overly broad and simplistic measure of categorization. One person cannot adequately represent such a broad and diverse group of people.

To think that everyone who has a darker shade of skin should be grouped into one category is a disturbing echo of the attitudes that led to racial discrimination in the past.

Throughout our lives, each of us struggles to define ourselves, to forge our own path in the world. We shouldn’t be judged by the colour of skin we happen to be born with.

Yes, where we are born, our background, and our economic status definitely has an effect on our opportunities. Some people are born into a much better situation than others. Some people face a long uphill struggle to succeed. These are facts. But there is a difference between acknowledging differing circumstances and acting as if the only circumstance that matters is race.

We know that throughout history there have been attempts to force people into categories and suppress our distinctiveness. Even though a racialized representative may be well intentioned, it is a repeat of the mistakes of the past.

Recently, I was reminded just how far we have come from our difficult past of racial discrimination.

I was sitting in the Tim Hortons on Pembina Hwy. across from the university with a friend of mine, a 75-year-old former U of M student and professor. In the midst of our conversation, my attention was drawn to the room around me and in that moment I was struck by the diversity of the crowd.

I saw a person wearing a Hijab sitting next to a family from India, their little baby sitting in a stroller. A group of white seniors sat next to a table where a young black man and white women were talking with each other. A family speaking Arabic was seated at the table next to mine. And I realized that this scene would have been nearly impossible when my 75-year-old friend was my age.

When he was a student, people his age in the United States were participating in the Civil Rights movement. Some were shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan for standing up for equal rights and human dignity. About that time, right here in Canada, it was not until the year 1960 that Aboriginal people living on reserves were given the right to vote.

Think of how far we have come since then. Think of how much progress we have made.

As I sat there, I wasn’t looking at “racialized’ or “non-racialized” people. These weren’t people who fit into a neat little box or needed a new label imposed upon them, they were just people: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Each with their own life stories, their own hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and challenges.

Today a scene like that diverse coffee shop crowd seems normal and we take it for granted. And yet, this moment didn’t come about easily. It came about because people fought for equal rights, because people fought against racism and oppression. Many sacrificed everything they had to create a world where people of different races and cultural backgrounds could come together and share a cup of coffee in the same place. People gave their lives for it, and we must never forget what it took to get us here.

The idea of dividing people by their race belongs in our past, not our future. The advance towards a more just and equal world has come as we respect every person for who they are on the inside, not what they look like on the outside.

I believe that our best hope of continuing the progress we have made is by respecting the distinctiveness and worth of every human being, not forcing people into categories. This is why I oppose the creation of a Racialized Representative. We’ve made too much progress to turn back now.

Spencer Fernando is the Comment Editor for The Manitoban.

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