Becoming president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) was a life changing experience. I got to work with an amazing group of people and work on some great projects; the skills I gained will stay with me for life. But, more importantly than anything else, I am leaving my position with a stronger understanding of how I fit in the world as a person of colour.
Growing up as a son of Sri Lankan immigrants in a fairly mixed community, I never really thought about race. I didn’t really see myself being treated differently from my peers. This bubble was shattered when I became president of the ASSU. I began to notice subtle things, from the way I was addressed, to criticisms of my personality, to double standards in how I was treated compared to others. At times, criticisms would be personal and tinged with words that speak to an individual’s character, not their work — ‘corrupt,’ ‘angry,’ ‘bully.’ Of course, I experienced this as a male person of colour — women of colour on this campus have had it even worse, and are constantly singled out.
Dealing with this can be disorienting and confusing. While you try to make sense of it all, your mental health takes a toll. There are few mental health supports for student representatives, and few of the supports that do exist are prepared to deal with the intersectionality of race and mental health. As a result, you are left to navigate it mostly alone, or with like-minded people who have been there.
After a while of dealing with seemingly unfair criticism, some people learn to just dismiss it all, especially if it comes from a student who is white. The effort and energy to go through each criticism and analyze it is far too taxing on people, so some choose to shut down and learn to see a lot of criticism — including valid criticism — as being a product of this racial double standard.
This is undoubtedly a bad thing, and harms dialogue on our campus. People of colour are not immune from criticism and should not be put on a pedestal. We are not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment. But this is what happens when the status quo is not challenged — it is not just harmful for people of colour but everyone involved.
It is difficult to verbalize these experiences. People may think you are pulling the race card or just looking for sympathy. After all, you signed up for a position that few students get the chance to hold. I’m aware that I have talked about race and student politics many times before in the past, and there are probably people who think I make everything about race. But it is important that we talk about it.
It is especially crucial to have discussions about race when the people who treat people of colour like this probably don’t see themselves as racist. Many of these individuals probably have friends who are black or brown who don’t see them as racist, either.
Yet, acknowledging racial bias in student settings is not about individuals, but about systems that make people subconsciously enact this bias. Racism in student politics is paradoxical in that it is often invisible to the general student body, but painfully visible to those who have to experience it. The more we understand these systems and processes, the more we can take steps to tackle underlying experiences.
I learned a few things from my experience as ASSU president. I learned that, while this work is rewarding, it is also difficult, and the added sphere of being a person of colour can make the load feel even heavier. It is necessary to take care of yourself and take time for yourself. I learned that you won’t be able to do everything you want, but just being able to hold this position is an accomplishment in itself, powerfully cognizant of the existence of people in colour spaces where we are typically underrepresented. Beyond everything, I learned that what I was feeling wasn’t necessarily new. It just took context after holding the position of president to understand that things I experienced growing up were indeed related to my identity as a person of colour.
Across campus, we have just elected new teams and new leaders — I hope the people of colour elected know that their experiences matter and that they should be able to talk about it. I also hope that other leaders and the rest of the student body respond by listening and re-analyzing their priorities and any problematic behaviour. It will take more than empty platitudes on privilege to fix problems of racism on campus; what we need is genuine dialogue, and I hope our campus is prepared to have that conversation.
Abdullah Shihipar is the outgoing president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.