Blind to the problem
When I was younger, I never thought about representation in media, in academia, or in politics. If you’re white, you probably didn’t, either.
I didn’t really start thinking critically about how gender and race are portrayed or represented in the various aspects of our culture until I was almost done with high school. All of my teachers throughout my four years were white or white-passing, and less than half were women. Granted, my hometown of Eugene, Oregon is hardly the face of racial diversity — the town remains a predominantly white community.
It will get better in university, I would think to myself, growing bored of learning the same lessons from the same people.
To my surprise, when I entered SFU as a bright-eyed and fresh (white) faced first year, the university that boasts about “engaging the world” was hardly diverse. To paint a picture, I enrolled in two gender studies courses, a Middle Eastern history course, an international studies course, and an Arabic course. Only my Arabic professor, who was born in Lebanon, was non-white. Imagine: a white male teaching Middle Eastern history, and another teaching a course in a faculty called ‘international studies.’ While there was near gender parity among my professors, as two of the five identified as female, I could not help but feel that might be because I was in gender studies classes. The spring term yielded similar numbers.
According to Catalyst, an international non-profit organization aiming to “accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion,” visible minorities make up only 17 percent of university professors in Canada. According to the 2006 census, only 2.1 percent of university professors in Canada had indigenous ancestry.
SFU students have noticed something isn’t right
This lack of representation can have some troubling effects. According to Alisha Lee, a Chinese-Canadian second-year student at SFU, racial representation is a “necessity” if the end goal is to expand students’ knowledge.
“North American schools spend years and years in grade school teaching about the same notable white men, and learning in university should take that a step further. I don’t want to learn about the same handful of people,” she said, noting that throughout her first year, the only female professors she had were concentrated in the gender studies department.
“Something great that I’ve seen in my courses, specifically those gender studies courses, are the notable women with vast ranges of ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences, and how history has pushed them into the shadows. [. . .] In most cases, representation is easily forgettable when you don’t have the experiences tied to being female or someone of colour.”
For political science major Elsie Cherop, who identifies as a black woman with Kenyan ancestry, the importance of representation is more personal. She, too, noticed the overall lack of representation in SFU’s faculty, and has yet to have a professor who shares her ethnic background. Cherop explained that the presence of such a professor would have “allowed the discussions to be more intersectional and not sideline the experiences and existences of minorities.” Cherop also added that “having students well-represented not only reduces the microaggressions students from minorities face on a daily basis, but also gives them some hope of succeeding in a world that is conspiring against them.”
It’s time to learn about Canadians who aren’t dead white men, students demand it.
White students probably don’t think too much about microaggressions — and that’s a big problem. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, a microaggression is when a derogatory comment is made that seems commonplace or casual. In other words, it’s covert prejudice being passed off as everyday conversation. The sad thing is microaggressions are a regular phenomenon for many.
A problem that extends past hiring?
Not only is there a representation issue, but there’s also evidence of a payment issue. In mid-July of last year, Anke S. Kessler and Krishna Pendakur from SFU’s department of economics, published a study that found women at SFU are making less than their male counterparts. In their report, they stated that from 2004 to 2008, “SFU hired many women, increasing their faculty complement from 200 (28.6 percent) to 277 (32.6 percent).” That being said, during this same period “gender disparity [in terms of wage] grew from roughly zero to about $2,000.” What’s worse is that Kessler and Pendakur added in that same report that since 2008 the numbers have not shifted in any kind of substantial way.
The lived experiences of SFU students, and the findings from researchers within our institution have pinpointed a problem — and a big one. On a very systemic level, representation can be hard to tackle. Academia has hid away in its ivory tower for a long time, unyieldingly keeping the status quo. But SFU has prided itself on being a place of engagement, a place of progress and research. If it wants students to take that more seriously than just a marketing slogan, it needs to start by having the long, hard conversation about how to address ever-concerning issues of representation and equality on campus.