Hello UW staff members! This is my second post as UWSA President-elect. In my first post, I wrote about some things I’ve learned since stepping into this role. This post is about a different, more disruptive kind of learning. I’ve been actively paying attention to racism in recent months, and it has brought me discomfort, which I take as a good sign. I’m openly sharing my learning experience here with three great hopes: that folks who are like me might be inspired to approach this learning, that folks who have been grappling with this for longer than I have might reach out to share their perspectives with me, and that folks who have been impacted by racism might know that I am here to listen.
I see myself as a good person. I strive to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and I thought that was good enough. And I gather that many White* folks would say the same about themselves. But before 2020, I had never really thought that much about racism; the images of George Floyd being killed changed that for me.
Seeing so many people come together during a global health pandemic to support the Black Lives Matter protests made me curious. I felt compelled to dig deeper.
I borrowed an ebook from the library: Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. I don’t recall how I learned about this book, but I’ve since recommended it to many of my White friends & family members. It reminded me of something that I had somehow forgotten along the way; race is a social construct (race is not biological**). I realized that I knew this fact, but I had let myself forget it, and that was uncomfortable. Saad also helped me to see and to internalize the idea that racism isn’t simply a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) issue. Much like sexism isn’t a women’s issue, a truth I readily accepted long ago. So why did it take this work for me to figure out that racism isn’t a BIPOC issue? It makes me uncomfortable to acknowledge that it was likely because racism isn’t visible to me in my day-to-day life as a White person; it was convenient to set racism aside for somebody else to tackle. This was the most uncomfortable realization I’ve had about myself in a long time. Then, in a recent conversation, I was reminded of the ongoing protests by several Indigenous groups in Canada. I thought about the fact that these protests haven’t registered in my awareness as prominently as the Black Lives Matter protests, and that brought even more discomfort. What is all this discomfort trying to tell me?
I’ve resisted the urge to turn away from the discomfort; growth is never comfortable, but it’s always worthwhile. Instead I’ve been attending online talks and listening as BIPOC folks share their lived experiences. I’ve been reading books written by BIPOC authors. I’ve been thinking about how things are for BIPOC folks in Canada, in Ontario, in Waterloo, and on campus. As a White person, I won’t ever fully understand, but I can listen, I can learn, and I can do better.
In a recent meeting of the UWSA Board of Directors, we engaged in a discussion on antiracism. The conversation was lengthy and touched on the UWSA Mission, Vision and Values, how unconscious bias may influence who ends up in Director positions, and ways to respectfully access the perspectives of BIPOC members of the campus community. And although these were all valuable topics, it was an uncomfortable conversation. One of the things I recently heard in an antiracism talk was the idea of a brave space in which members can wrangle with uncomfortable realities. In brave spaces, members are asked to be brave enough to listen, to accept others’ experiences at face value, to risk saying or doing the wrong thing, to acknowledge and apologize when it happens, to help others see things from new perspectives, and to trust that we’re all doing our best. When I described this idea to the Board Directors, it seemed to strike a chord, so I’m hopeful that we can continue having these meaningful, uncomfortable discussions to make our Staff Association a better representative of our staff members.
As someone who loves teaching and learning, I readily accept that mistakes are an important part of learning, but I find it scary now to risk saying the wrong thing. Adding to my anxiety is the mixed response I’ve received when speaking to others about my antiracism work - from loud defensiveness to silent subject changes and everything in between. So although I feel driven to share my experience, and I’m optimistic that my openness might contribute to some kind of positive change, I’m also apprehensive about sharing any of it! But this is me being brave enough to risk saying the wrong thing because I’d rather say the wrong thing than stay silent. If you’d like to talk, just reach out.
Thanks for reading,
*Why capital-w-White? Because I’ve learned it's not just an innocuous adjective describing colour; White people denotes a racial group. As do the terms Black people and Indigenous people and People of Colour.
**for a great overview of this concept, check out Are You There, Race? It’s Me, DNA by McGill Science Communicator Jonathan Jarry!