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IN MY OPINION

You of all people: being a woman faculty union president of colour

The challenges of being true to oneself while representing the collective.

By ROHINI BANNERJEE | MAY 22 2019

The Indian author Arundhati Roy reminded us in her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture that there is no such as thing as the voiceless – there are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard. And so, as a woman academic of colour, one who has lived experience of a certain degree of voicelessness, taking on the role of union president in 2018 seemed like a moment to turn up the bass.

Was it utopic of me to think this? My nine-year-old son declared it a victory, pointing out that I was probably the very first union president to have their nose pierced. “And maybe, mummy, the only president who has ever worn a sari to the union annual dinner,” he added. I was used to being the first: the first in my family with a graduate degree, the first tenure-track faculty member of South-Asian descent in my department and maybe the first (and likely not the last) union president with facial piercings.

But, echoing the likes of Peter Parker/Spiderman, with the privilege of being able to advocate for our 285-plus full-time faculty came great responsibility and, unfortunately, some unwanted burden. First, there was the onus of not being good enough, beyond any self-imposed imposter syndrome often experienced by women, and by women of colour even more so.

I recall at convocation in May 2018, about a month into my new role, an unwelcome approach by a white, male faculty member probing, without any social filters, my authenticity: “So, what makes you qualified to be union president?” This kind of interrogation is not new for me. As a woman of colour, one that unambiguously expresses her South Asian heritage with her name and style of clothing, I have had my level of English and French examined, much to the surprise (and sometimes dismay) of my Eurocentric interrogators.

This was a pretty standard rhetoric in my books. However, in the context of serving as union president, I was not attempting to represent a socio-linguistic group or program as a learned speaker and women of colour scholar. No, I was standing for the collective, as a faculty member. The line of questioning took me back. I rummaged my stash of wit for a quick response and found nothing substantial except some nervous laughter and a sloppy, “I don’t know, I won by acclamation.” He rolled his eyes and in those three seconds of my immediate embarrassment, I added clumsily, “Well, I am no better qualified than you. Maybe you should run next time.”

If I don’t step up, who will?

Stepping up, being at the table, leaning in (or out, or sideways), finding my voice, casting my vote, have been phrases either I have used or put into motion whilst attempting to make impactful, positive change to the academic experience at my university. As a woman of colour, I remind myself that the women before me, and the allyship of men, allow me to push boundaries and barriers in academia. The convocation conversation was not new to me and, so, I was semi-prepared to mitigate as best as possible. Did he think I had gained some undeserved advantage? Did he feel that I no longer suffered discrimination on campus?

I know that I am not starting out as union president on the same base as my predecessors of colour. The standards are higher, the expectations to fail are a given. Comments from white faculty, both women and men, echoed in the hallways and overflowed my inbox: “She won’t last.” “She can’t handle the heat.” “She is not union president material. She is more maternal, you know. I can see her doing something with students, but union stuff, nah, not her.” “If I were her, I would focus more on my research dossier and less on spending time (and the membership’s money!) with the union lawyer.” “She should know, getting to full professor is about publishing, not about union service.”

What I was not prepared to face was the microscopic level of scrutiny of me by other academics of colour, that is, the ongoing evaluation of how much of an activist of colour I was. Was I able to advocate for an agenda that spoke to all our members, remaining articulate and bright, appropriately dressed, responding quickly and enthusiastically to every request for counsel, but still reflecting the grit required and/or assumed of a person of colour fighting for equity? How hard was she genuinely fighting for us, that is, for the faculty members of colour?

Simply put, I was not welcome to any of the POC peer mentorship groups being established amongst members. I had been labelled, upon assumption from their minimal observation (and never by approaching me for verification) as “too close to the old (white, heteronormative, cis male) guard.” Essentially, I wasn’t POC enough to sit at their activist-lunch table and be taken seriously as a union leader. Beyond any “newness” or “freshness” I might have represented in the position; I was questioned by these faculty of colour if I was using my voice and vote to make a meaningful change in the present. I recall one email message: “You, of all people, should be talking directly to the administration and making things move faster.” Would these standards have ever been placed on the numerous white, male union leaders before me?

It took me about six months to navigate the expectations of the membership and another six months to realize that whatever opinion our members had of me, no matter if they were from an equity-seeking group or not, was in all honesty, none of my business. Being in a leadership position means, quite often, not being able to please everyone. I worked hard to welcome new members, to hear from the collective, to move on some items pertaining to equity, inclusion and diversity, and to mitigate challenges as they presented themselves. I put out fires, constantly. And sometime sandbagged near flood zones. I did what I could, in the time that I had, whilst still devoting time to quality teaching and interdisciplinary research. After a year of service as president, I took my first and long-awaited sabbatical, allowing both space and time to reflect and prepare for when I go back to the union, as vice-president in 2019, to serve in the best way possible – as me, pierced nose and all.

Rohini Bannerjee is an associate professor of French and Francophone studies in the department of modern languages and classics, and a faculty member of the Asian studies, women and gender studies, and international development studies programs at Saint Marys University. She has served on the faculty union executive intermittently since 2011 as either president, secretary or as a member of the bargaining team for two rounds of collective agreement negotiations. She returns to the union executive as vice-president for a one-year term in 2019.

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