Ending discrimination takes more than a poster campaign

The University of Alberta Students’ Union has launched their “UASU Got This” campaign in an effort to inspire a more diverse group of students to run in the upcoming SU elections. These Rosie the Riveter-inspired posters are a novel idea, and a good start in encouraging women and other traditionally underrepresented students to run for executive positions. That being said, students, members of student governance, and, critically, university administration all need to take responsibility for the patterns of underrepresentation we’ve seen at the U of A, and do something about it.

One of the reasons anyone, but particularly women or members of a racialized minority, chooses not to run for an SU position is because it’s fucking terrifying. You have to speak to seas of strangers at every election forum, hoping that you’re getting your message across to a largely apathetic student body. You have to answer questions without making a fool of yourself. And, no matter how well you do, most students talking about the election will know almost nothing about your platform or your ideas, so they will talk about exclusively about your hair or your suit or your posters.

It’s our responsibility, whether we are students or student journalists, to be better than that. If you have genuine criticisms of someone’s policy, great. Please voice them. Critical discussion is important. If you don’t give a shit about the election, fine. Don’t talk about it. Don’t provide ignorant commentary about someone’s appearance because you have nothing else to say.

It’s also our responsibility to hold others to that same standard. Posters and awareness campaigns will always be the first step, but all of us need to make a commitment to calling out bullshit claims and telling people that their sexist, racist, or homophobic commentary is unacceptable. No poster can tell your friend to stop being an idiot, but you can.

As important as it is for students to make that change themselves, it’s also crucial that the University administration do a better job regulating its own behaviour. Earlier this year, the SU’s Identity Matters research showed that SU executives have had some profoundly negative experiences with university administrators who treated them differently based on their race, their gender, or their age. So far, there has been no widespread or public response to these accusations.

Let me be very clear here. Students’ Union research revealed fairly widespread and concerning racist, sexist, and ageist attitudes being held by university employees, and the university has not condemned those attitudes. We have no evidence that those attitudes aren’t still being perpetuated.

What that means is that regardless of how successful the UASU Got This campaign is in getting different students to run, and regardless of how successful students are at shifting discourses and electing more diverse executives, those executives will likely face all the same problems they currently face. It doesn’t matter if we get those students in office if they are going to be victims of the same institutionalized discrimination over again.

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