|Stewart is president of the McMaster Students Union and, evidently, a black woman. (Photo by Adam Carter/CBC)|
CBC-Hamilton recently ran an interview with Siobhan Stewart, president of the McMaster Students Union, with the headline "McMaster's first black woman student president opens up about Hamilton."
The interview began with your fairly typical profile questions, which led into this exchange between the interviewer and Stewart:
Q: Do you consider “finding your way” as an influence?
A: Yeah. Finding my way was a huge influence for me. There aren’t a lot of women in leadership positions, and there aren’t a lot of women of colour [in those positions]. When I was in high school, there was a Black female president on student council. I looked to her as a big sister and she really inspired me and we still keep in touch.
After a few questions about McMaster's relationship to the rest of the community, they have a longer exchange about race.
Q: You identify yourself as a woman of colour. In what way does being a Jamaican mean (to you)?
A: I don’t consider myself Jamaican. I’m Canadian. I have Jamaican ancestry and I appreciate certain things about the Jamaican culture — I’ll eat ox tail just like the next person. I love Jamaican food, I love reggae, coming together and having barbeques. I identify with being Canadian because this is where I was born. I don’t like people attaching labels to me because I am a Black woman.
There are white Jamaicans too. If someone was a white woman here, whose parents were also Jamaicans, people would leave it as I’m just Canadian. Nobody would push saying I am a Jamaican Canadian. That’s tied to a more racialised issue in other places. That’s just my opinion. Some people will say I’m Jamaican Canadian — it’s not universal.
Q: But you do talk about how it is difficult to be a woman of colour and even more so to be a woman of colour in a position of power.
A: I think there are different challenges that different groups face — for women in general, for people with different abilities, for people with different sexual orientation, or for people who are transgender — where their gender identity don’t match up with the physical body.
It’s a challenge because it’s not the “norm” and I don’t like using that word because what’s normal? I got to the positions I got to regardless of being a woman or being a Black person or whatever identities you attach to me or I attach to myself.
Q: Do you think being a woman of colour plays a role in what you do?
A: I do think it means something to be the fourth female president of the MSU ever. I’m the first Black female president — I think it means something for people to physically see it has happened! It shouldn’t be a token example; I shouldn’t be the only one. It should be a normal thing because I want to be one of many.
And I don’t mean just the first Black female president, I want to see, say a queer president — it shouldn’t matter. That’s my point: it shouldn’t matter! It’s about making space for all people of all abilities. I want to see someone who says, “I have a learning disability but I’m going to do this.”
And it’s not just about being the president of the student union, it’s about all capacities — president of the university, president of the country. University is a microcosm of the bigger world and it means something when these things happen.
Q: So it does mean something to be a woman of colour to come into a position power at the MSU. And your presidency —what you just explained to me, how yes, it’s important to be a woman of colour, but at the same time, this is not what it’s about — speaks volumes.
A: And I want to see it everywhere. It’s not just a racial issue. It’s everybody.
Q: Do you consider yourself as a minority? Was there shock value to you being a Black female president?
A: Not really, and I don’t think so. It means something and it matters because this wasn’t the case traditionally. I remember talking to a white male student from Engineering whom I had never met before asking me, how it feels to be a Black female to run in this race.
So people do notice, because he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t, but I think people ask questions like that because they’re excited. This just wasn’t the case traditionally. It’s hard to measure the impact I’m going to have. I just know that even for students who are not female or Black, there will be space for them.
At the end of the day, yes I’m Black. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m Canadian. Yes, I’m able-bodied, and yes, I identify as being straight. But even before all of that, I’m a human and a person. That’s what we need to remember and that’s the challenge because identities get attached to people. And for some reason, because the way our society is constructed, it doesn’t necessarily make space for them.
This interview, along with some of the racially-tinged descriptors in the preamble to the interview, prompted a response from The Silhouette, the campus paper at McMaster.
Sam Colbert, EIC of the Sil, wrote:
CBC Hamilton released an interview yesterday with the McMaster Students Union’s president, Siobhan Stewart. The story, entitled “McMaster’s first black woman student president opens up about Hamilton” has two major focuses: Stewart’s work in the community and the fact that she’s a woman of colour in power. The first angle was understandable, given the media outlet’s general interest in downtown Hamilton. The second was unenlightened.
First, there were unnecessary references to Stewart’s “brown eyes [that] twinkled behind her glasses” and to her “soothing, low voice.”
And then there were the questions.
What does being a woman of colour mean to you? Is it difficult to be a woman of colour in power? How do you think being a woman of colour plays a role in your job? Does it mean something to be a woman of colour in power with the MSU? Are people shocked by the fact that the MSU has a black woman president?
Kudos to Stewart for the way she handled it. “I got to the positions I got to regardless of being a woman or being a Black person or whatever identities you attach to me or I attach to myself,” she told the interviewer. Stewart was consistent in her stance that her presidency, as well as the leadership of other women or visible minorities, should not be remarkable because of her physical attributes.
Yes, our MSU president is a woman, and yes, she’s black. Maybe this is big news for CBC Hamilton. But here on campus, we’re past it. Siobhan got where she did on merit, and we’re prepared to evaluate that merit independently of her skin colour or gender. Cut the condescending congratulations.
CBC-Hamilton ran Colbert's criticism on their website (definitely a respectable act).
Personally, I didn't see all too much to argue with in the questions until CBC got to "Was there shock value to you being a Black female president?"
What is that supposed to mean? And I mean that as a legitimate question. Did the interviewer actually expect McMaster students to be "shocked" by her? I don't think anyone has ever been "shocked" by my race, regardless of the context.
But I think Stewart nails it when she said that "There are white Jamaicans too. If someone was a white woman here, whose parents were also Jamaicans, people would leave it as I’m just Canadian. Nobody would push saying I am a Jamaican Canadian."
And despite her willingness to talk about race when discussing people that inspired her, I totally understand Stewart's frustration in being questioned extensively on her background. Being of a certain race in a position of authority isn't an accomplishment unto itself. And it doesn't make for a compelling headline.
Good on the Sil for bringing this up. But also good for the CBC for putting up the criticism.
Do you think the Sil was right? Or did the interviewer do nothing wrong?