Category Archives: Frida Kahlo

The unreasonable person test

A couple months ago one of my professors asked us to pick out what we think are characteristics of the legal concept of the “reasonable person.”

The reasonable person test is a standard that judges have used for centuries in an attempt to create an objective legal test for evaluating behaviour. The theoretical reasonable person is one who shows acceptable care, skill, and judgment in a given situation, according to the values of the community.

The idea of the reasonable person has morphed and changed with time. It has also faced significant critique, given that in practice, the reasonable person essentially amounts to the reasonable judge. Since the bench has consistently lacked diversity, the reasonable person becomes the white, male, upper-class reasonable person.

So, my professor asked us who we think the reasonable person would be. After some silence, my hand shot up, and I declared “white, male.”

These are the immediate characteristics that I thought of, and there is considerable evidence to support this claim from well-respected scholars and experts. However, I was immediately seized by a feeling of awkwardness that filled the classroom. Both the professor and I are racialized women. The class was mostly white, and evenly split between men and women.

Eventually, more people added some other relevant characteristics. The awkwardness was soon broken when someone noted that the reasonable person in practice was basically Mr. Darcy, of “Pride and Prejudice” fame.

Since then, I have carried the lingering sensation that I did something wrong or inappropriate when giving my answer. I even found myself questioning my judgment, wondering why I didn’t consider the possibility that my answer, given in a classroom where both my professor and I were racialized women, might lead to an uncomfortable situation.

My interpretation of the sensation was that I felt people responded in a skeptical manner. For instance, if I had been white or my professor had been white, I feel like the legitimacy of that statement would have been enhanced. Our collective marginalization left me feeling that we weren’t believed. It continues to bother me. I wonder what I should have done differently. Could someone else could have been an ally in that space, mitigating that tension sooner by voicing their agreement?

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Political Correctness, or “Being a Decent Person”

An ongoing question in academia is the issue of political correctness. I have so often heard people gripe about how it prevents them from being able to really talk about things and engage in debates. This poses a particular problem because a hallmark of post-secondary education is academic freedom, based in the notion that it is a place that fosters openness for different ideas and ways of thinking.

So is political correctness actually an issue?

I don’t think it is and, in fact, it should actually be understood as basic human courtesy, a prerequisite to meaningful academic engagement.

The first step is to understand what political correctness means. The general concept is about being aware of language and how you use it. It means that you pause to reflect the ways in which your discourse reproduces existing power relations and can be exclusionary to marginalized people. This doesn’t mean that you stop vocalizing what you have to say, but that you at the very least add caveats: “I’m not sure if this the right word…” or “I don’t know what would be the most inclusive way to capture this…” And voilà! You will both learn ways to communicate more effectively and get your ideas across.

That doesn’t sound too bad, right?

So why do we need to ensure we embrace political correctness in academia even more so than other spaces? Despite its claim to being a bastion of liberal thinking, academia has and continues to be an exclusionary space that is largely populated by privileged people. Thus, when someone of a marginalized identity because, of their race/sexual orientation/ability/class/and so forth, enters that space, we already feel like we don’t belong. Political correctness is one tool to change that situation, to work towards ensuring that we can all be a part of the dialogue instead of apart from it.

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Visibly Other in the Classroom

I am brown. As the child of Indo-Canadian immigrants, I am visibly marked as Other. One of my ongoing personal debates has been how to navigate this reality, especially in the context of academia. Do I pretend to be a “raceless” scholar? Do I recognize my race, but only implicitly without ever calling attention to it? Or do I explicitly recognize it and weave it into my learning and writing processes? Underlying all these questions is the bigger issue of what I want my relationship to scholarship to be. Do I want to be accepted despite my racial identity, because of it, or something else?

I think it’s obvious that I can’t be a “raceless” scholar. Applying this sort of neutrality implicitly accepts the norm, which, in the case of race, is white. Moreover, it would be impossible to erase my lived experience as a racialized person. The difficulty really lies in finding a way to be able to have race acknowledged without it leading to tokenism or essentialism or being treated like a spokesperson.

To give you a recent example, I was in a seminar course discussing a case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada on the question of the right to wear a Sikh kirpan, a small ceremonial dagger (Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys). During the conversation, it struck me that I was the only brown person and quite possibly the only Sikh (making assumptions based on whether or not anyone else was wearing a kara, a metal bracelet that is a religious symbol for Sikhs). Obviously religion and ethnicity are separate issues – but in a conversation like this one, religion and ethnicity are also deeply interrelated. During the discussion, I kept feeling like other students were glancing in my direction. And then came the moment when someone pulled out the “my Sikh friends say” card.

I hope that I sincerely represented that while there are divergent views on whether people chose to wear a kirpan or not, it holds great significance to the faith. In this way, I felt like I was able to try to weave in my identity without falling into the traps mentioned above. But it was frustrating and alienating.

I’m still struggling to negotiate these sorts of dynamics and I assume some of you must face similar challenges. If anyone out there has suggestions, I’m all ears.

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