Tag Archives: Race

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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Race and the St Andrews experience

No man – or woman – is an island.

And yet, that’s often how I feel – like an island, like a little spot of land in a monochrome ocean. Being a person of color in a sea of white faces is nothing new to me. Despite attending diverse, urban-area schools throughout my childhood, I ended up at a not-so diverse college. My college boasted a class made up of 11 per cent Hispanic/Latinos and 16 per cent African Americans (currently 11 and 10 per cent respectively for the class of 2016). I soon learned that it could have been worse – that this was diversity in higher education. I counted my lucky stars that I had always been comfortable crossing racial boundaries. I wasn’t afraid to ignore self-segregation in high school and that was something that, thankfully, carried over into my college experience.

Still, it took some getting used to. It was during my undergraduate career that I really began to struggle with the feeling of being the only minority in a classroom. Sometimes, I would be hyperaware of it; other times I would barely notice. Nevertheless, I felt more comfortable with TAs who were minorities. I was not so alone then. Despite all the personal growth, my understanding of myself – of my race and how that influences who I am and what I’ve experienced – did not really change in those four years. I was aware, but I could never articulate what things meant. That was okay, because I didn’t need to articulate those meanings. There were other people like me there, people who just knew.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I arrived at the University of St Andrews that things really changed for me. Since I arrived in September, I have become more aware than ever of the divide between me and everyone else. Spotting a person of color on campus makes me smile (because, yes, I can go a whole day without seeing someone of color), and finding someone who speaks Spanish is always a treat. Mostly, I think about race, privilege, and power structures a lot more often. I feel uncomfortable more often. I feel suffocated, sometimes, in a way that I never felt in college. I feel aware.

For months now I’ve been trying to pinpoint the source of my confusion and unrest. It didn’t seem okay for me to say I just know. I could have said it was the small town environment, or the adjustment to being back in school. But that wasn’t it. It took me longer than it should have (and yes, I am embarrassed) to realize that the racial experience in the United Kingdom, in Scotland, is just different from that of the United States. At home, there’s a dialogue. Here, I’ve never felt like that’s been allowed. People don’t want to talk about race. And that’s (arguably) okay. I respect people’s choices. But those who say that people don’t want to talk about race because it’s irrelevant, or because they see past it, or because it’s just simply unnecessary, are really missing the point.

This is not an attack on St Andrews. It is not an attack on any individual. I have met wonderful people, wonderful friends, during my studies here. And yet is it really so bad, or surprising, that I want to meet people who don’t feel the need to ignore a large part of who I am? Or people who simply accept it? Or people who aren’t afraid to have a discussion about it? Why is race still a taboo when so many people are affected by racism?

Exactly five days after the Boston Marathon bombings, a classmate made a joke. He said, “When I heard about the bombings, I thought the terrorist was you!” It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t a joke to me. Aside from it coming much too soon, I didn’t feel it was okay to have a white man call a brown girl a terrorist, even jokingly, days after a Muslim woman had been attacked in Boston in response to the bombings – merely for walking, for existing. Sometimes it’s dangerous being brown, but for some reason it doesn’t feel okay to acknowledge that in what St Andrews students call “the Bubble”.  A part of me feels silenced and that’s one of the reasons I chose to write for this blog. I both want and need that dialogue that feels so foreign to St Andrews, because the only way to change things is to speak up.

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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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