#MyLifeasaBureaucrat: On Women of Color in Government and the Academy (Part I)

A few years back I graduated with a BA from one of the top universities in Canada. I was awarded First Class Honours, had a bunch of publications under my belt, plenty of professional research experience and had worked full time for four years in student services on issues of equity, accommodation and fairness. Yet, as many people in my generation, I had a massive reality-check when no one would hire me post- graduation. After working a few low paying jobs in retail and front-line services, I decided that I needed to be very pragmatic about my choice of graduate program. A Master’s in Political Science or Gender Studies sounded wonderful and fun, but would not lead to a job after graduation… Thus, I enrolled in a program in Public Administration and became a bureaucrat-in-training.

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Academia itself is not an easy space to navigate. Despite efforts to be inclusive and diverse, Universities in Canada remain one of the many spaces dominated by white males. Even when women make up more than 50% of graduates in most fields (even more so in those that are deemed to be traditionally-female such as Education, Psychology, Social Work, etc.), women faculty are still scarce and women of colour are barely visible particularly when it comes to black, Indigenous and LGBTIQ women.

Numerous academics have reported how academia perpetuates violence against women of colour and LGBTIQ women in its hiring practices, its performance measurement frameworks, its promotions, and the funding that is made available mostly to white-male scholars. The so-called “hard sciences” are an excellent example of this. In 2010 the Canadian government was heavily criticized after awarding all of Canada’s Research Chairs to men (mostly white) by saying that no women in the respective fields measured to these male scholars. And while people debated over “merit” and equity issues, the reality of things is that very few academics of colour were surprised… at the end of the day women, and particularly women of colour, in Canada continue to be underpaid and underfunded in Canadian Universities.

When I joined the policy world I was one of six or seven minorities in a cohort of 60 students, and in a department that, among is dozens of professors, had only four women, a South Asian man, and two women of colour. Everyone else was a white male. Such a thing is not surprising given that I studied in Canada’s capital, where although women are said to be joining the public service by the bunch, positions of power are dominated by white Anglophones (with certain departments being heavily dominated by white Francophones). Women, and particularly women of colour, are often found in administrative, low-pay and temporary positions.

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These days, the Canadian government runs a number of competitions where affirmative action is practiced with the purpose of promoting diversity and equity in hiring practices. There are also some competitions aiming to recruit Indigenous bureaucrats, which remain underrepresented even in the departments that are exclusively dedicated to the management of Indigenous peoples and affairs. Nonetheless, these have not gone unchallenged. In different occasions, primarily white applicants have tried to sue the Canadian government for “discrimination” because they feel entitled to all positions in government, and believe that equity practices are discriminatory towards white populations.

When I started “bureaucrating” it was like immigrating/settling in Canada all over again. I was exposed to a large cohort of white men who still believe that the bureaucracy is their righteous space; to numerous white women who pushed second-wave-feminist agendas; and to people of colour who had very varied experiences in the workplace. That is how the hashtag #MyLifeasaBureaucrat was born.

Through #MyLifeasaBureaucrat I started recording a number of unsettling experiences as a woman of colour, a Hispanic and an Indigenous-settler to Canada while working in government. Some included issues of racial discrimination and harassment, others spoke to plain ignorance from the people who do not only administer the fates of the so-called minorities in Canada, but who also legislate internationally on issues affecting people of colour in the Third World. Some of the examples flesh out not only white supremacy within government but also the heteronormative and heteropatriarchal nature of the bureaucracy.

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Starting for how one is able to identify in government work applications. So far options include binary gender identities with no room for non-binary and trans folks, and a bunch of racial/linguistic categories that seem to be mutually exclusive… apparently one cannot be Indigenous, black and Latinx at the same time or Arab and black, either. These seemly menial bureaucratic processes, follow us for much of our time in the bureaucracy. Minorities are used to fill equity quotas and for “special” projects requiring the cooperation of “minority communities” (i.e. de-radicalization programs which require visible Muslims of a variety of backgrounds to liaise between government and “their” communities).

Religious minorities are also often tokenized. Very few hijabi women, for instance, are found at the high levels of government, but are numerous in administrative low-pay positions despite holding numerous degrees. Their presence is used as part of the diversity rhetoric in the bureaucracy; thus, they are made the poster-child of every “diversity campaign, ”without ever acknowledging that visible Muslim women often face employment discrimination, Islamophobia,  racism, lower wages and violence in the workplace.

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Hence, the hashtag started as way of infusing humour into situations that were not funny at all, and that constantly made me question my career choices. The hashtag is now used by other friends of colour or visible religious minorities, who have experienced and seen discrimination, sexism, harassment and white supremacy within the bureaucracy. In a lot of cases, many of us have had similar experiences, but they are not always obvious. One of the challenges of being a person of colour, a sexual/gender or religious minority  in government is that the mythical Canadian politeness continues to be equated with no-racism and no-discrimination. As long as they are “polite” about it, bureaucrats get away with being racist, sexist and Islamophobic a lot of the time.

Nonetheless, the so-called minorities, including people of colour, become bureaucrats for a number of reasons. Some like the security and prestige that used to come with it (even when today Canada’s bureaucracy relies on students and casual workers, who live in precarious conditions); others truly believe that they are contributing to a better Canada (whatever that means); some have been recruited specifically for their closeness to particular communities (i.e. Muslims working on de-radicalization programs); a few more find the work interesting or can only work in government because of their field of specialization; and many more just need to pay the bills and these jobs have become a way to do so (even when right now the Canadian government has failed to pay salaries to many employees).

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Not all women of colour who engage in the bureaucracy have experienced sexism, racism or discrimination; some just do not talk about it openly for fear of being fired or denied a promotion or simply becoming further marginalized. However, Canadian bureaucracies, not only at the federal level but also Provincial and Municipal, remain places that can be inherently violent to women of colour and LGBTIQ women. In my case, my field of study and my later work in the bureaucracy made it clear that both academia and the bureaucracy are spaces that present multiple barriers to women from “minority” groups, and that those will never be safe spaces for us unless their structures change radically. The problem is, as much as bureaucrats like to deny it, bureaucracies are not made for change, but rather to maintain the status quo; hence, the question is, what will it take for women of colour, non-binary and trans women and visibly religious women to challenge white supremacy and heteropatriachal practices from within academia and the bureaucracy?

2 thoughts on “#MyLifeasaBureaucrat: On Women of Color in Government and the Academy (Part I)

  1. rosalindawijks says:

    “and a bunch of racial/linguistic categories that seem to be mutually exclusive… apparently one cannot be Indigenous, black and Latinx at the same time or Arab and black, either.”

    Yes! There are millions of Afro-Latinos/as and Afro-Arabs, yet they’re erased all the damned time.

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