CONTROVERSY OVER COLOUR

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By Glynnis Mapp

Saron Ghebressellassie never thought she would find what she calls “hate mail” in her inbox.

“People have called us reverse racists, and people have sent e-mails saying that we’re singling out (non-minorities),” said the second-year radio and television arts student and Students of Colour in Radio and Television representative.

Ghebressellassie and her SCRT peers are four of only a handful of African-Canadian students in the RTA program. They believe more visible minority students should be on enrollment lists and want to go to high schools and other institutions to promote media programs to visible minority youths. “We’re not trying to exclude people, we’re providing a space to promote diversity,” Ghebressellassie said. SCRT members sent out a mass e-mail last Monday to radio and television arts students encouraging visible minorities to its first group meeting, but got some unexpected responses. One anonymous e-mail suggested that minority students are too sensitive about race-related issues.

“Why do you people always complain about everything?” it read. “My parents came as European immigrants, and we fared just fine. If blacks and other minorities could just work harder and stop blaming white people for everything, you too can succeed.”

Another response suggested there is no need for a minority group in the RTA program. “If there are no natives or minorities entering the program, that’s not white people’s fault, it’s probably because they are not interested in the media industry.”

SCRT wants to become an official student group. But before it can receive the annual $900 given to all registered RSU student groups, the members must outline their group’s mandate and get 20 or more student signatures of support. “It’s difficult to get the support because there are so few minorities in our program, and a lot of non-minority students only seem to support us conditionally,” Ghebressellassie said.

“We just want (visible minority) students to know that people like them can work in the media.”

Ghebressellassie said SCRT is trying to ignore the controversy surrounding the group. “We haven’t replied to these e-mails. We don’t want to legitimize negative comments or jokes. We just want our program to reflect our multicultural society,” she said. The SCRT is encouraged by the positive feedback it has received as well. “The faculty and other students have been extremely supportive of our goals and want to help,” Ghebressellassie said. David Tucker, chair of radio and television arts, supports the group’s initiatives and plans to meet with its members to discuss how RTA faculty and Ryerson can help.

Tucker said the program has not kept track of how many visible minorities are applying or enrolled. He said better representation of visible minorities is important. “It’s a difficult challenge and a complicated issue. We do seem to attract a significant amount of white faces. It could be a financial barrier, or maybe we’re not attracting enough (visible minority) students, we’re not sure why,” he said. “Our whole program is about storytelling. Just think about all of the stories we’re missing out on.” A 2000 Canadian Race Relations report attributes the lack of minority representation in the media to a number of factors.

Among them are networking barriers, small acknowledgement of experience gained from outside Canada, and lack of employment training for people of colour. Carrie-Ann Bissonnette, the on-campus liaison officer for Ryerson’s general tours, disagreed with the idea that the RTA program lacks minority representation and said she doesn’t think the tours exempt minority students. A 2003 graduate of the RTA program, Bissonnette said she didn’t experience a lack of visible minorities in her classes and believes the program doesn’t exclude anyone. “Our tour guides are very multicultural and we don’t target specific groups, we just put the information out there and invite potential students to come,” Bissonnette said. “It may just be a blip in the system.”

Ram Sivapalan, Ryerson Students’ Union vice-president finance, said he supports SCRT and wants to help. “If these students are identifying a problem in their program, I support them,” he said. “It’s offensive when people go against these kinds of causes, they simply don’t understand the problem. There is no such thing as ‘pulling the race card.’

“At RSU, our mandate encourages multiculturalism and our own student union is making steps to be more and more diverse, just like our student body,” he said. The RSU has already donated $250 and CopyRite printing donations to help SCRT plan upcoming events.

The two groups have discussed the steps SCRT should take towards becoming an official student group. The SCRT plans to present the RTA program to high school students in January 2006 and speak to guidance counsellors about encouraging visible minority youths into media programs.

“We have such a long way to go,” Ghebressellassie said. “We know that there won’t be immediate change, but I think once we get the word out, people will start to catch on.”

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