This week, I graduated from my undergrad in Media Production. Like a lot of immigrant families with dreams for their children to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers, my parents still ask me what my major is because it falls in none of the above.
Stepping into my first RTA (Radio and Television Arts, now known as Media Production) class, I instantly realized something was different. It was there like an elephant in the room but only I could see it. Turns out it wasn’t something, but rather it was someone.
It was me.
I was different.
I was the only brown girl in class.
I looked around at students already forming groups and bonding over frosh stories about getting wasted and I waited and waited for someone like me to walk in. Needless to say, I was kept waiting.
In a Media Aesthetics class taught by one of my favourite professors and later our convocation speaker, Laurie Petrou, we were asked: “who does not feel represented in the media?” I, along with maybe two other people in our little PoC corner of the theater, hesitantly put our hands up. A sea of blond looked back with wonder in their eyes. I later witnessed a white student remark “but Canada doesn’t have racism…it’s so multicultural”.
As future media creators and storytellers, it astounded me that students were so uninterested in learning about the importance of media responsibility. Our professor spent time initiating conversations about topics like cultural and historical materialism, overt and systematic racism, racebending, and gender constructs in relation to media to which many students, how do I say this nicely, did not quite give a f*ck about. I overheard several conversations about how this period could be better used for production classes instead. It puzzles me how some expect to be in a field of representation without even knowing its core concepts and theories.
This feeling of otherness followed me in every RTA space. I felt like my difference attracted so much attention when I walked into the room but still didn’t have a single friend in my program by the end of the semester.
I went to an advisor to switch programs after my first year and she promised me things would get better if I stuck it out a bit longer. They didn’t. I still dreaded RTA courses. I saw students misuse words like “Islamics” instead of “Muslims” in presentations. I witnessed class discussions defending Indigenous cultural appropriation with “I wouldn’t mind if people dressed Icelandic”, and let’s not start about girls wearing bindis. All the while the professor did not interrupt.
So I found a home in other parts of campus. I even substituted English courses with RTA ones when we had to pick a specialization. These were the best four years of my life but all my positive memories and professional skills accumulated in electives, extracurriculars, and the four different jobs I held across campus. I gave my university every ounce of my spirit. I graduated from Ryerson, not RTA.
This of course came at a sacrifice. As thesis rolled around, I had no idea how to direct or edit or even white balance the camera. I’d learned no hard skills in RTA. And when I was asked what I acquired in my time at the infamous School of Media in an internship interview, it took me so long to answer that he insisted on moving on to get it over with. I got the internship. Kidding, I was rejected, HARD.
For years I told myself that I wasn’t good at RTA, that’s why I didn’t take the courses or learn much. Only recently did I try to understand why. I’m an extremely hard worker and I love challenges so why was this different? It was different because I could not identify with a lot of content coming out of RTA. There were so many meaningless haha-videos and radio shows about celebrities. Not only was there a lack of inclusive representation, but when stories about minorities were being told, there was a disconnect because everything used a white lens. Even our thesis panel of five advisors were all white men.
Some of the students who did manage to get word out came from rich and privileged backgrounds with connections in the industry. Numerous thesis groups were able to hire professional DOPs, videographers, and editors which became a means to create better quality content. Even privileges like not having to work long hours to support oneself or living close to campus with immediate access to university equipment and software added up.
But don’t get me wrong, you do learn a few things when you end up where you don’t feel like you belong:
“You learn to suck it up which is an important lesson because life is full of having to do things you don’t like. You are forced to work with people with different perspectives” (Fakiha Baig, RTA class of 2017).
Yeah, that’s all I really learned too.
Do I regret spending $40K in a program that never welcomed me? No, because I became so unapologetic and resilient that I started speaking out and correcting students in class (often playing the role of that angry brown girl) and approached professors about how they needed to be more vigilant and call out ignorance as it happened. I even went ahead and met with the department head* about it (from whom I never heard back).
I had a great four years during my undergrad, but that’s only because I know I at least tried to initiate change. I now see a hand full of PoC in lower years and I only hope that it expands to the over 90% currently white faculty someday.
Note: This post strictly is my opinion and is in no way undermining the work of members of the Ryerson and RTA community to create a more diverse and inclusive environment.
*Edit: I met with the program manager, not the department head.