The realities of being a young woman of colour in politics

How working on a federal campaign illuminated invisible barriers in the political arena

Navigating a white male dominated political arena.

I never understood why women of colour are so underrepresented in Canadian politics.

I’ve read textbooks with chapters on intersectionality and barriers to political engagement, and I’ve heard female politicians discuss gendered coverage and covert discrimination in the political arena. 

Despite my theoretical knowledge, I couldn’t wrap my head around why I had so few role models in politics—why I felt like no one was paving the way for future generations of unapologetically feminine, racialized leaders. 

My first-ever political campaign was anchored in the unique experience of working under a whip-smart, charismatic young candidate—who happened to be a woman of colour. I had the honour of working as Sabrina Grover’s executive assistant as she campaigned to be the next Liberal MP in Calgary Centre. In an overwhelmingly white, male political arena, I witnessed the complexities of race and gender intertwine as we canvassed the streets of Calgary. 

For the first time, I understood the intricate game racialized women are forced to play if they're brave enough to run for office. 

Working under Sabrina Grover taught me many things, but seeing her navigate discussions charged with anger, resentment, and microaggressions was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. As if she was leading a dance, Sabrina maneuvered conversations away from hate and into understanding without the other party even realizing. 

Feelings about climate change not being real turned into chats about an emerging energy sector, concerns about "illegal immigrants" were debunked with grace, and sympathetic nods were given out every time a constituent attacked Trudeau’s incompetency. 

The majority of Calgarians we interacted with were absolutely lovely. Even if they disagreed with Sabrina’s political affiliation or her platform, they treated us with respect and basic decency. This is what I would expect from the Canada I know and love.  

However, in more heated moments as we stood outside the doors of complete strangers, I realized that women of colour don’t have the luxury of decoupling our identities from prevalent Canadian issues.  

The majority of political leaders are blank slates; issues they champion aren’t consistently linked to their racial identity because whiteness is still the norm. Many politicians are also able to discuss issues of race and social justice without grappling with a personal connection to policies.

When I hear someone rant about “all the Syrians being let into the country,” and how “too many Muslims” in a city is a problem, I have a deeply personal emotional response as an immigrant and Muslim myself. Being linked to issues like immigration and diversity can be a positive motivator for individuals to reform systems and create a more tolerant Canada, but personal ties also make objective conversations increasingly difficult.  

Gender also plays an interesting role in interactions fueled by anger. When constituents raised their voices and started making aggressive hand gestures, my first thought was whether or not I’d be able to protect myself in the worst-case scenario. It was a similar feeling to when I walk alone at night and feel a man walking behind me. 

Thankfully, I never experienced a violent interaction, but the underlying fear was still present.  

In addition to attempting to control myself in conversations about race and learning how to present myself to predominantly white constituents, I also understood what it felt like to be the only young woman in a room full of men. 

Women of colour in politics walk an impossible tightrope. We need to be passionate but not emotional, intelligent but not cocky, and charismatic without being perceived as flirty. 

In the political arena, I was often the only 20-year-old woman in groups of predominantly older, more experienced men. My own insecurities and comments from the men I worked with often made me feel like I was nothing more than a pretty face, regardless of how hard I was working. 

I was hit on at events and at the doors by multiple men. The question I heard most on the campaign trail was, “how old are you?” which may not seem inappropriate, but was something I never heard men ask each other. There were comments about my looks and more questions about my love life, which I never knew how to answer.  

In these instances, I laughed and deflected with humour—often trying to bring the conversation back to the election and the political issues at hand. I’m naturally extroverted and have no trouble conversing with new people. However, men often take my personality as an invitation for romantic and sexual advances, whereas women often keep the conversation professional. 

Seeing how the women around me conducted themselves and kept conversations professional but still personable was essential for my learning. I know I’ll struggle to be witty and charismatic without being perceived as flirty, and struggle to set boundaries without losing political support from potential voters. However, shadowing a woman of colour was an extremely unique experience that made me feel safe and represented despite all the invisible barriers. 

There are so many ways that Canadians can support women of colour who enter the political arena: donating, providing fair media coverage, interacting with respect and decency regardless of political affiliation. 

I have gained a newfound level of respect for the trailblazing women of colour who deal with microaggressions, sexualization, and systemic barriers every day in order to represent their communities and build a better nation. I’ve realized that they're paving the path for future generations—we just don’t see it. 

I hope, one day, I can add my name to the list of resilient women who carved a space for themselves in Canadian politics, and did so their own way. 

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