Sara Ghebremusse didn’t plan on being an academic.
The bookshelves in her office at the Allard School of Law are slowly filling as Ghebremusse nears two years as an assistant professor at UBC, the result of a years-long journey to find her place in academia.
Ghebremusse went into law school wanting to do meaningful work with underprivileged communities, but when she finished her law degree at the University of Ottawa with a master’s in International Affairs from Carleton, she couldn’t find a job.
Like many students before her, Ghebremusse’s solution was more education, so she completed a Master of Laws and is working towards a PhD.
It was in the beginning of her PhD, while she was also working as a teaching assistant, that she started to think seriously about teaching.
Ghebremusse applied to a year-long visiting professorship at the Allard School of Law, got an interview and was hired. After that temporary position ended, she landed a tenure-track professorship and became the only Black woman faculty member at Allard.
“I feel there’s an obligation that comes with being the only one,” she said. “... I don’t know if students in my class would appreciate being taught by Black woman and recognize how unique that is.
“It’s been meaningful to the Black law students here because they’ve expressed that to me … I think it helped change their own perception of what law and law school would entail.”
Ghebremusse came to UBC knowing that academia wasn’t designed for people who look like her to succeed. As one of the few racialized faculty at Allard, she put high expectations on herself to do the best work possible and overcome a system that has kept racialized people out for decades, while also creating a space for others to follow behind her.
“You work as hard as you can to make sure that everything you do is is the best work you could possibly do, [that] it’s top notch work so you’re not giving anyone the room to really complain or point fingers or poke holes in what it is that you’re doing.”
Entering the classroom at UBC, she wondered how she would be received and if students would treat her differently because of her race and her gender.
It was easy for Ghebremusse to let in the creeping doubts that also made her wonder if she deserved to be at UBC as a law professor — but when those thoughts do come in, she tells herself that they aren’t real.
“You just have to really dig deep and tell yourself that … you’re doing good work. You deserve to be here. Your presence matters.”
Imposter syndrome isn’t the only by-product of being the sole Black woman among the Allard faculty. Although Ghebremusse would love to be able to simply focus on the research that brings her joy, she’s participated in several Equity and Inclusion Office initiatives since coming to UBC.
Despite the exhausting nature of that labour, she’s willing to put in the work. Ghebremusse hopes that sharing her own experiences can bring attention to problems like the lack of diversity in the law schools that act as barriers to the legal profession — hopefully leading to meaningful change.
“[It’s about] doing that emotional labour that comes with being the only one, because there are certain things that you, just by virtue of being the only Black person in a space, could observe and understand,” she said.
“If I don’t see that change happening, it just makes the exhaustion even worse … If I can see that the things that I’m saying or doing can really lead to some type of change or difference in this institution, then it will be worth it for me.”
Beyond her work with Equity and Inclusion, Ghebremusse will be moderating the next installment of the Lind Initiative’s “Thinking While Black” series with Ta-Nehisi Coates. She came to know Coates through Between the World and Me, the book he wrote as a letter to his son, and she’s been immersing herself in all of Coates’s work to prepare.
“After having a moment of ‘This can’t be happening’ … and confirming with [the Lind Initiative] that, actually, in fact they do want me to do it, I readily accepted,” she said. “It’s not an overstatement to say that [the talk] will be the highlight of my career.”
Along with that excitement, however, comes the bittersweet acknowledgement that Canada doesn’t have high-profile Black intellectuals like Coates or Roxane Gay or any of the other speakers in the series — not in the way that America does.
“The Black experience in Canada is different in a lot of ways from what it is in the States, but in a lot of ways, it is also the same,” said Ghebremusse. “... We have that narrative that racism doesn’t exist in Canada, that we’re in this post-racial utopia … but we have a lot of problems in this country too.
“[These authors] are just not inhibited to the same extent that someone in Canada might feel they are.”
Ghebremusse wonders if there could ever be a Coates-like figure in Canada. Given the different nature of conversations about race at UBC and in Canada as a whole, the significance of these respected Black scholars coming to UBC to have conversations about Blackness isn’t lost on her.
“There are things that I want to speak to him about and better understand and just engage in a conversation as a Black woman to a Black man about some of these issues that are really shaping our lives.”