Addressing racism: Toward equity and diversity in higher education

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Ryerson University
Guest Contributor

Last month, a study conducted by Statistics Canada for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canadian Heritage and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada entitled Projections of the Diversity of the Canadian Population, 2006 -2031, provided a look into the future of Canadian society: One in every three people will be from a racialized group, up to about 14.4 million people. Racialized group members will continue to be overrepresented in the younger population, up to 36 percent of the under 15-years old group by 2031. Already in 2006, Canada’s three largest urban centres – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, which account for 34 percent of Canada’s total population – were home to 70 percent of Canada’s immigrant population and 75 percent of them are racialized.

I note these developments in part because I recently co-chaired a taskforce on anti-racism at Ryerson University that issued a report in February. The media attention on the report focused on several things: the findings that some students, staff and faculty experienced limits and barriers to their success because of their race or religion or Aboriginal identity; that manifestations of systemic racism and hate-motivated action persist even as the university strives to build an inclusive environment for staff, students and faculty. Media reports also focused on the  low level of awareness of diversity and inclusion issues and initiatives related to them, with whatever understanding there is of such issues largely casual and or misinformed, causing a chill in some academic and public space interactions.

Listen to a podcast of Dr. Galabuzi discussing the anti-racism taskforce.

What the media missed, however, was the taskforce’s focus on building an ‘inclusive university.’  It is imperative for a 21st century institution of higher learning to understand what it means to assume the responsibility of educating a ‘diverse’ student population for a ‘diverse society.’

The status quo that maintains the provision of a ‘generic education’ is not sustainable, largely because it assumes a homogenous client population and universalizes Eurocentric approaches to learning and knowledge production. In an increasingly diverse society, it is essential to take proactive measures to engage the dominant Eurocentrism at the core of the education project, address persistent questions of social justice by restructuring institutional arrangements that privilege particular experiences over others, and change dominant policies and practices to reflect an inclusive post-secondary education mandate.

From an anti-racism perspective, the question of Eurocentrism in higher education is well documented and I have no space to litigate it here. So is the understanding that the experience of racism persists on university campuses around Canada as our report and others, along with an extensive literature of the subject, show. The debate should be less about claims of ethnocentric education and systemic racism and more about ‘what’ needs to be done to address it.

Racism is a highly emotional topic not just because of the Canadian tendency to deny its prevalence, but more so because it involves the devaluing and diminution of racially or religiously identifiable members of the community within a context of a liberal democratic society that values equality above all else, as former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci has indicated. This apparent contradiction at the heart of the ‘Canadian project’ should not simply be the subject of debate and hyperbole; there are real victims of the unresolved response to this reality – both among its immediate victims as well as the entire society. Indeed, as the Ryerson  report concluded, historical disadvantages arising from colonial relations with Aboriginal peoples, structural racism experienced by racialized people and the impact of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia render many students, staff and faculty vulnerable to a diminished experience at the university. Racism undermines the commitment of the university to building an inclusive community and it is the responsibility of the institutions of higher learning to actively and systematically address it.

For the Ryerson Taskforce, addressing racism was especially urgent because it went to the heart of the issue of the nature of postsecondary education in a society where diversity and difference are a numerical norm.  In the 21st century, addressing racism and issues of diversity and inclusion becomes imperative because of the demographic reality that confronts Canada in this new century. The taskforce concluded that: “to successfully provide a safe place for all to learn, teach, work and produce knowledge, it is essential to address the threats to diversity and inclusion relating to racial, religious, gender, ability and sexual differences, and (to) sustain a climate of academic freedom that is open and inclusive of the aspirations of all the members of its community.”

First, there is a moral imperative to address the issues of social justice at the heart of the question of racism and other forms of exclusion on campus. The starting point is the recognition that left unaddressed, issues of racism, anti-Semitism, Muslim bashing, sexism, homophobia, and ablism fester and manifest as conflict and tension within the community that may spiral out of control. All educational institutions exist within a societal context and are thus susceptible to similar forms of social hierarchies, marginalization and discrimination that persist in the broader society. Systemic racism, hate-motivated activity and other forms of exclusions are therefore concerns that administrators, faculty, staff and students have to contend with in any university environment. Building a racism-free educational environment demands a commitment to embracing the value diversity and inclusiveness so that all can prosper in the university.

Secondly, as the taskforce concluded, commitments to diversity and inclusion are necessary ingredients of academic and administrative excellence. They are essential to building an equitable and inclusive working and learning environment in which the staff and student body can maximize their creative potential and their contributions. If educational institutions are to serve a diverse population, diversity competence is a pre-requisite to effectively delivering educational services but also to equipping students for successful careers in public, private and nonprofit sectors. Diversity competencies constitute the integrity of behaviors, attitudes and policies that enable institutions and individuals to work effectively across the many dimensions of difference that make up the academy. Educating for a diverse society means equipping graduates with diversity competences. This requires integrating diversity into the very process of education so students can learn to operate effectively in a diverse environment.

Third, diversity as a value alone is not sufficient. In practice, it must be applied within the context of building a socially inclusive environment for it to flourish. Social inclusion is a process through which individuals and groups seek to achieve the sharing of power and interrogate dominant narratives, and is also a process that articulates and validates multiple voices and perspectives. Among other things, it means the institutional validation of difference, diverse identities and multiple experiences are central to the mission of the institution. It requires the reorganization of key institutional arrangements to ensure equitable access to resources and opportunities as well as the ability of all members to develop the full range of their human capacities. Inclusion also requires that we challenge specific forms of exclusion in the institution, including systemic barriers related to racism.

As educational institutions tasked with preparing youth through the process of transition to adulthood and developing skills for those engaged in life-long learning, the changing demographic profile of Canadian society compels us to approach systematically the concerns about racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism. We need to undertake a planned process of re-organizing our postsecondary institutions so that they can serve a more diverse society seamlessly. To do this effectively requires a reconsideration of key social institutional arrangements that have hereto benefited particular groups and disadvantaged others.

It means articulating a new vision of a 21st century Canadian university with a commitment to inclusion as integral to how it pursues its mandate to educate and create knowledge. Such a vision means addressing the deeper threats to diversity and inclusion by identifying and eliminating systemic barriers to inclusion; raising the level of diversity literacy and inclusion through a curriculum that speaks boldly to the aspiration of inclusion; being vigilant about the university’s commitment to academic freedom and vigorous intellectual debate; undertaking key innovations in policies and systemic practices so as to effectively tackle concerns percolating under the surface before they mature into periodic conflicts and crises; and building structures of accountability to guide the implementation of the vision.

Creating a successful 21st century university will mean making a shift away from a teaching and learning environment that historically assumed a homogenous population. This change will not happen by accident. It requires the deliberate exercise of bold leadership that is committed to implementing the necessary structural, organizational and cultural changes, sustained by relevant policies and practices that guide everyday activities. It will mean embracing new forms of curricula that reflect more diverse ways of knowing and knowledge production, hiring more representative administrations and faculty, and measuring progress in discernable ways to ensure administrative and community accountability for action.

Grace-Edward Galabuzi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, and served as the Co-Chair, Taskforce on Anti-Racism at Ryerson.


Equity Matters


Interculturalism and pluralismAnti-racism


The article states that "One in every three people will be from a racialized group." Aren't 100 percent of people from racialized groups? It is just that some members of highly represented groups consider themselves to be the norm.