Anti-Racism: Is there a university responsibility?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Carol Tator, York University
Guest Contributor

“Who are we in the university…? What do we represent? Whom do we represent? Are we responsible? For what and to whom? If there is a university responsibility, it at least begins with the moment when a need to hear these questions, to take them upon oneself and respond, is imposed. This imperative of the response is the initial form and minimal requirement of responsibility,” Jacques Derrida insists.

These questions pose some significant challenges not only to Canadian universities, but to the broader society as well.  Such questions form the focus of a growing body of literature that is being written by racialized, Indigenous, and anti-racism scholars in the university. Together, we are searching for working and learning environments in which we can individually and collectively articulate our opposition to traditional practices that have either consciously or inadvertently ignored or omitted the knowledge, the pedagogy, the voices, and the contributions of racialized and Indigenous peoples in the academy and beyond. Increasingly, we find minoritized faculty and students are prepared to critique and challenge the hegemony of White culture that is embedded in the everyday interactions in the classroom, and in the institutionalized spaces where power is exercised.

To say that society is racialized suggests that it is systemically arranged around beliefs about race; and the distribution of power, resources, images, and ideas closely corresponds with membership of racialized groups. The field of Whiteness studies reverses the focus on “Blackness,” “Aboriginalness,” “Muslimness,” and other forms of “othering” to critically examine the role of Whiteness in preserving and reinforcing racial bias and exclusion.  Everyday racism in the academy expresses itself in behaviours, anecdotes, ethnicized and racial jokes, inappropriate comments.

It manifests itself in Eurocentric curriculum and traditional pedagogical practices. The everyday racism in the academy commonly heightens one’s sense of vulnerability and affects one’s sense of self-esteem and personal self-confidence.

In “Justice and healing: a teaching journal,” which describes the battle to resist internalizing the racist experiences within the university, Mi'kmaq lawyer Patti Doyle–Bedwell suggests:

“It takes incredible courage to stand up in front of a class where no matter what I say it is Mi’kmaq dribble.  It takes incredible courage to say I am a law professor. Who do I think I am? That I do not know. Why do I do the Indian thing and believe in their perception that I am incompetent as a teacher? I am frozen for many weeks. I am too scared to even cry for fear that I will never stop.”

Similarly, in “Anti-racism Inside and Outside the Classroom,” which analyzes the silence about racism in the academy, Aruna Srivastava speaks powerfully about her own silence:

“So I wrestle almost daily with questions regarding my own silence, my refusal to fight for myself and /or for students, who, for better or worse have come to see me as protector and mentor…When does the unlearning of this paralysis take place? When do I go to my colleagues, to my union, to administrators, all of whom may or may not have some response to the systemic racism I see and feel daily?”

For over two decades racialized and Indigenous faculty, along with anti-racism colleagues, have critically examined the ways in which mutating forms of racism function in the Canadian academy. In a recent book Frances Henry and I have edited entitled Racism in the Canadian University: Demanding Social Justice, Inclusion, and Equity, we and our co-contributors examined some of the critical ideological and structural barriers to equity in the university. Among the many typologies that we analyzed within the academy, we identified the following forms: cultural racism, everyday racism, institutional and systemic racism, democratic racism, discursive racism and epistemological racism. The findings of our literature review, survey, and interviews demonstrate that racialized and Indigenous faculty share an extraordinary commonality in the barriers that they encounter, the pain and frustration they endure, and the sense of alienation, isolation, and marginality from the White institutional culture they experience.

Racialized faculty identify issues related to negative relationships with colleagues, students, and administrators. However, the core problem lies with the dominant hegemonic institutional culture of the academy. The discourses of pluralism, inclusion, and equity do not address the tangible experiences of marginalization and exclusion.  The discourse of political correctness attempts to silence those who give voice to their lived experiences of isolation and homelessness in the university. The discourse of “equal opportunity” does not take into account the toll of academic, social, psychological and physical manifestations of racism in the academy.

Among the hundreds of narratives that have been examined in the literature, interviews, and surveys, the one issue that occurred most often related to the processes that determine tenure and promotion.  While all academics are aware that the tenure process is rigorous, stressful, and demanding, there are significant barriers that have a differential and critical impact on racialized and Indigenous faculty.  Research topics such as anti-racism and Indigenous approaches and methodologies that are committed to social justice and empowerment of their communities are often viewed as being “too political,” “too subjective,” and “lacking in quantitative methodologies.”

In Thunder in My Soul and many other writings on the academy, Mohawk legal scholar Patricia Monture speaks powerfully of her own struggles to gain tenure and the systemic barriers she faced as an Aboriginal woman.  Like many other Aboriginal scholars, her work often crossed disciplinary borders and she has published in law, Native Studies, English, political studies, women’s studies and most recently sociology.  She argues that if considerations used to evaluate scholarship were broadened to include issues such as helping to clear the maze of unnecessary obstacles that confront an applicant in the tenure process, and less emphasis was placed on counting peer reviewed journal articles, it would help to harmonize both the tenure and promotion processes for faculty who have found ways to mediate their “othering” by the academy.

While there is a significant emphasis on “diversity” in the Canadian university, the diversity in knowledge, needs, interests, and aspirations that racialized and Indigenous students and faculty are commonly negated or ignored. It appears that the concern of the university has less to do with what kind of diversity is required and more to do with how it can be ‘managed.’ The popularity of this notion of ‘managing diversity,’ is found not only in the academy, but as well across a wide range of organizations, institutions, and systems.  ‘Managing diversity’ may lead to some marginal equity strategies but in a contested ethos and environment, initiatives are commonly reframed within the dominant discourse of ‘quotas’ and ‘reverse racism.’

It is incumbent on the academy to prepare students entering professions such as teaching, healthcare, social work, journalism, politics, law, law enforcement, business, and a host of other career paths, providing them with critical analytical skills that include the ability to recognize and critique political, cultural, social and economic structures that oppress marginalized peoples.  Professional socialization in all of these fields of study should ensure that graduates leave the university prepared with new forms of knowledge, critical perspectives, and tools required to be effective change agents in a culturally pluralistic and racially diverse society.

Carol Tator is in the Department of Anthropology at York University. Email:


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Excellent article.
Cogent and strident.