International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2010: Racism, anti-racism and the academy

Friday, March 19, 2010

Frances Henry, York University
Guest Contributor

Anti-racist scholars across the country are raising critical issues about the dynamics of racial inequity in the Canadian academy. An increasing literature written largely by racialized and Indigenous scholars questions the persistence of hegemonic whiteness of the university by asking questions such as: Who is represented in the academy? Whose voice is heard and who is ignored?  Whose knowledge counts and whose knowledge is discounted?

More and more racialized and Indigenous faculty are prepared to critique and change the hegemony of whiteness that is embedded in everyday interactions in classrooms and in the institutionalized spaces where power is exercised. In critically examining these and many other questions, it becomes clear that the status of Indigenous and racialized faculty in the academy today is not equal to that of their White colleagues. The literature clearly points to a remarkable commonality among them: in the experiences they have had, the barriers they have encountered, the pain and frustration they have endured and the sense of isolation, marginality, and exclusion from the institutional whiteness they have felt.

Critical race theories as applied to the university structure and its ‘culture of whiteness’ have been particularly useful in demonstrating the subtlety and elusiveness of  university practices  that help to create and maintain systems of inequity. They have also been useful in positing an alternative – how social justice and educational equity in our universities and Canadian society can be attained.

Commonly articulated discourses in the academy are strongly influenced by traditional liberal theories and assumptions as they relate to issues of race, racism and other forms of oppression.

The language of liberalism within the academy incorporates the ideologies and discourses of “universalism,” “colour-blindness,” “diversity,” “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “merit,” “standardization” and “equal opportunity.”  This liberal discourse often conceals racism and discriminatory practices.

One of the most powerful of all these discourses is the categorical denial that racism exists, with the commonly voiced exception referred to in the context of isolated and individual acts of overt prejudice by a relatively few atypical persons. Do you think you are (non) racist? Take the Harvard Test.

There is a deep polarization in the modern Canadian university between how racism is imagined, understood, and acted upon by those with White skin privilege and those whose life experiences, including their experiences within the academy, are marked by their racialized identities of “otherness.” Contested issues and barriers that reinforce racism in the academy include:

  • under-representation of racialized and Indigenous faculty:
  • mission statements and policies that often don’t mention equity:
  • some  tenure and promotion  processes and practices that disadvantage racialized and Indigenous scholars:
  • Whiteness in the institutional culture, curriculum and pedagogy; lack of structural policies and practices;
  • inadequate functioning of employment equity and human rights offices;
  • inadequate anti-racism and anti-harassment policies and strategies; and
  • failure of senior management to address the institutional and systemic issues related to racism in the Canadian universities.

There have been a number of task force reports over the last two decades – for example, at Guelph, Queen’s University, Ryerson University and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario’s Taskforce on Campus Racism – that have attempted to analyze and address the barriers to social justice, inclusion, and equity in the Canadian university.

A number of university reports identified the issue of leadership as central to the goals of an inclusive and equitable educational and work environment. To this end, they pointed to the need for mission statements and policies that emphasize anti-racism principles, ensure a commitment to the elimination of racial discrimination, and enshrine a strong commitment to diversity and equity.

These goals should be shared by the President and the entire senior administration of the university including the Board of Governors and the Senate and should be linked to a wide range of priorities. The institutional culture of the university needs to be strengthened and diversified away from the often hegemonic culture of whiteness that is still so pervasive.

Report recommendations also include a call for better recruitment and admission processes for racialized students, and recruitment and selection procedures for faculty appointments need to be carefully reviewed in order to increase representation. The curriculum is still largely focused on Western forms of knowledge, and should also be reviewed to make it more representative of worldwide knowledge and epistemologies. Racism and anti-racism materials should be more widely taught.

Most of the more recent taskforce report recommendations recognize and affirm that nothing less than a systemic approach to change will create a more positive, inclusive and equitable environment for teaching and learning in the Canadian academy.

Frances Henry, FRSC, is Professor Emeritus at York University in Toronto. Email: 


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