Our Time to Lead – Racism and Exclusion in the Academy

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity

The November 2010 cover story of University Affairs addresses the thorny issue of the exclusion of ‘visible-minority’ or ‘racialized’ scholars in the Canadian academy.  In the editorial introducing the issue, Peggy Berkowitz makes clear that, “Racism in the Canadian academy is a serious and sensitive topic, one that we haven’t taken on lightly.” In the print issue, “Still outsiders: The question of race / Exclusion au sein du corps professoral: Des professeurs des minoritiés visibles témoignent,” Berkowitz writes:

What do we mean when we talk about racism in the Canadian academy? That is the question that our cover story sets out to explain. How scholars experience racism in their work surfaced for me a year and a half ago, when we sent a reporter to a workshop about racism convened by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Speakers at the workshop said that Canadian universities, despite their officially inclusive policies, don't recognize systemic racism, and visible-minority scholars continue to face barriers and discrimination. Follow-up sessions were held at the 2009 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

As one of those interviewed for the University Affairs article,  Berkowitz asked me whether racism was the correct word, or whether we needed some new terminology to think and talk about structural exclusions and inequities faced by racialized minorities. We discussed some similarities between sexism and racism in the academy and some notable differences. Berkowitz then suggested to me, “that this sounded much like the experience that women faculty must have faced in the 1970s.” While I do sometimes think our equity conversations are ‘retro’, there is an important difference that makes a difference: everybody has a mother, perhaps a sister, an aunt, a wife. Everybody has some personal knowledge of women. That simply isn’t true when it comes to people’s experience with racialized minorities. As well, unlike the 1970s, today there are more intersectional analyses which map the experiences of those who are ‘two-fers’ – women and racialized minorities – within the academy.

The feature story is written by Harriet Eisenkraft, widely known for her fair-minded and incisive coverage of academic matters. On this subject, Eisenkraft was “determined to get it right,” and so she set about interviewing leading social science and humanities scholars and administrators across Canada and the United States. The piece begins with a paradox:

Universities are considered to be among the most liberal institutions in society, yet many non-Caucasian scholars say they still feel excluded or denied opportunities. How does this happen?

•    Racism? – Take Harvard’s Implicit Association Project Test.

In the pages that follow, Eisenkraft maps “what racism has looked like in the Canadian academy,” and how it has changed over time. “The view rarely includes vandalism or hostile comments, although these have occurred on campuses in the last decade. Rather, scholars call this subtler version ‘structural racism’ or ‘denial of opportunity’ for racialized scholars.”

Eisenkraft tackles many of the important issues and questions about racism. The article  also notes some all too common responses.  Typically, there is denial, and often “the backlash that accompanies every new report on systemic racism usually runs a swift, predictable and sometimes verbally vicious course.”  Another kind of response Eisenkraft identified reflects what I’ve called Canada’s legendary “race manners” and what University of Ottawa’s legal scholar Constance Backhouse calls a Canadian “tradition, a mythology, that we’re raceless and racism-less, that we don’t have a problem.”  In effect, such manners and mythology deem that, “It’s rude to inquire” about exclusion and even more so about racism.

Trivializing and patronizing responses, which dismiss perceptions and experiences of racism as the result of a racialized group’s own ‘deficiencies’ also present a challenge to fruitful conversations and ameliorative actions. Rather than ‘deficit thinking’, University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz suggests “We should take these perceptions seriously… as facts to be addressed.” Reitz also suggests universities are microcosms of the broader society and while scholars and administrators “are highly educated and express a commitment to equity… that doesn’t guarantee non-discriminatory hiring practices.”

•    Listen to Science Podcast – Dr. Kerry Kawakami on mispredicting responses to racism.

The need for more critical inquiries of exclusion within the academy takes on particular urgency in times of economic crisis, when academic institutions are cutting programs, equity policies are being questioned, and human rights offices on campuses and across the country are being closed. In such an environment it is easy to run away from thorny and often emotionally charged issues such as racism and exclusion.

Instead, with considerable deftness, Eisenkraft offers a nuanced understanding of structural exclusion and what University of Saskatchewan sociologist Peter Li characterizes as practices that are “regularized and embedded in the social process of the institution.” These exclusionary practices are not isolated or random and should not be confused with individual attitudes.

The article also explores institutional debates about ‘merit’ and what constitutes ‘excellence’. These are bound to generate ongoing debate. Ryerson University political scientist and co-chair of its recent Anti-Racism Taskforce Grace-Edward Galabuzi suggests that attitudes have changed and it is generally recognized that equity and excellence are compatible: “When you have a critical mass of PhDs in a whole range of disciplines, the issue of whether you have to choose between representation or quality becomes moot.”

•    Listen to Dr. Galabuzi discuss Ryerson’s Anti-Racism Taskforce.

Perhaps even more forcefully, legal scholar and University of British Columbia’s vice-president, equity, Tom Patch emphasizes the need for distributed leadership and argues that, “Excellence in the academic setting requires equity and diversity.”

The boldest vision of equity and excellence is offered by Professor Backhouse who makes clear that we need to move beyond the ill-informed stereotype that equity groups are not excellent. There is, instead, a need for university leadership, for us to turn the gaze on departmental chairs, deans, vice-presidents and other administrators who fail to make progress on equity and diversity; they are the ones that are “not meritorious,” she insists.

A powerful voice in the article is that of Mohawk scholar Patricia A. Monture who spoke  about the incredulity she often faced on campus when meeting colleagues or staff members for the first time; they were surprised that she was Aboriginal. Still, she expressed hope for the future, with new colleagues who were “treating me like a faculty member with the same knowledge as anyone else in that room.” For the full professor of sociology and Coordinator of the Aboriginal Justice and Criminology Program, that feeling was a long time in coming. Dr. Monture – affectionately known as ‘Trish’ to her family and friends – passed away on 17 November this year.  Her passionate intensity for equity and justice lives on in those she taught, mentored, collaborated with and inspired.

•    Read the full University Affairs article “Racism in the academy / le racisme à l’université.”

Dr. Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta and the Federation’s vice-president (Equity Issues). Email: Malinda’s full biography.


Equity Matters


Interculturalism and pluralismAnti-racism


To restate the paradox:
Universities are considered to be among the most liberal institutions in society, yet many non-Caucasian scholars say they still feel excluded or denied opportunities. How does this happen?

I remember having a similar response a couple of decades ago when equity issues were being addressed in the arts - there is an incredulity in the stating of the problem. Of course, the arts, the academy, full of great ideas that they are, would all be just fine if it weren't for the people who work there and their human shortcomings...some sort of need to perpetuate the status quo, as long as you're part of it. That thoroughly ingrained, reflexive, ripe for denial aspect of racial profiling, filtering, whatever is something that has to be challenged to the point where it makes those in the majority uncomfortable. It's not comfortable and it never will be, but without that challenge nothing will change.