When I was an undergraduate student, many decades ago, I never spoke in class. I lived in fear that one of my professors would call on me to answer a question. I avoided all courses with a presentation or class participation component. Like many students from the working class, I experienced the university campus as a foreign place. And this experience was made more complicated because of my race and gender. Lecture halls were intimidating. My white, middle-class peers appeared smarter and certainly more self-assured. I entered a world in which everyone seemed to speak eloquently, confident in their world views and at home on campus. I, however, felt like a foreigner in the academy.
After spending more than 40 years on university campuses, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, later as a faculty member and currently as an academic leader, I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of students who have had experiences similar to mine. I have listened to students and faculty alike speak of themselves as interlopers in the classroom. They could write volumes about imposter syndrome, whose symptoms persisted in spite of the acquisition of a PhD. They also shared intimate stories of the many ways in which they compartmentalized intersecting identities and felt unable to bring their true selves, their whole selves to campus. These are common themes in the narratives of all too many racialized, Black, Indigenous, Asian -Canadian and Asian scholars. Some of these scholars were born in Canada; others are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most bear the visible and symbolic markers of race. While many of us do find our voice in university, we also experience the academy as restrictive and unsafe, if not harmful at the same time.
These problems are not new. Yet as a Japanese Canadian woman dean, I have become increasingly vocal about the ways in which race, gender, class and their intersections have shaped the educational experiences and perspectives of myself and others. Vulnerable to the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, emboldened by the Black Lives Matters Movement and angered by the tragedies of residential schools, I believe now more than ever that we must critically address the systemic racism and colonialism that pervade our institutions of higher learning. Simply acknowledging that the problem exists is not sufficient.
It is imperative that university leaders understand the overt and hidden ways in which the meritocratic organizations that we inhabit are spaces in which our colonial and racist past is firmly entrenched in the present day. Only when we arrive at this understanding can we begin to strategically and meaningfully dismantle systems of oppression. And without taking the time to listen deeply to the people who make up our university communities, without developing an analysis of racism and colonialism in the academy, we will fall short.
As chair of Canadian studies at the University of British Columbia, Minelle Mahtani aptly remarked during the recent National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism: Building Solidarities, “If we want new answers, we need new questions.” Without first listening, we run the risk of asking stale questions, the wrong questions, ignorant questions, questions that do not speak to the issues that truly shape the lives of marginalized students and faculty. And if we do not build on the answers to the crucial questions, then the efforts of university leaders to advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) may become tantamount to no more than “fire insurance,” as historian Evelyn Hu-Dehart describes it, or “lipstick,” as Melanie Knight put it during a plenary panel on challenging the status quo at the forum.
The National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism: Building Solidarities, saw over 1,000 registrants and 100 speakers from universities and their communities across Canada engage virtually in a two-day dialogue about these issues and many more. Hosted in early November by the faculty of arts at Ryerson University (which is in the process of being renamed), the forum built on conversations that were initiated at the inaugural National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism, which was hosted by UBC in June 2021. With a focus on “building solidarities,” the forum highlighted a range of topics identified by Asian Canadian and Asian faculty, students and staff, including the damages of the model minority myth; the interchangeability of Asians on campus; and the ethical implications of white academic “experts” on our communities. Importantly, such discussions were shared with, and extended to Black and Indigenous colleagues and allies on campus.
Acknowledging differences, finding shared values
One of the lessons that I learned in listening to these conversations is the importance of acknowledging differences in the identities, lived experiences, histories and institutional barriers faced by marginalized groups on campus. As Asian Canadian, Black and Indigenous communities struggle to achieve transformative change, we must respect the distinctiveness of each group, the specificity of their history and the uneven impact of racism and oppression in the postsecondary sector. In acknowledging differences (as well as points of convergence), we avoid the conflation of racialized groups and their struggles. And just as the tendency to conflate oppressed groups is problematic, so too is the prioritization or hierarchization of experiences and histories of racism and colonialism. In the words of Jasmeet Bahia, a PhD student at Carleton University, during a plenary panel on coalition building, we are not participating in an “oppression Olympics.”
On occasion, in focusing on my own community’s history of internment and resettlement across Canada, I have been accused of overlooking the histories of racism in other communities. At times, a colleague has accepted or at least tolerated me as an Asian Canadian researcher, while exhibiting distrust of my Indigenous and Black colleagues. Illustrative of the view of Asian Canadians as model minorities, years ago when I (the sole Asian amidst several white researchers) sat on a panel, an audience member stood up and criticized the workshop organizers for putting together an all-white panel. These tendencies, the blending of oppressions and inequities, the prioritization of oppressions and the erasure of race in some groups are among the risks to EDI approaches that have gained acceptance on university campuses throughout the country. In order to avoid such risks, university leaders need to recognize that each of us is at a different stage in our journey toward equity, justice and self-determination, and that racism within the academy cannot be swept away with one brush.
In her keynote lecture, Iyko Day, who is the Elizabeth C. Small associate professor of English and chair of gender studies and the program in critical social thought at Mount Holyoke College, specifically addressed the relationship between Asian Americans and Blacks in the United States. According to Dr. Day, “there has been a tendency to collapse anti-Asian and anti-Black racial violence into an amorphous form of white supremacy.” Historically, Asian Americans have been disadvantaged because of their non-whiteness and yet at the same time, advantaged because of their non-Blackness, she observed.
Indeed, understanding and acknowledging our differences is essential if we wish to identify common ground. My colleague, Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute – Canada’s only Indigenous-led think tank – similarly stated in his opening remarks to the forum, that “if we can figure out what the link is between our individual experiences across communities and the broader structural forces that shape them, then we can create transformation based on our shared values.” Dr. King reminded us that “solidarity between groups is ultimately about relationships.” And in the words of Rebecca West in The Harsh Voice, effective relationship-building necessitates meaningful dialogue, rather than “intersecting monologues.”
Listening to students
My second lesson is that university leaders need to do the work of listening. We must listen to each other and we must also actively listen to students, in particular. What was striking to me about both the Ryerson and UBC forums was the strong presence of students, both undergraduate and graduate. Seldom do academic gatherings sustain and integrate student voices and prioritize them. In a plenary panel on accountability, Sun Woo Baik, a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University, reinforced that university leaders must “be tuned in to what students are saying they actually need.” And in doing so, we must be open to problematizing every aspect of the university experience, including curriculum, instructors, classroom structure and professor-student dynamics.
In a provocative plenary session titled “Addressing Racism in the Classroom,” Hela Bakhtari, a research assistant in the Factor-Inwentash School of Social Work at the University of Toronto, eloquently captured a need for reimagining the classroom. Ms. Bakhtari explained that, “the classroom is oftentimes conceptualized as a safe space. But unfortunately, this isn’t the reality and being told consistently that it is, is a very jarring experience.” Another panelist, Parsa Alirezaei, a political science student at Simon Fraser University, agreed, arguing passionately that “the givens of the classroom, like the professor-student relation, need to be deconstructed and overcome.” Mr. Alirezaei also noted that what is often unrecognized is the seemingly simple act of relegating critical race and class thinking to the margins of the course syllabus, and thereby denying students’ lived experiences.
For many speakers and participants in the forum, personal identities as part of racialized groups have been highly informed by their educational experiences. In a session on the “Ethics of Representing Asian Communities in Research,” Jennifer Matsunaga, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Ottawa, pointed out that “when we come from communities that Canada has tried to eradicate, erase, degrade, coming into the classroom, it [the classroom] might be the first time we learn our own history.” Dr. Matsunaga continued, “it’s great because university could be a space where there is an opportunity to feel connected. But on the other hand, if I’m learning who I am as a Japanese Canadian through a non-Japanese Canadian, that’s really going to have an impact on our understanding of ourselves.” This can be harmful to students.
So, as we reimagine curriculum to be more inclusive, university leaders also need to think about who can and should teach a Black student, an Indigenous student, racialized students about their family’s past, about their community and culture. As Pam Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, called out, institutions need to remember that for oppressed groups, learning and teaching about their own cultures is not an exercise in academic detachment. In speaking about her work on high rates of suicide, as well as murdered and missing Indigenous women, Dr. Palmater explained, “This is my life. There is no separation from it.”
Allyship as action
My final lesson is about transformative change itself. As University of Toronto historian and chair in Asia Pacific studies, Takashi Fujitani has noted, universities have a way of absorbing issues and then doing little to nothing about them. But if we wish to achieve the kind of fundamental change aspired to by so many speakers in the forum, we need to do better.
As Dr. Palmater said in the “Coalition Building: Dismantling Systems of Oppression to Build Solidarity” plenary, when universities try to make change, they must think about it from a lens of what is good for their students, faculty and staff, not why remedies are good for the university itself. When we measure what we are doing to become more equitable organizations, we must seriously and aggressively challenge racism and colonialism. We need to define success not in the number of committees formed or meetings held. Instead, remarked Dr. Palmater, universities must start to look outside of ourselves and evaluate success in terms of impact, impact on the people “on the ground” within our university community, as well as on the communities in which universities exist. In short, allyship is about action, not statements.
After all, the responsibilities of universities extend far beyond imparting knowledge to our students as they prepare to enter the sphere of employment. University leaders have a moral responsibility to prepare students as effective citizens and future (formal and informal) leaders in all sectors of a democratic society. This conversation then must continue, as the momentum will not last. In the current moment, both academics and members of our wider communities are intent on building on the important dialogue fostered and amplified by the National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism: Building Solidarities. An iterative approach to understanding racism as a structural process that unevenly touches the lives of the people who work and learn in university communities, an attentiveness to student voices in particular and solidarity-building are vital steps that will advance strategies for transformative change.