Last November I attended an event called “UBC students of colour in solidarity,” an afternoon of activities for racialized and indigenous students and their supporters. The goal of the gathering was to challenge what organizers perceive as systemic racism and anti-blackness on Canadian campuses while also showing solidarity with recent U.S. and worldwide movements, such as those characterized by the Twitter hashtags #blackoncampus, #studentblackout and #mizzou.
The afternoon of spoken word, vocal and dance performances ended with students and a few faculty marching across campus with placards with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “End Canadian White Supremacy.” Student concerns included the lack of racialized scholars on course syllabi, the lack of racialized faculty and the alienation experienced by racialized students.
These students know firsthand what Canadian research tells us regarding the experience of racialized and indigenous students and faculty – Canadian universities remain predominantly white and male (as reported by Dua and Banji in 2012 in Canadian Ethnic Studies) and that systemic racism is “a normative aspect of Canadian ways of doing things, and deeply entrenched within university culture” (Henry and Tator, Racism in the Canadian University: Demanding Social Justice, Inclusion and Equity, 2009). As a black feminist professor, I occasionally have black women students from a range of disciplines visit my office with the same concerns raised above. These young women have experienced objectification and isolation in their classes, disappointment with curricula, and race/gender violence.
The practices in Canadian universities often ignore a varied and rich black intellectual tradition. Institutional racism promotes distorted contours of various disciplines, limits students’ capacity for knowledge production and, in some subject areas, gives an erroneous view of the range of human possibilities, including what it means to be Canadian. Racialized students are rarely given opportunities to name their experiences or to learn in a climate of dialogue, exchange and well-being. They are, in essence, silenced and marginalized. If any perspective on blackness is presented at all, it tends to be a unitary, uncomplicated view.
These very concerns undergird a project called Race Literacies: A Black Canadian Scholars’ Series to Promote Transformative Curricula and Research with a belief that people want to be more articulate about race, and engage with a range of literacies and competencies that allow them to make sense of the world in which they live. This grant funded by the Office of Equity and Diversity at UBC has enabled me to host six African Canadian scholars from various Canadian universities as well as several UBC black scholars.
There are several reasons for taking on this initiative. I hope to promote critical dialogue, transformative thinking about curricula and research possibilities; to broaden our research and teaching community across UBC disciplines and beyond our campus; to address equity in curricula and expand critical knowledge production; to increase theoretical and practical understandings of language, gender, race/ethnicity and class and the development of race literacies for these contemporary times; and to encourage novel, collaborative approaches to enduring educational and societal issues that can improve what is taught in formal educational settings.
While this series is needed, it is a “drop in the bucket,” a one-time event, and far from enough to dismantle what many see as systemic racism at Canadian universities. The challenge will be to sustain a greater black presence on the campus. Administrators can play a role by recruiting, hiring and retaining faculty and administrators of colour.
Importantly, regardless of whether or not we have racialized students in our classes, we need to pay attention to the kinds of issues expressed by students – revisiting our conceptions of curriculum and constructing empowering forms of pedagogy that allow students to have a voice, make sense of the world and understand their contributions to society. Furthermore, these are not UBC concerns alone.
Poet and activist Audre Lorde, in her 1984 book Sister Outsider, voiced strong words for those of us who work in universities. She reminded us not to succumb to tokenism, apathy or despair, not to forget who we are, and to actively work for change. As an educational theorist, I believe in the transformative potential of curriculum and pedagogy to address equity, inclusion. Let us think seriously about what we teach, how we teach, and whose research we present, and how we convey justice and equity in our everyday acts.
The most recent event in the Race Literacies series, on Jan. 26, featured Rinaldo Walcott, associate professor and director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. The next forum in the series will feature Malinda Smith, associate professor in political science at the University of Alberta and David Austin, professor in the department of humanities, philosophy and religion at John Abbott College in Montreal. The event will be held at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at 2:00 p.m. on March 1. More information can be found on Facebook at “Black Canadian Scholars Series.”
Annette Henry is a professor in the department of language and literacy education, faculty of education, University of British Columbia.