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In my opinion

I shouldn’t have to convince you about the need for anti-racism in the academy, but I’ll try anyway

What are you doing to connect with people of colour? Do you know your BIPOC colleagues and students? Do you know their hopes and aspirations?

BY NANDINI MAHARAJ | SEP 24 2020

I remember attending a session on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for the New Frontiers in Research Fund competition, first launched in 2018. As part of the online application, researchers are required to explain how they will address EDI with respect to their team composition and training environment. This component formalizes the tri-agency (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) commitment to ensuring a more equitable and inclusive learning environment for trainees and researchers.

The overarching message is clear: innovation, impact and research excellence demand that such an environment exists and be allowed to flourish. And yet, a question raised by one of the workshop attendees made me shake my head in disbelief. He, a faculty member, white, roughly middle-aged, raised his hand to ask for “evidence” regarding the relationship between EDI and research excellence and innovation. He wanted to know about available research on this topic. A few others chimed in, eager to learn where they could find recent publications about EDI and its impact on training environments.

On one level, I get it. You’re scientists. You want evidence to assess the veracity of claims made by others. Perhaps this is new information. Perhaps it goes against your worldview or, at the very least, is questionable in the absence of empirical data. But, for me, there’s something deeper here. It’s these offhand questions and comments that slowly eat away at my spirit. I find it hard to stomach that someone needs proof to justify my existence and my worth.

When I share these feelings with white friends and colleagues, sometimes I’m met with empathy and compassion. But more often than not their response is silence, quickly followed by efforts to discount my experience or normalize their own internalized white supremacy. “Anyone would feel that way,” they tell me. Or, “I don’t think that’s what they meant.” I have internalized these harmful narratives, too, responding to their white fragility by dismissing my feelings about what is happening to me. I retreat from my lived experience to keep them from thinking that I’m difficult or overly sensitive, and to absolve them of responsibility for participating in systemic racism.

It may be that they need more definitive proof. Perhaps the police officer who didn’t believe I was a university student after producing my picture ID; the client who declined to work with me after seeing me in the waiting room of our counselling office; the professor who was offended that I was waiting in his colleague’s office, going so far as to accuse me of cheating (I had the highest grade in the class); the classmate who implied that I got into grad school because of a diversity quota; or the university administrator who had no qualms about telling me, “sure, it would be great to hire people of colour and LGBT people but we also need people who are qualified.

Our stories about experiencing overt acts of racism shouldn’t be the only thing that’s compelling about our lives. If I were in your shoes, would I want to upset the status quo of a system that grants me privilege just by virtue of being born? But I’m not in your shoes and I can’t separate my intersectional identity as a woman of colour from my experience of the world. Nor can I convince you that someone like me is worth having on your team because of the promise of innovation rather than some empty commitment to diversity. Being anti-racist requires more than endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement or filling out an EDI section on your grant application.

If I could convince you to be anti-racist, I would tell you about admissions policies and hiring practices, mentoring relationships, pay equity, effective allyship, and committees on diversity. But it’s not my job to educate you about anti-racism. You have to examine the biases you bring to bear in your relationships with people of colour. You have to use your voice to call out racism and amplify marginalized voices. I appreciate you checking in but it doesn’t help when you shift the conversation back to your own experience and how you’re suddenly opening your eyes to police brutality or the racism that exists in Canada.

What are you doing to connect with people of colour? Are you relying on them to reach out to you? If you supervise a lab or a research team, what are you doing to hold space for safe and honest discussions about race? Is checking in on them something you’ve done proactively and not reactively to the uprising of protests around the world? Do you know your BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) colleagues and students? Really, do you know their hopes and aspirations? Would they tell you about their families and personal struggles?

I can tell you about mine. I have Black aunts and uncles and cousins and friends who are closer than blood. I have brown skin but I don’t know what it’s like to experience the world in their bodies. My grandmother had a Grade 2 education. When she had dementia and couldn’t remember my name, she asked me if I came first in my class. She didn’t live to see me receive the Governor General’s Medal when I graduated with a BA in psychology. My dad passed away when I was seven years old. He once had to talk to me about anti-Black racism because I made a racist remark.

My mom, a single parent, worked seven days a week and still found time to help me with my homework. She doted over me and relished in the beauty of my dark skin. Throughout my life, I have never felt closer to anyone as I do with my dogs (especially Dally) who love me and get annoyed with me for every other reason than my skin colour.

Nandini Maharaj is the research grants facilitator in the faculty of education, office of research in education, at the University of British Columbia.

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  1. Stuart Chambers / September 24, 2020 at 12:06

    When you tell white university colleagues that they suffer from “internalized white supremacy” and suffer from “white fragility,” they will wonder why you are quoting Robin DiAngelo as a source. It’s not inviting a dialogue: it’s a conversation stopper. You may want to read what other Black writers think about this kind of rhetoric:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescension-white-fragility/614146/

  2. Abraham Nunes / October 4, 2020 at 21:08

    I agree with Stuart Chambers’ comment. I will also add that academia is an industry of argument, disagreement, and disconfirmation. The only way such a successful operating procedure remains sustainable is if we work in good faith with the understanding that our claims must be subject to verification or otherwise clearly proposed as axioms.

    Unless the author is willing to claim that the statements being questioned are self evident truths (which would itself not be immune from rebuttal), then questioning and criticism is what should be expected in an academic setting (just like any other idea). This is not derogatory, and it is a big stretch to argue that questioning ideology is tantamount to questioning one’s existence (unless of course the definition of existence has changed). If people are asking questions and exposing the ideas to criticism, they are taking it seriously.

    Hopefully some of us still believe that good ideas are defined by their resilience to critical appraisal and disconfirmation attempts.