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From the admin chair

We need to talk about racism

It takes effort, but as you learn to become more comfortable having these difficult discussions, you become part of the solution.


“Clean up on aisle 9,” I hear over the speaker in a large department store. I look up and see I am the only one in Aisle 9. [Me: Where is the mess? Oh, not again – is this a coded alert to store security?]

I’m in a meeting with a high school principal about my daughter’s resistance in class to racist comments about Indigenous peoples. In response, I explain the inappropriateness of the comment made as well as the teacher’s inappropriate removal of my daughter from the class. Principal: “Oh you’re pretty articulate for…” He does not finish the sentence. [Me: For what? A woman? An Indigenous woman? How do I navigate this in the best interests of my daughter?]

A faculty member in department X: “I get why you want to do Indigenous faculty hires but I don’t get why you want to hire Indigenous scholars across all disciplines. Why don’t you just hire them all into one department and call it Indigenous studies?” [Me: Oh no, did I just hear this? How to respond?]

The first example is a common experience that many Indigenous and racialized peoples experience when they are shopping. The second example happened at a secondary school a number of years ago. It was an uncomfortable moment, but I should not have been surprised –these are fairly regular occurrences. The third example is one of the many comments I received when I was facilitating the hiring of Indigenous scholars. I have documented the experiences of Indigenous students and professors in my book, Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-secondary Education (2014). While each of the three examples are real, I would say they are relatively mild on the scale of how racism is enacted.

Over the course of my life, both personally and professionally, I have navigated more situations than I care to remember where I confronted either overt or covert racism. In every instance I can say it has prompted varying degrees of responses – emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and even physically. Despite being a generally positive person, I find having to navigate the litany of experiences and comments does take its toll.

One cannot deny that racism exists and permeates the everyday lives of Indigenous and racialized peoples in Canada today. See for example the recent article in the Globe and Mail about the racism targeted to Black Nova Scotians. In the rest of this column, I would like to outline some strategies on how we can be more diligent in addressing racism.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that racism exists. I have witnessed both covert and overt forms of racism. I always find the more overt forms easier to spot and question. The more covert ones take more time to identify and, despite all my work in this area, I continue to learn. I believe it is important to start naming and discussing racism. Otherwise, we risk living in denial and actually assist with perpetuating it.

Ask critical questions of any new procedure or policy that is being enacted – how could this be viewed by Indigenous and racialized peoples? Confederation College recently launched an Equity, Diversity and Indigenous Lens document that provides an excellent set of questions to ask.

Make a concerted effort to take training, attend workshops or read books, op-eds or articles that will build your understanding of racism. It is important to take this initiative rather than relying completely on Indigenous and racialized peoples to inform you.

Use your voice when you do see or hear racism. We all need to make a concerted effort to stop its perpetuation.

In the past I found it difficult to talk about racism as I realized that few want to hear about it and that it made many people uncomfortable. Over the years as I grew in my understanding, I realized not only were others uncomfortable, so was I. It takes effort at first but as you learn to become more comfortable talking about racism, I believe you become part of the solution. In places of higher education, shouldn’t we be providing the next generation of leaders with the tools to navigate the complexities of the world? If we value equity and inclusion, we as institutions of higher education need to start having some of these challenging and difficult conversations.

Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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  1. Mary A Grogan EdD / March 7, 2020 at 10:19

    Thank you for sharing real examples of when racist behavior touches every day lives. We are all part of the human race so it is not a black or indigenous problem but a shared problem that requires courageous difficult conversations. Is there a place to share such experiences so the wider community- people of privilege can learn about identify and respond appropriately in the workplace /classroom/community?

  2. Peter / March 11, 2020 at 19:36

    The Concept of “Race” Is a Lie: Even the Ancient Greeks knew it

  3. Barrington Walker / April 21, 2020 at 11:33

    Thank you for sharing this insightful piece Dr. Cote-Meek.

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