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In my opinion

Are Canadian universities in any position to lead anti-racism movements?

To work in a setting in which all of the power, opportunities, leadership and administration is primarily white is a powerful reality check.


If you are a member of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) community working in a Canadian university, I suspect the following will be familiar. In the wake of university students’ support of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, your administration sent out an email assuring them that the institution’s leadership is sympathetic. More than likely, the administrative statement also included some sentence about commitments to diversity, multiculturalism, anti-racism and/or equity. Truth and reconciliation were likely cited, along with something about a commitment to BIPOC recruitment and retainment. Certainly, there was a sentence near the end that they are listening. As a member of the BIPOC faculty, perhaps you are the only one who caught the admission. They have admitted that the white status quo is the university.

Whether it is the current BLM protests, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action six years ago, or the decades-old civil rights marches, the reality leaves you with the thought that they really do not seem to be listening at all. In fact, it appears as though the pattern is to wait until the movement subsides, and then return to normal. For higher education in Canada, that means getting back to a normal that is white.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ 2018 report on the state of diversity and equity among Canada’s postsecondary education institutions indicates an ongoing problem. Namely, that the workforce is nowhere near as diverse as the groups of student models who are featured on glossy recruitment brochures and webpages would have us believe. Given the disconnect between student recruitment claims and what exists, Canadian universities are in no position to act as exemplars and lead anti-racism movements.

When I approached University Affairs about writing something for their opinion section regarding the current call for BIPOC equity in higher education, the response I received was positive if I had something new to add. This is an excellent point, because it seems as though we are making the same arguments repeatedly. Reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994) and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) with education students during the 2020 fall semester, there were a lot of comments on the similarities of the core arguments regarding the prevalence of whiteness in the general field of education. As hooks’ work is familiar to those of us in higher education, it became evident during the course that recruitment and retention declarations have resulted in limited change.

Co-organizer of the 2020 Scholars’ Strike, University of Toronto professor Beverly Bain revealed this fundamental problem with academia leading an anti-racist movement: “Our university cannot simply give us these platitudes, these statements that say, we do not support anti-Black racism, but at the same time, we’re not seeing that they are genuinely participating in restructuring within the institution itself,” she told the Toronto Star. Of course, Dr. Bain is right. Canada’s universities have deeply imbedded structures, policies and procedures that, consciously or not, reinforce the white status quo. White faculty who teach about this reality typically frame it as something that happens over there. Because admitting it happens over here reveals their participation in, and the benefit they derive, from inequity.

Bastions of freedom … or not

I am an immigrant to Canada, raised in Montreal. As a West-Asian (Iranian) of Muslim heritage, my family and I experienced repeated violent racism. This hate went so far as to include an arson attempt on our home, followed by a phone call by the perpetrators screaming, “Why aren’t you Pakis dead yet?!” For those of us who are associated with racialized Islam, “Paki-bashing” is a revolting part of the Canadian experience that has been widely ignored. Many of us grew up knowing that neither private nor public spaces were safe.  Why am I sharing this? Because I genuinely believed that universities would be bastions of freedom from daily dehumanization. I was wrong.

During the Scholars’ Strike, I lectured to students at my university that Canadian institutions of higher education were in a poor position to take the moral high ground on systemic racism. Weeks later, I was invited to repeat the presentation during a day-long teach-in on anti-racism during the U.S. presidential election and asked to add concrete examples.

Using my white colleague, who had organized the teach-in as an example, I visually demonstrated that if he and I had a disagreement that needed intervention, the entire hierarchy of our university was white. However, instead of actually using images of the university leadership, I used prominent movie actors to avoid hurt feelings. I then visually demonstrated the same scenario using West-Asian actors (most unknown to the audience) and asked, at what point would people question the objectivity of the leadership in handling a dispute between a white and a West-Asian employee? I then repeated the visual, this time pairing my white colleague with Idris Elba playing the role of chemistry professor, while other Black actors like Alfre Woodward and Mahershala Ali stood in administrative positions. I repeated the exercise again with an East-Asian twist, positioning professor Sandra Oh as the challenger, and a hierarchy of East-Asian administrators with Ken Jeong at the very top. And so on.

Despite the multiculturalism of Canada, all of these hypothetical, exclusively BIPOC scenarios of university leadership gave the appearance of bias should a conflict arise between white and BIPOC people. Yet many of us work in institutions that have exclusively white leadership. We are told that claiming white faculty have an advantage is hurtful, but BIPOC faculty being overlooked or undervalued is unprejudiced.

In my entire career in education, which began in the early 1990s, I only ever worked with one BIPOC administrator, and that tenure lasted just one term. During that time, there were whispers of preferential treatment. To work in a setting in which all of the power, opportunities, leadership and administration is primarily white is a powerful reality check to the idea of universities leading the anti-racism movements. As BIPOC faculty, we must be the primary whistle-blowers who openly declare that systemic discrimination occurs not just over there but here.

Dr. Stonebanks is a professor of education at Bishop’s University and an adjunct professor in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University.

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  1. LAVORN HUNT / February 20, 2021 at 09:26

    I appreciate this opinion piece. I especially like the activity explained. Thank you.

    • C. Darius Stonebanks / February 26, 2021 at 11:05

      I thank you for your encouragement. Please do the activity at your university (or place of work) too. I think we need to be quite blunt about the reality of higher education. Courage, C. Darius Stonebanks

  2. Camille W / February 24, 2021 at 14:06

    Powerful piece. Thank you.

  3. Angele bassole / February 24, 2021 at 17:40

    Very well said

  4. Lynn Aylward / February 25, 2021 at 14:40

    Dr. Stonebanks,
    I was struck by your quote from U.A. about having “something new to add”.
    It made me think about our workplaces.How much longer will our institutions study or perhaps admire ‘the problem’ of racism? Do we really need more focus groups? roundtables? task forces? surveys? I’m with Greta – just as it is for climate change- our house is on fire and we should panic.

    • C. Darius Stonebanks / February 26, 2021 at 10:59

      Feedback I am receiving on this opinion piece is indicating a frustration that EDI taskforce, anti-racism focus groups, etc. are simply more CV building for non-BIPOC faculty and administration. Once again, we need to wait for something to exist dependent on White assessment. Courage, C. Darius Stonebanks