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In my opinion

Breaking down systemic racism – let’s put it on our agenda

University leaders require support to deliver antiracist education.


Faced with so many competing urgent priorities, university administrators tend to not pay a lot of attention to pervasive, systemic racism at their institutions (except when responding to overt racist actions). But now, with Canada’s demographic makeup shifting, postsecondary leaders need to put antiracism at the top of their institutional agenda.

Delivering antiracist education is the right thing to do and also the socioeconomically wise thing to do. Thirty-nine percent of Canada’s population is comprised of first- or second-generation Canadians; 11 percent of the population speaks a language other than French or English at home most of the time (Statistics Canada, 2011). For provinces with above-average immigration, these proportions are higher. By 2031, 42 percent of new immigrants are expected to be living in Ontario (StatsCan, 2013).

Universities need to prepare students for a labour market shift because employers will expect postsecondary graduates to know how to thrive in a diverse workplace. But, universities aren’t necessarily prepared for this challenge. Most of our university leaders are members of the dominant, white culture, making it more difficult for them to implement antiracist efforts on-campus. To do so, people who’ve benefited from unearned privileges have to reflect on the non-dominant cultural experience.

In my recent study on administrator perspectives of racism in Canadian postsecondary education (“Social justice and equity: Exploring the perspective of senior administrators of racism and whiteness in postsecondary education”), university leaders accepted responsibility for influencing the organizational climate and attitudes toward racism. Yet they also acknowledged their own limits in providing antiracist education. They recognized that abolishing racism is a significant commitment beyond their expertise.

Institutional racism is costly. Prospective students want to attend a university that has a reputation that reflects their values and social expectations. If universities don’t prioritize action against racism, their institutional relevancy and student recruitment will suffer in the long run. This is particularly true for institutions outside major, urban centres that have less experience serving a culturally diverse community.

Given the high population-growth rate of the Aboriginal population in Canada and the widespread racism toward Aboriginal people, leaders could start by addressing harmful racist attitudes and behaviours towards Aboriginal Canadians. They need to ask: are we doing enough to make a difference? Are we even talking about racism and, if not, how do we expect to change? Our institutions will struggle to keep pace with Canada’s changing cultural landscape without efforts to combat racism.

In 2010, Harriet Eisenkraft articulated the reality of racism in the academy in University Affairs and the need for an institutional response to racism. Tackling racism is complex. Antiracist educators recommend deliberate, action-oriented organizational commitment and an understanding that “undoing” racism is a long-term process without a one-size-fits-all approach.

University leaders can support antiracist efforts by modeling expectations of behaviour, taking a stand against all racist structures and behaviours, and inviting stakeholders to challenge institutional norms. This effort has to be grounded in a commitment to social justice and equity. Saying this is one thing; doing it is where the real work and the challenge lie.

Reports, committees, policies and statements on equity, diversity and inclusion exist at educational institutions across Canada. There are also municipal, provincial and federal initiatives. But these are stand-alone efforts; there is no targeted government funding or incentive to support abolishing racism in Canada. Yet, this is precisely what our education system needs.

Some universities in large urban centres, identifying the need for change and the lack of government initiatives, are assigning diversity and antiracist efforts to new administrative positions. Ryerson University recently established an associate vice-provost, equity, diversity and inclusion position (stemming from its 2010 Taskforce on Anti-Racism report); the University of Toronto has a vice president, human resources and equity; and the University of British Columbia has a dedicated associate vice-president, equity and inclusion. However, for the smaller universities lacking dedicated resources, where is the support?

The economic imperative for change is now. Besides, it is also the right thing to do. Let’s get it on the postsecondary and government agendas.

Dr. Pearson is registrar and director, international at the Sault College of Applied Arts & Technology.

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  1. Susan Hunter / February 2, 2015 at 16:05

    A brave and insightful article. Thank you for it, Dr. Pearson.

  2. Pankaj / February 5, 2015 at 02:24

    Such a pleasure to read. Thank you!