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Interview / Frances Henry

Interview / Frances Henry

Dr. Frances Henry is professor emerita at York University and a pioneering researcher and leading expert in the study of racism and anti-racism. She and a team of social science colleagues recently focused their research on racism within their own workplaces, and co-authored The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities.

What has inspired your career?

I’ve been led to this path through my own personal background and experiences, which created an interest in trying not only to do something about inequality, but also to study it. When I began looking at racial inequality in Canada, with few exceptions I realized that there was almost nothing written or researched on the topic. That’s what got me going, and unfortunately, it’s still keeping me going.

Why do you say “unfortunately”?

There has been very little improvement for the majority of people who are designated — wrongly in my view — as different because of some feature of their physicality or sexuality or gender. My most recent foray into this phenomenon and where it takes place is my own workplace, the university, where I’ve spent my entire adult professional life. In the beginning, I had very few colleagues who came from different ethnicities, much less different so-called races, and the ones who were there I could count on the fingers of one hand, which of course opens up a whole lot of questions. That has continued right up to today. The Equity Myth is full of examples from within the university where there is not only a lack of significant equity but also still real inequality between various categories of people.

Why is change not happening, or happening at a very slow pace?

I’m fond of saying it’s a cliché, but social, cultural and institutional change take place very, very slowly, and it’s really in the form of baby steps. I’ve seen quite a number of baby steps and they’re still happening as we speak, but in terms of transforming an institution like a university, I think we’re a long way off.

What problems are revealed in The Equity Myth?

We looked at many areas of life for faculty within the university and found there are differences in income between white and racialized faculty and differences in treatment, particularly in areas of importance for the granting of tenure and promotion. The equity changes that have taken place are largely tokenistic and cosmetic in the sense that they haven’t drastically or dramatically moved schools towards creating

better conditions. When we looked at structures like equity offices, we found they are not important areas of the administration. Very often the people who are hired into equity positions are racialized themselves, and when they try to maneuver the system to create better condition, they face a brick wall. The office and its people and its power within the university hierarchy are insufficient to create equitable situations for large numbers of faculty members.

What needs to happen to advance from this point?

Universities all have these lovely sounding mission statements, but when it comes time to move past the printed word, there’s been very little action or implementation. However, what is slowly beginning to happen is that institutions are formulating stronger strategic policies to create more equitable environments. Within the last several years I’ve seen a growing sense among administrators that they have to pay more attention to equity, and to the methods of changing or altering some of the basic things that many of us think shouldn’t be touched in universities. One is the granting of tenure, which is still an automatic milestone that faculty have to face. But what we’ve discovered is that there are differences among racialized groups compared to white faculty in the extent to which they are granted tenure, and their publications aren’t as valued. That is an example of where we need to go and I see a few hopeful signs.

Why is it important to move forward on equity and Indigenization?

We are unfortunately in a very neo-liberal environment with a stress on materialism and money rather than valuing other things such as knowledge, or fostering equity. But the most basic reason, and the one that resonates the most, seems to be that our populations all over the planet are changing, and we live in a vastly globalized world. So we have to consider that as far as the university is concerned, we are teaching students who are far more representative of their numbers in the population than are the teachers teaching them.

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