By Brenda Austin-Smith
Race may be discredited as a social construct, a figment of the white supremacist imaginary, but racism itself is still here. Persistent in its life-threatening and life-ending effects, racism infects systems here in Canada as well as elsewhere, though seeing and admitting that fact is difficult for some. Most of us are familiar with reports of individual racist encounters on our campuses. At a national conference in the summer of 2019, for example, a Black attendee was accused of stealing a laptop, and was questioned by RCMP, even though the accusation was baseless. Faculty and students interviewed for the Ryerson University Anti-Black Racism Climate Reviews, in 2010 and 2020, reported numerous incidents of profiling by campus security, making them feel unwelcome and unsafe.
For racialized academic staff and students, these experiences are nothing new. Calling out racist acts, and calling in anti-racist allies, is constant and exhausting work. Harder to undo, though, are the forces of systemic racism in the academy. “Systemic racism” describes situations in which no one individual needs to hold explicitly racist views in order to participate in processes tainted by racist beliefs. Instead, racist assumptions become embedded in apparently objective operations of institutions. The system itself upholds racist outcomes, even if people in the system do not think or act in obviously racist ways. Dress codes that regulate the visibility of hair in the workplace, or that identify tone or volume of voices as inherently “disrespectful” are examples of systems that present as objective, but which can enforce racist attitudes about appropriate appearance or conduct.
For academic staff in Canada, the effects of systemic racism land differentially, depending on who you are, and how you are regarded by the systems of academe. Each step of the hiring process, for example, from the wording of job ads and the selection of interview candidates, to the reception of those candidates on campus, and the welcome of new hires into a department, can be tainted by systemic racism. The results can be the exclusion of candidates who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), or the appointment of racialized academics who find themselves stranded without support in a department. Tenure and promotion criteria can enable systemic racism, because they do not recognize a broad enough range of research questions, methods, or outcomes.
The 2018 CAUT report “Underrepresented and Underpaid: Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Teachers,” provides data on the effects of systemic racism in colleges and universities. The data show that academia is less diverse than either the student body or the general labour force in this country. Black academics made up only 2% of university teachers, and were more likely to have short-term, precarious positions than full-time, full-year ones. Black academics in universities earned on average 11% less than non-Black academics, while Black academics at colleges earned on average over 16% less than non-Black academics. These inequities are worsening. The material effects of these conditions on Black academics are clear enough; the loss of their teaching, research, and service expertise to academia is immeasurable.
This summer saw universities and colleges issue statements of solidarity for Black Lives Matter protests. Many institutions offered support for the Scholar Strike Canada. CAUT and its associations also supported calls for All Out September 30, a student-led protest against racism in our sector. But tweets and posts date quickly, and are not the same as changes to institutional practices. CAUT academic staff associations are taking this work onboard: many have held teach-ins on anti-racism, have activated BIPOC caucuses, and are mobilizing around equity as a central feature of their bargaining platforms.
Without real action from academic administrations, though, the positive effect of these CAUT member actions can be stymied. We need universities and colleges in Canada to collect and report more data on the racialized identities of academic staff. We need administrations to follow through on their statements of support for lasting change by funding full-time positions, cluster hires, and equity initiatives to recruit, retain, and promote more Black academics. We need to analyze our practices and policies for systemic discrimination against BIPOC academics. Change is necessary, and CAUT members are ready for it. Will our administrations take up this challenge?