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Rising against racism

Rising against racism

[Taymaz Valley / Flickr]

As the coronavirus swept across the world in the past few months, another tide — one much longer in the making — was swelling. After the killing of George Floyd last May at the hands of Minneapolis police, the tide became a tsunami, with people around the globe rising against anti-Black racism, police brutality, and other social inequities.

Activists and ordinary people took to the streets in over 60 countries. In Canada, vigils and protests took place in every province and territory.

“We're in that moment where the opportunity to make transformational change is here; let's not lose it,” says Min Sook Lee, a documentary film maker, assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD) and President of its academic staff association. “Let's not allow ourselves to be hoodwinked or cajoled or placated into some tweaks and reformist kind of furniture adjustment when we can actually build a new house.”

Lee says the confluence of a pandemic, the economic stress it is creating, and the demonstrations against racism may have been unforeseen, but they are closely entwined.

“We have just gone through all of these unprecedented interlocked crises, and you see the fallout of this hitting hardest in communities that are impoverished by our economic system. There's a racialized manifestation of who is most threatened by COVID, and who has the least resources to martial up the luxury of social distancing, physical space, and access to digital technology, which is now quite vital.”

Lee is seizing the moment. She, along with Beverly Bain, a professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto and long-time mentor of Lee’s, co-organized Scholar Strike Canada, modeled on the US action inspired by American professional athletes who went on strike to underscore their demands for justice for Black Americans.

Lee and Bain wanted to articulate a response in Canada that reflected the difference in experience between the two countries. “In the midst of all the killings of Black and Indigenous people witnessed in recent months — Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, D'Andre Campbell in Brampton last year, and Andrew Loku — we're responding to, certainly, the American situation, but in Canada we're facing so many interlocked concerns around the legacy and reality of contemporary colonialism, as well as the depths of, and the way in which, the judicial system does not serve Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC).”

Over two days in September in both countries, academics paused teaching and other duties during Scholar Strike, to protest anti-Black, racist, and colonial police brutality, in all forms including in the academy. Public digital “teach-ins” on racism and inequities within the academy, drew some sixty-thousand Canadian virtual participants.

“Many of the Black, Indigenous and racialized academics who work in Canadian universities are precariously employed; hired on only part-time or short-term contracts. The few that have been hired into full-time faculty and staff positions have found it difficult to remain in those jobs and have either been fired or laid off because of institutional racism and other forms of violence in the university,” states the Scholar Strike website, which has attracted over three thousand signatures to its manifesto of demands for action, including moving beyond institutional statements of solidarity to substantive measures on addressing under-representation of Black and Indigenous faculty.

The demands come at a time when there is increasing rhetoric about equity, diversity and inclusion from university and college administrations, but a discouraging lack of on-the-ground change for BIPOC people in academe.

“I'm the only person of colour in my department, where I’ve been since 2006. And I don't know if that'll ever change or not,” muses Marvin Claybourn, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Thomas University. “Among perhaps 112 or so full-time faculty, I can count the number of people of colour on one hand.”

Claybourn’s family has been established in New Brunswick for generations, but he says living in a place that isn’t racially diverse has been a defining experience his entire life.

“It's what I'm accustomed to. Sometimes I wonder, if I'm being asked where I'm from, if it has to do with the fact that I'm a Black person. And it becomes especially apparent when I say, ‘Well, I'm from Fredericton,’ and they say, ‘No, I mean originally.’”

He serves on the Employment Equity Committee at the University and has been the chief negotiator for his faculty association. Claybourn describes an uphill battle to negotiate any equity provisions beyond what is required by law into the collective agreement and attempts to set up a system to review the makeup of the academic workforce have failed.

“We couldn't even gain any traction of coming up with a system for assessing, in a good, accurate and comprehensive way, exactly who our members were, who the people working at the University were, and how they identify. There was a lot of resistance from the administration to that.”

Claybourn would like to see more racialized candidates hired both as faculty and as leaders. “Within my time here, senior leadership has gone from being all middle-aged white males to being all [white] women. At least in the time when I've been here, there's never been a person of color in any senior leadership position.”

“That's a symptom of systemic problems going on, especially when administrators say there are no people of colour applying, and that's why there are none here."

Rohini Bannerjee, an associate professor of French and Francophone studies at Saint Mary’s University, can relate to Claybourn’s experience.

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, she has served on her faculty union since 2011 in various capacities and is outspoken about the racism and sexism she faces, both from within and beyond the university.

“I am the sole full-time woman scholar of colour in my Department. I resigned as Chair of my Department after suffering harassment, bullying and intimidation. I have told my department I will never be Chair again.”

Bannerjee says she went through a long personal process to deal with the barriers she has faced.

“Part of my systemic racist intersectional baggage that I carry is that I'm a learned speaker of a European language. So what happens is I'm never quite good enough because I'm a woman and I'm brown,” she says. “There are a lot of multiple layers to myself, and I don't fit into the expected boxes.”

Bannerjee understands the importance of being who she is in her position, both as a teacher and a leader. But, the continued demands to justify why and how she thinks, or deserves to be published or promoted, is “exhausting.”

Min Sook Lee says OCAD did a “cluster hire” of five Black faculty recently to minimize their isolation.

“It's a very significant, necessary move because prior to that, for the 150 years of OCAD’s existence, we didn't have any Black faculty, tenure track, in design or art. And previously, Black faculty who had been hired didn't make it. When you hire one person and they're the first, the burden of representation, to manage the decades and generations of racism within the institution, is overwhelming.”

Lee recommends the strategy of cluster hires as a way to help in retention and believes OCAD’s current administration is “deeply committed” to making real change.

How to bring about transformative change for BIPOC and other discriminated members of campus communities must be top of the agenda for all, says CAUT President, Brenda Austin-Smith. “Academic staff associations must look at how they are structured, how and who they are engaging, and which fights they are fighting,” she notes.

Lee agrees on the importance of academic staff associations taking up the fight. “It's high time that faculty associations took up this work. Many institutions have made symbolic statements around recognizing the need to do work on racial justice and about solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but we need more than platitudes, we need to take action.”

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