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The Genealogies of Racial Difference at Canadian Universities

From: Canadian Ethnic Studies
Volume 44, Number 2, 2012
pp. 153-156 | 10.1353/ces.2012.0009

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The Genealogies of Racial Difference at Canadian Universities

I want to thank the contributors of this special issue for the opportunity to comment on these wide-ranging and insightful papers. It has been a privilege and a challenge to write the Afterword. I struggled while reading the papers, if only because it was disturbing to discover that the findings continued to resonate with some of the conclusions of my own earlier and admittedly more cursory work on the experience of racism in the academy. Almost ten years ago, women of colour graduate students and faculty in geography departments recalled very similar experiences as those recounted here. It was disheartening to realize how little has changed, despite the many years of anti-racist activism in Canada.

In this Afterword, I highlight the strengths and the limitations of these papers, querying how the series may benefit from a deeper engagement with theoretical developments in critical race and anti-colonial scholarship during the next stage of the project. To do so, I draw specifically from the work of Roderick Ferguson’s new book, The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Ferguson 2012).

Some may find it easy to criticize this series, claiming that the papers are uneven, a-historical (not placed into a particular historical context) and/or a-geographical (what role does geography play in understanding the different experiences of faculty? Is it fair to compare urban and rural university experiences?). In my view, taking such a perspective would be ungenerous. These papers comprise one step in what is a five-year study, and these are but preliminary findings. So let us first consider what makes this series important.

The strengths of the study are at once obvious. It is the first of its kind to examine ongoing patterns of systemic racism in Canadian universities. It constellates the racialized features of the Canadian academy by demonstrating how modes of power are exercised and imposed upon the lives of racialized faculty. We have yet to witness [End Page 153] such a broad-ranging snapshot of race and racism in the academy. I particularly value the authors’ prerogative not to focus on diversity as the key analytic component, and to make race front and centre by focusing on racial inequalities. The romance with the language of diversity in the academy has taken us down circuitous routes, most of which have not led to anti-racist outcomes.

What is vital and important about this special issue is also what makes it discouraging. A consistent theme that runs throughout is that the experiences of racialized faculty members are often isolating and marginalizing. The questions occurring to me after perusing these articles are twofold. First, what work will this series do to encourage change in our institutions? How will this research be used, employed, circulated and distributed? Will it foster change or will it be co-opted? As Sara Ahmed reminds us, “too much research...[on diversity in the academy] becomes translated into mission speech” (Ahmed 2012,10), serving to provide a rallying call to arms, particularly among some administrators at universities who decry the value of remedying this ongoing problem, only to come up against what Ahmed calls a brick wall when actually attempting to remove institutional barriers to success for racialized faculty. I am curious as to how these findings will be further contextualized given the prevailing neoliberal belief that progress has been made in regards to hiring practices at universities. I am sure there will be more than a few disgruntled readers of Canadian Ethnic Studies who will insist that the authors did not depict the situation accurately: that anecdotally to them, more racialized faculty are employed than ever before (despite Howard Ramos’ shocking finding that there were more racialized faculty in 1981 than there are now).

Second, how might we consider these papers from a different vantage point, toward understanding the university itself as one of the ultimate inheritors of histories of colonialism and formations of capital? I am curious how the research reflected in these articles would benefit from an engagement with theoretical developments in critical race and anti-colonial studies that explore the...