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Anti-Black Racism, Institutional Constraints and Pedagogy

Panel discussion follow up
January 27, 2021

The FCS Learning and Teaching Committee and the Special Advisor to the Dean, on Anti-Black Racism, Idil Abdillahi, organized a panel discussion on Anti-Black Racism, Institutional Constraints and Pedagogy that was held on November 26th, in furtherance of the FCS Anti-Black Racism Action Plan.

The panel:

The moderator, Idil Abdillahi, and panelists, Andrea Davis, external link, Treisha Hylton, external link, and Rinaldo Walcott , external linkwere introduced by Nadya Burton.   

Several key themes emerged that remained consistent throughout the seminar, including audience comments at the end about how valuable attending and participating in this highly personal conversation was for them.


The contemporary depth and pervasive nature of the predominance of whiteness in Canadian universities is so profound that it is hard to quantify. This goes beyond the long history of the Canadian academy and it’s eurocentric history and traditions. “The underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous faculty creates a dual challenge of being seen simultaneously as suspect and excellent,” said Davis. Challenges of underrepresentation lead to feelings of alienation and isolation, heavy service loads, heavy mentorship loads, early burn out, and additional challenges juggling life work balance because of these additional work loads, while striving to make tenure and promotion. This, in a context where Black mentorship, committee governance service, and publishing houses are seen as less prestigious. Black Studies are unofficially categorized as a small area of study, and the value of academics can also be measured in the salary gap that still shows Black Professors earning less. These realities begin on the first day at university. “There are as many talented Black and Indigenous PhD’s to fill all the positions that the academy can create. This requires a deeper shift in understanding that hiring alone can accomplish,” said Walcott.   


“Black Studies in humanities has the greatest potential to radically transform the academy by exposing its white supremist ideological frameworks and offering a different set of theoretical paradigms for thinking about human relationships and human possibilities” said Davis. “Black Studies offers alternative frameworks and a different point of view. But it also sets us up as teaching against power.” “Yes, and because many of us are in precarious positions - contract teaching, reliant on both colleague and student evaluations, we are then also over-surveilled and need to choose when to raise issues or not, and how hard to push or not,” said Hylton. “So we have to make exceptions based on what we can get in the moment - and often we have to lean back on our pedagogy because we need jobs.”  “The unasked question that I teach against is what can Black experience teach White Canadians,” said Davis.  


The university system has many constraints built into it. “Many Black students also have to face the reality that their parents have been led to value law school as having better career outcomes than doing research on the Black Canadian experience,” said Walcott. “I’ve been told not to have two students doing a PhD on the Black Canadian experience because we can only ever hire one.” Universities libraries are filled with work that is similar, has been duplicated, so it becomes clear that non-black faculties are not constrained in the same way. “This is part of the system of paradoxes that to get access to limited funding we need to participate in the politics of the university system,” said Walcott. The undervaluing of Black Studies is also ironic as Black faculty take on a disproportionate amount of service work. They earn less while taking on a larger percentage of the work of governance of the university. A further irony of Canadian university life is that the same undervalued Black work, like mentoring Black students, is at the same time loaded on a few individuals as if it was also a specialized skill that ought to be prized and highly valued.    

Equity work

“Equity work over the last twenty years has been better for white women, than black people,” said Walcott. Allies need to take hiring and mentoring initiatives, and diversify their curricula and pedagogy. “Why is it okay to have any course in any program that doesn’t include Black theory, philosophy, writers, and experts? Why are our allies okay with constantly seeing such high levels of under representation? Are they concerned about their funding or their jobs? I say I work at Canada’s ‘Premier Anti-Black University,’ the U of T. Maybe if more people thought about it from that perspective they might grasp the psychological impact this has on Black students.”  

Who is protected?

The Canadian university system has protections built into the system that are often applied unfairly, benefiting tenured, largely white, faculty. Those are the people making the decisions on who gets in and who gets jobs. “It is almost like being a grad student is an act of defiance,” said Hylton. “We are constantly thinking about how the system works and whose approval we need to move ahead in it. There are disproportionately more Black faculty in precarious contract roles, who need to think about what they teach and how they teach it because they haven’t got the academic freedom of tenure.”

“Yes, and I’ve seen protection for professors, under the guise of ‘Academic Freedom,’ applied badly, after they use the “N word” in their classes. It is often forgotten that when they do that they make a choice that also takes away the academic freedom of Black students,” said Davis.  “It has an immediate and sustained affect. This is why we say that it's often a hostile environment.” The depth and pervasive nature of white intellectual hostility might be so ingrained it’s unknown to itself. “This is why I struggle to build something new … build every day a new university and a new understanding that is unknown to what it was before,” said Walcott.


“When these windows of opportunity open and advisories are created, it’s not about accepting what we can get before the window closes, but pushing for as much as we can dream of. Dreaming big isn’t just for predominantly white people. Our dreams should not have limits on them either,” said Walcott.    

“And we have to remember that all of this is a negotiation,” said Hylton. “What we accept today isn’t always what we want, and we don’t have to be okay with that forever. It’s what we can do now.” “Yes, it’s not lost on me,” said Davis, “that these movements are only made possible by tragedy. Black death. COVID-19, Emmet Till, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Lives Matter.” “Universities are responding to the tension of the moment,” responded Walcott, “not looking at it as a permanent issue. So if they offer a certificate, ask for a degree program. If they offer a degree program, ask for a graduate program. If they want to hire 10 new faculty, ask for 20,” said Walcott. “This is a window - and as we know from a certain kind of history we don’t know for how long or how wide this will be open.”