COMMENTARY || How can universities contribute to anti-racist education?

Director of Prince Takamado Japan Centre examines the experiences of racialized people in an ethnically pluralistic society

Aya Fujiwara - 06 August 2020

Public comments in social and mainstream media that deny there is systemic racism in Canada have recently caused a public outcry. Though it is clear that such racism does exist, how prevalent is it and how concerned should we be?

Historically, Canada has presented itself as a multicultural and humanitarian nation, thereby enabling its citizens to disassociate themselves from the society of their southern neighbour that is based on deeply rooted racist history. Albertans, too, are proud of their ethnically tolerant history from the pioneering era, accepting non-British or French immigrants, including Ukrainians, Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, Japanese and Chinese.

Yet such stories do not reflect the voices of racialized people, who have faced different forms of racism over many years. As a specialist of Canadian ethnic and immigration history, I have researched the southern Albertan community that received approximately 3,000 Japanese Canadian evacuees from the west coast of British Columbia during World War II. My study has revealed that mainstream sugar beet farmers in this district treated them as cheap forced labourers, prohibiting them from moving from their assigned farms to other locations. In a recent book chapter in Civilian Internment in Canada, ed., Rhonda L. Hinther and Jim Mochoruk (University of Manitoba Press, 2000), I argued that the acceptance of displaced Japanese families in this province was a very well-planned economic scheme to compensate for labour shortages on the farm.

In my class on immigrants, refugees, and racism in Canada, which I teach annually in the Department of History and Classics, I deal with many examples from Canada’s racist past – the 1907 Vancouver Riots, Anti-Semitism, No. 2 Construction Battalion, internments during two world wars and so on.

And, the ethnically pluralistic society that we have right now became possible mainly due to ethnic activism to open Canada’s doors widely, eliminate racist laws, and support new immigrants. To think about why people, at any time in history, created the Other, we need to trace the evolution of historical theories of ethnicity and race. In my first class, many students could not even identify what “race” and “ethnicity” were. But over the course of the term, they developed interesting insights into the mechanisms of boundary creation and analyzed those phenomena. Many students related their own experiences of facing discrimination, not only as racialized persons, but also as members of all marginalized groups.

During my twenty-four years in Canada, I have encountered several overt cases that are associated with my racial and gender background. The rise of COVID-19 has revealed that racism is deeply embedded in some people. A recent poll from Angus Reid (June 2020) has shown that 43% of Chinese Canadians feel they are racially vulnerable. As an Asian woman, I have encountered some incidents. While I was grocery shopping and wearing a mask, one woman shouted at me to go away. Conversely, before COVID-19 was widespread in Canada, someone asked me why I was not wearing a mask. The National Japanese Speech Contest, which Japanese instructors all over Canada organize annually to offer Canadian students a chance to demonstrate their Japanese language skills, received racist comments this year.

How can universities contribute to anti-racist education? The commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which has just started nationally, is essential. Racism, as one form of creating the otherness, is strongly related to hegemonic values and interests. North American universities, especially in the humanities fields, are the hub of major Canadian, British and American university graduates, whose “merits” are stellar but present a similar collective value. As the Director of the Prince Takamado Japan Centre for Teaching and Research, I constantly work with other administrators and faculty members in the Asian field, the majority of whom are white men educated in the Western system. To avoid misunderstanding, I have never doubted their talents as great scholars and enthusiastic researchers. Neither do I believe that people who are racially Asian would necessarily make better scholars in an Asian field than others. But there should be more representation from racialized instructors in teaching Asian or any topics.

What I think is problematic is a dominant single value driven by Eurocentrism and other unconscious biases in the academy. In one incident, a faculty member sent me a complaint that our centre had invited speakers from Japan, but not from Harvard or Stanford, giving me the very kind advice that the event would fail. It turned out that we had an audience of more than 70 people. To break down such predominant values and beliefs, some steps are necessary.

First, diversifying faculty and staff members with all members of marginalized groups would definitely be effective. But to attain this goal, the narrowly defined concept of merit in hiring needs to be reconsidered dramatically. In universities that require highest skills in teaching and research, academic supremacism imbued with Eurocentrism encourages marginalized individuals to assimilate to the norm. Yet the assessment of merit could take experiences, challenges, and ambitions into consideration. For example, a foreign accent which has been considered negative could turn into an asset in training global leaders. How many scholars excel when teaching and researching in their second language?

Second, removing a glass-ceiling for marginalized people by ensuring greater representation in leadership roles is essential. According to the Report on the 2019 National Survey published by Universities Canada, racialized people represent 8.3% of senior university leaders. Among them, racialized women make up 3.6%. Opening such decision-making positions to racialized people and the members of other minority groups would certainly help challenge the prevailing value system. More importantly, it would offer marginalized individuals more opportunities to speak out, act, and be themselves without any institutional pressure.

Finally, the methods used by conventional surveys to record representation statistically require improvements, paying more attention to intersections of background, complexity of identification categories, the gap in different fields, and so on. Racialized women are a broad and monolithic category and, perhaps, the very few racialized women in senior administration have tried hard to assimilate to the predominant norm, or at least modified their behaviour in order to be accepted into the current structure. To paraphrase Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: such efforts should not be needed in 2020.