Anti-racism education should take place early on – from preschool through elementary and secondary school.
Before people start touting “Sam Yee is racist” because of the intentionally spicy title I chose for this letter, please allow me to explain the point I want to make.
As a response to the increased awareness and action against anti-black racism, a petition was created to call on the University of Ottawa and Carleton University administrations to create and implement a mandatory anti-racism course for all programs.
While I have no doubts that the creators of the petition mean well, this particular issue reminds me of a similar call to action for mandatory Indigenous content courses in universities. Many of the issues raised in this regard also apply to these suggested mandatory anti-racism courses. Primarily, these mandatory courses could actually foster the toxic spaces they are meant to mitigate.
Universities such as Trent and Lakehead have incorporated a mandatory Indigenous content course requirement in all degree programs. While I can’t speak personally about either of these schools, some Indigenous educators have raised concerns that I think very much apply to the proposed mandatory anti-racism courses.
Mandee McDonald, program manager at Dechinta University’s Centre for Research and Learning, argues that open-mindedness and open-heartedness are critical to learning about these topics, and questions if it’s fair to force students who don’t want to be there into these spaces. Additionally, these students can create unsafe spaces in these classes for students from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities if they are not willing to invest in or engage respectfully with the particular topics being taught.
Another thing to consider is, who will teach these courses? While I think it’s wonderful that students are taking the initiative to call for more anti-racism education, we need to ensure that we are not overwhelming our BIPOC professors and educators with the burden of “teaching us racism”.
Kahente Horn-Miller, professor of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, has said that “it can be difficult to find enough qualified instructors to teach thousands of students”. According to Dan Rubinstein, “Carleton’s Indigenous faculty members are frequently asked to serve as guest speakers in classes by professors who want to cover Indigenous content in a respectful way. That can be tiring for professors who have their own courses to teach, research to conduct and students to supervise.”
To address this issue, Horn-Miller developed the Carleton University Collaborative Indigenous Learning Bundles (CUCILB) program, a series of online modules containing Indigenous content that professors can incorporate into their classes. Since university is a place where people start to specialize in a particular field of study and determine their career path, I think this model has the potential to address racism in relevant ways to each degree program.
For example, programs in engineering and geography could have specific modules focused on how BIPOC peoples have been historically excluded from space, and learn about how this relates to equity and the construction of accessible spaces. Programs in science and health could include modules focusing on the health inequities BIPOC peoples face. Programs in political science and criminology can focus on the impact the Canadian justice system has on BIPOC peoples. The Telfer School of Management could include modules on systemic racism in hiring practices and business. Programs in literature can incorporate more works by BIPOC authors and have additional modules to inform their analysis of the work. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
This integrative approach encourages us to view anti-racism as a lifelong (un)learning process that intersects with every aspect of our lives, not just a single course that we need to take to graduate. Of course, it would take the initiative of members from local BIPOC communities to develop these modules and determine how they should be distributed.
Ideally, basic anti-racism education should take place early on – from preschool through elementary and secondary school, with more specific training happening later on as we narrow our career interests. Targeting youth has a much wider and potentially more impactful reach on society as a whole. While anti-racism education is crucial in our efforts to make institutions more inclusive and actively anti-racist, a single mandatory universal “catch-all” course for all university degree programs may not be the solution.
Sam Yee is a third-year undergraduate student in biomedical sciences and Indigenous studies at the University of Ottawa.