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Equity, diversity and inclusion

A Q&A with renowned scholar Dr. Malinda Smith

Campus and Community

By Jennifer Batten

Dr. Malinda Smith is visiting the St. John’s campus of Memorial to discuss the complexities, nuance and richness of Black scholarship across Canada and including Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dr. Smith, professor, Department of Political Science and provost fellow, equity, diversity and inclusion policy at the University of Alberta, spoke to the Gazette about her work and how Memorial can address anti-Black racism.

JB: Why did you choose to focus your scholarly work in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI)?

MS: In my case, rather than a choice, the shift of my scholarly work to areas of equity, diversity, and inclusion was more like a calling, a sense of obligation to future generations. Yet, in some ways, my journey from traditional political science research in the political economy of development or critical terrorism studies, to a scholarship of engagement in EDI in Canadian higher education, was shaped by my direct experiences under colonialism, participation in social movements and also the hard lessons learned from backlash.

“We see growing recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach needs to change.”

To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, my working in the university has come to inform my EDI research work on the institution, and my policy engagement working with the institution to effect change. While the focus of my scholarly work has shifted to EDI in institutions, particularly the university, questions of justice and fairness cut across all of my work and community engagement.

Community engagement has informed my research, practice and advocacy. These collaborations have led me to develop and advance an intersectional equity approach in the various roles I have served. We see growing recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach needs to change; that private sector diversity initiatives do not necessarily transfer to public universities and that universities need EDI strategic plans with accountability mechanisms.

The evolution to having this work recognized as scholarly work is relatively recent. EDI was initially understood as activism or public service rather than research or a scholarship of engagement. Today that is all changing with new EDI senior leadership roles at the level of vice-presidents, vice provosts, and associate vice presidents.

JB: It is the 21st-century and we are speaking about anti-Black racism in academic institutions; these are places where it is assumed that everyone knows better. How does thinking that way contribute to the problem?

MS: Universities are microcosms of the larger societies in which they are located. Historically, as today, universities have reflected the racism, bigotry and prejudices of the larger society in which they exist. More, we also forget that some universities have been safe spaces for some individuals to develop and advance debunked notions of race science, IQ tests, eugenics, slavery, colonialism, residential schools, and the Holocaust – to name just a few. The university as an institution is inextricably connected to knowledge-power nexus. While it is a myth that universities are above the fray of racism, discrimination, and oppressive practices, I also think educational institutions are among the best for confronting and combatting racism, xenophobia and racial biases and intolerance.

JB: How can the university attend to structural and systemic barriers to address anti-Black racism in the academy?

MS: Among the most challenging forms of racial discrimination is systemic discrimination, which can be reinforced in universities through unaware individual behaviour but mostly through everyday practices, processes, policies – patterns of behaviour – that produce and reinforce racial disadvantage.

To assess and address discriminatory systems universities, as all institutions, it is necessary for universities to be proactive and conduct equity audit.

Institutions should regularly review with an equity lens their policies, practices and decision-making structures to assess whether formal and informal policies, as well as institutional norms and practices, are resulting in racial inequities.

A major obstacle to change can be institutional climate, and especially chilly, hostile or toxic climates, which can create and reinforce racial, gender and other forms of inequities on campus. Universities need mechanisms for reporting both individual experiences of racial discrimination, bullying and harassment, but also clear mechanisms for assessing workplace climate in units at all levels on campus.

JB: What is the role of university administrators to eliminate anti-Black racism?

MS: Whether acknowledged or not, at the heart of racism and racial logic is the belief that Black and racialized people are “out of place” in the university, the assumption that they do not belong.

“University leaders must model the commitment to anti-racism not just by what they say – but, also, by what they do. Too often commitment stops at policies and fall short on practice.”

Efforts to confront and combat racism in general, and anti-Black racism in particular, should be part of a collaborative strategy inclusive of administrators, faculty, staff and student associations, to cultivate and sustain an equitable and inclusive academy. University leaders – presidents and provosts, deans and departmental chairs, leaders of associations – all must model the commitment to anti-racism not just by what they say – but, also, by what they do. Too often commitment stops at policies and fall short on practice.

Four concrete things that university administrators can do to combat all forms of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia:

  • Recognize anti-Black racism as a problem that is dehumanizing and degrading, that it impacts the health and well-being of faculty, staff and students, and that creates a hostile learning and workplace environment.
  • Create, in collaboration with Black scholars, anti-racism policies with accountability mechanisms as part of an overarching equity and human rights framework.
  • Lead by engaging in anti-racism education and promoting literacy through speaker and film series, reading groups, introducing courses in the curriculum.
  • Most importantly, universities need to hire and support Black and racialized faculty and cultivate an academic pipeline and mentoring for Black and racialized students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty.

JB: What are some things that Memorial can do to deal with anti-Black racism?

MS: First, let me say that I am pleased that Memorial University is asking itself these kinds of questions.

Anti-Black racism is a social problem that requires concrete measures to combat. What we need at this juncture is a robust anti-racism literacy campaign and a long-term strategy to advance racial equity.

A multi-campus anti-racism strategy should be developed in concert with Black, Indigenous and racialized faculty, staff, students and also the city and broader community. The principle is simple yet too-often ignored: “not about us, without us.”

“There is an urgent need to hire and retain Black professors and staff and to ensure Black academic leaders get a seat at the leadership table.”

To combat individual racism the university needs a robust policy on racism, discrimination, bullying and harassment, a mechanism for reporting and complaints, as well as clearly defined consequences including restorative justice.

Racism impacts access to, and opportunities within, the university. To combat institutional and system racism, the university needs a plan of action. Some concrete measures should include building an academic pipeline from K-12 to the university so that Black and racialized school kids can begin to see themselves as students from early on and creating transition year programs to build a more diverse academic pipeline.

Once on campus Black and racialized students can benefit from affinity groups that provide solidarity and self-help, and peer support but also serve as a good conduit for ongoing engagement between the administration and student body.

To enhance the student experience it is important that Black and racialized students have access to mentoring and role models. There is an urgent need to hire and retain Black professors and staff and to ensure Black academic leaders get a seat at the leadership table so that they participate in all efforts to shape the future of the university. What is also important is that we centre teaching and learning and ensure that Black Studies are woven throughout the curriculum.

JB: What can people expect at your public lecture next week and what will be the main takeaway?

MS: In my public lecture I will be drawing on stories of Black lives, including trailblazing hidden figures in the early academy.

First, I will provide a brief overview of the diversity and complexity of Black communities across Canada in order to underscore why the reduction of Black people to a skin-stereotype, a process that is foundational to racial profiling, is at the core, a fundamentally anti-Black practice.

I will explore the experiences of Black scholars in the academy who, despite their diversity, share a similar experience; collectively they face nearly insurmountable challenges that lead to a leaky Black academic pipeline from K-12 to university, from undergraduate to graduate school, and from the PhD to the professoriate and university leadership. In the Canadian academy, Black scholars are notable for their absence.

There are significant emotional and psychological costs to being a Black body perceived as “out of place” in Canadian universities. In Canada, durable barriers and biases function to keep Black students and professors out of the academy or, once they are in, operate to keep them down and to make them feel like they do not belong.

Across Canada, Black students and professors have mobilized in various faculty and staff caucuses and students associations and have developed various survival strategies to confront a lack of institutional support and behaviours and practices designed to push them out or keep them down.

The lecture will explore how, with tender care, and loving self-care, Black scholars and their allies across Canadian universities are charting Black Studies futures through self-help, collaborations, community engagement and ongoing political struggle.

Lecture details

Join Dr. Smith for Nuances of Blackness and the Academy on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 6:30 p.m. in PE-2001.

Following the keynote address, panelists Dr. Paul Banahene Adjei, Dr. Sulaimon Giwa and Dr. Delores Mullings of Memorial’s School of Social Work will offer an insightful discussion of their experiences of Blackness, anti-Blackness and racial (in)justice in academe.

Free parking is available in lot 1A.

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