‘Teaching is activism’: Professors & TAs of colour discuss race in academia

During a time of students leading anti-racist advocacy, The Journal turns to those educating them

Professor Shobhana Xavier.
Photo: 

This piece uses “Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)” to refer to the experiences of racialized students. We acknowledge this term is not universal. 

At the end of every semester when Dr. Shobhana Xavier, a professor in the Religious Studies School, gets her class evaluations back, she notices a pattern.

“A common comment I get on my USATs (University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching) is students saying I’m biased as an educator,” Xavier told The Journal. “When I speak to my white, male colleagues, they say that bias is something that never comes up in their student evaluations.”

As a woman of colour in academia, Xavier sees trends in this kind of reaction from students.

“I can’t tell you the amount of times, especially when I teach large classes, that students will say that I am not objective. This is the kind of violence that Black faculty, Indigenous faculty, and faculty of colour experience,” she said.

“Because we talk about race, and because we talk about these important histories that aren’t being taught, then anytime we talk about it our bodies, us, and our voice are seen as not objective. Whereas a white male body can talk about race without being ‘angry’ or ‘emotional’ about it.”

Going into academia, Xavier didn’t expect to face these dynamics. A first generation Canadian and the first member of her family to earn a PhD, she found herself surrounded by similar demographics during her undergrad at York University. But as she moved up in academia, she began to notice “structural imbalances” at play. 

“The higher up you go in academia, the less people look like [me], as someone who’s racialized,” she said.

Dr. Kristin Moriah, who specializes in African American literature and culture and African Diaspora Studies in the English Department, entered academia with different expectations. 

“My experiences in undergrad made me aware of certain racial and class dynamics present in the classroom,” Moriah, who attended Western University for her undergrad, told The Journal.

However, as a graduate of the City University of New York and McGill University—where she was the only Black student in her Master’s program cohort—she noted that “[racism] takes shape in different ways at different institutions.”

READ MORE: Protecting the planet includes protecting the most vulnerable

Braulio Antonio, who’s working toward a masters in physics, also noticed the ways racial dynamics played out at different universities while studying at post-secondary institutions in Mexico, Sweden, and British Columbia before landing at Queen’s.

“I started seeing stereotypes of scientists [portrayed] as a white man with hobbies like going hiking and playing violin,” he said. “These hobbies were not relatable at all and I started feeling excluded. I wasn’t the same as my peers, and I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

Although he feels mainly supported and included at Queen’s, Antonio still notices his identity as a BIPOC Teacher’s Assistant (TA).

“The way we speak is different. White males are entitled to be calmer and give less explanation while debating. There’s an assumption their opinions are automatically true,” he said. “This makes me double-check whatever I’m going to say. It generates a sense of insecurity in discussions.”

***

Moriah has also experienced incidents of discomfort stemming from racial bias in the Queen’s community. “Nothing that I’ve experienced at Queen’s has been either violent or traumatic, but there have been times where I’ve clearly been othered.”

Xavier also feels the effects of othering at Queen’s and in academia. “Being a woman of colour in academia, you’re constantly dealing with everyone’s ideas about you. The minute I walk into a classroom, my body is political.”

The way this affects her teaching is complex.

“The way that I am tokenized by non-racialized students, I am also tokenized by racialized students who want me to be everything for them,” Xavier said. “There’s a lot of pressure either way, because either [students] have low expectations because they think I’m not deserving to be there, or BIPOC students have exceedingly high expectations of me, because I’m the only person of colour they’ve encountered [as a professor].”

When arriving at Queen’s, Xavier was not expecting the response from the Queen’s community, particularly its administration, towards the anti-racist advocacy that she pursued. 

“In Pennsylvania and New York, the institutions knew race was an issue. One of the struggles I’ve had coming back to Canada is that people have a really hard time accepting that Canada is also racist. People are very defensive, and the response is often ‘we’re multicultural, we’re not like America.’ But in the US, people were talking about these things, especially left-leaning academics. In Canada, I have colleagues saying ‘that’s not what we are.’ But if they can’t see the problem, we can’t talk about solutions.” 

The institutional discussion surrounding race at Queen’s is behind other North American universities, Xavier said. “[Queen’s administration] didn’t know there was a problem [when I came to Queen’s]. But I had 10 things I wanted to do. I had to take 10 steps back to get them on board.”

In 2018, Xavier and Moriah—who are both members of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, & Indigeneity (EDII) Implementation Committee—organized an event during faculty orientation for faculty of colour to meet. However, they said they faced an amount of administrative resistance to the event that Xavier called “shocking and discouraging,” especially considering similar events had been held at other universities and were a recommendation in the 2017 PICRDI Report

“It’s interesting that two junior women of colour have come to an institution and asked them to consider [an event like this]. It’s not for any reason but [for BIPOC staff and faculty] to be in community with each other. And it was seen as extraordinary and different. That was a telling moment,” Xavier said.

“We weren’t trying to do anything that was radical, but I think it’s interesting that it was perceived in that way.”

The orientation event wasn’t the first time Moriah experienced advocating for herself and other BIPOC staff and faculty at Queen’s. “A lot of supports [for BIPOC staff and faculty] are developing as a result of advocacy on the part of new BIPOC faculty and staff,” she said. “Those supports wouldn’t have been intuitive or put in place without the right people asking for them.”

The supports Moriah has advocated for include the University joining the National Consortium for Faculty Diversity in Development, an independent and professional development, training, and mentoring community of faculty, post doctorate, and graduate students.

“The good thing about Queen’s is that when you ask for those things, they happen,” Moriah said. 

All three interviewees said the University has fallen short in its communications to staff and faculty in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Braulio has received some “very general” communication addressing BLM, but “even though the message is there and it’s appreciated, it’s not engagement. It’s just a statement with no follow-up.”

The gaps are problematic for BIPOC faculty, staff, and TAs, who face unique challenges and burdens that require tailored support from people familiar with equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

“Labour really falls on staff and faculty who are already located in marginal spaces. I used to get students coming to my office who weren’t in my classes. I didn’t even know who they were. But they want somebody to talk to. They’re struggling, they don’t know what their resources are,” Xavier said. 

“In those moments, I realized that I am a racialized body [in academia]. I’m not only here to be an educator. I’m also here because there are students who need me. I want to do that labor, but I’m also trying to figure out how to just do my job,” Xavier said.

***

Xavier and Moriah both spoke about how they consciously incorporate anti-racism into their curriculum. 

“In everything I teach I make sure to centre marginalized voices. Teaching is activism,” Xavier said. “The classroom is a place that I believe in, where students work together to have hard conversations.” 

But to drive true institutional change, Queen’s needs to hire more BIPOC faculty and staff, Moriah said. “If there had been people here 20 or 30 years ago to lay the groundwork for some of the things we’re asking for now, the conversations we’re having would be a little more advanced,” she said.

Moriah also urged students interested in equity and diversity to take courses taught by racialized faculty members about those issues. She noted the new Black Studies major as an opportunity to do this.

On how TAs and professors are treated in the classroom, Xavier discussed how BIPOC staff and faculty can be dehumanized by judgements purely based on race and gender.

“I would like to not walk into a room and have people think, ‘oh, here’s a Brown woman so she’s only going to teach us about race, and therefore we’re not going to take her seriously,’” she said. “I want to be seen as a human.”

Xavier sees hope in the conversations about race that Queen’s students have begun engaging in due to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. “There’s something different and potent about this September. It makes me sad that I can’t be in the classroom with students.”

Moriah is also optimistic about the trajectory of these conversations at Queen’s and what it will mean for students. “We need the kind of diversity of opinions and strengths and life experiences that [BIPOC people] bring into the academic space,” she said. “When we tackle these issues, it makes life on campus better for everybody.”

Xavier credited the BIPOC staff, faculty, and students who “show up every day in light of the fact that there is a resistance to their existence.”

“Those are the real stories of Queen’s. It’s not the committee work, it’s not the statements.” 

For Xavier, it’s watching these BIPOC staff, faculty, and students succeed that keeps her in academics.

“One of the most powerful things that has happened to me as an educator is to watch students of colour slowly move to the front. They start on the margins, but all of a sudden they’re comfortable because they see themselves represented in the professor, and they’re taking up space by moving to the front to be closer to me.”

Corrections

This article has been updated to reflect Dr. Shobhana Xavier was the first person in her family to earn a PhD, not attend university.

The Journal regrets the error.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.