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Confronting racial (in)justice in the university and beyond

Sunera Thobani reflects on her appointment as a fellow to the Royal Society of Canada

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsEducationSocial Movements

UBC Library and Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Photo by Don Erhardt/Flickr.

In November, I was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). Established in 1882 under the patronage of the governor general, the RSC has, as Joyce Green noted in Canadian Dimension, “had a very heavy white male and colonial hand on the scale of what counts as meritorious scholarship in Canada.” Given my activism in anti-racist women’s movements and my scholarship in the traditions of anti-colonial and critical race thought and politics, I was not an obvious candidate for such recognition. Where the current mandate of the RSC is to serve “Canada and Canadians by recognizing Canada’s leading intellectuals, scholars, researchers and artists, and, by mobilizing them in open discussion and debate, to advance knowledge, encourage integrated interdisciplinary understandings and address issues that are critical to Canada and Canadians,” my scholarship contests hegemonic constructs of ‘Canada’ as a liberal democracy on the domestic front and a peacekeeper on the global stage. In my 2007 book, Exalted Subjects, I tracked how ‘Canadians’ are constituted as democratically-minded, compassionate, tolerant and peace-loving in oppositional relation to Indigenous peoples’ construction as abject objects and immigrant others as cultural interlopers. Green was spot-on in describing my induction into the RSC as “fraught with ironies, yet rich with possibilities.” It is with this belief in possibilities that I accepted my induction as fellow of the RSC.

Canada, like many nation states around the world, is presently caught in a tumultuous moment of self-reckoning. Narratives of Canadian benevolence and humanitarianism were ripped to shreds by the testimonies of the residential school survivors and the ongoing discoveries of mass graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of these schools. Accounts of enlightened Canadian citizens bound by their respect for the rule of law were exposed as a sham in the outbreak of patriotic fervour to defend Western civilization and culture against ‘Islamic terror.’ The return of publicly sanctioned invasions and occupations, racial profiling and securitization of borders lifted the fig leaf of Canadian (and Western) reconciliation with the idea of the humanity of the peoples they had colonized and enslaved. The War on Terror demonstrated that ‘the right to have rights,’ as Hannah Arendt had put it, could be destroyed in a matter of days by the world’s most powerful states, including Canada.

In my earlier research, I described the Canadian nation state as founded in a triangulated racial formation: rights bearing and legitimately entitled nationals; Indigenous peoples marked for physical and cultural elimination; and peoples of colour as unwelcome migrant interlopers and perpetually alien. The foundational logics of these racial politics continues to be reproduced at moments of global political upheaval, such as the one we are presently living through. More recently, I have studied how the embedding of the Islamophobic ideology of the War on Terror in geopolitics unleashed the overt use of violence—state and vigilante—as the most effective means of governing Muslims, and of those Black and Brown bodies who ‘look like Muslims’ (Contesting Islam, Constructing Race and Sexuality, 2021). Acknowledging that such a global endeavour has propelled fascist and white supremacist movements into the centre of national political landscapes is crucial to confronting the forms of political mobilization deployed by them.

However, the scholarly work that has led to my induction into the RSC is not something I claim credit for alone. This work is rooted in, and shaped by, the experiences, struggles, disenfranchisements, degradations—and accomplishments—of the communities that I come from, the communities to which I make claims to belong, and the communities that claim me as one of their own. Moreover, when I was appointed in my academic position at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I did not walk into this institution alone. I came bringing with me the histories, knowledges and aspirations of the visionaries, intellectuals and revolutionaries produced by these communities. I carried with me also the dreams, pains and disappointments of those among them who did not survive to make it here themselves: women in my own family and in my extended communities, both filial and political. In entering this institution, I was walking on the path laid by these women, by their communities, and their movements. It was these women’s struggles for survival, and their clinging to the promise of a better world for themselves and the generations to come, that paved the way into the academy for many of us not privileged by whiteness or class; those of us whose citizenship is constantly under scrutiny and always under threat of being rescinded. I was a beneficiary of these women’s vision of a humanizing world that made them fight to open up these institutions—the exclusionary white settler nation state, the elite university and the RSC—all founded on stolen Indigenous lands, built on transatlantic slavery and on the labour of the ‘non-preferred races.’ These institutions were built on the sacrifice of the life worlds, creativity, knowledge, and all too often, the very lives of Indigenous, Black and other women of colour. It was these women that struggled to open the doors of these institutions to people like me, with the expectation that we would change these institutions and, through this, change the world.

My work within the university thus confronts me with certain pressing questions: is this what the women who went before me were struggling for? Would they consider what we do in this institution—what we do with this institution—worth the price they paid for opening it up for us? As we work in, and get worked upon, by this institution—as brutalizing, alienating and invested in the business of profit-making today as it was when it was founded—is this what those women envisioned? What would they have to say to us? How would each one of us answer these questions?

Both the social order in which we live and the institutions in which we work are once again challenged by the growing momentum of movements rooted in those earlier struggles. Their dreams of possibilities are resurgent once again. The king and scion of an empire that once promised the sun would never set on its reign over continents—from Asia to Africa to the Americas—is today compelled to confront the question of his family’s (and institution’s) profiting from the transatlantic slave trade in Black bodies and labour. The Vatican—which put its biblical authority in the service of Indigenous genocide and dispossession, of European massacres and colonization of most of the peoples of this planet—has now conceded to the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery that legitimized that violence. Forced to acknowledge that the papal bulls that dehumanized the majority of the peoples of the world “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity of Indigenous peoples,” the Vatican has apparently acquired today “a greater awareness.”

As the hopes, aspirations, and demands for humanizing these institutions, for building ethical and just relations and practices, have grown louder, the voices more urgent, these movements are yet again forcing open more widely the doors of these institutions. Rhodes did fall, as did Gassy Jack in Vancouver, and the Benin Bronzes have begun their long journey back home.

In this moment of global upheaval, and even as we acknowledge how much the political climate has been changed by anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, what would those who are bearing the brunt of our age’s most brutalizing forms of dispossession, disenfranchisement, wars, violence and ongoing genocides have to say of what we do in these institutions today? As the university responds by putting into action the equity, diversity and inclusion regime of racial political management and thereby offering the promise of inclusion to a select few of us, what would those who are on the frontlines of catastrophic wars, environmental crises, austerity and immiseration, have to say of our work in the university? In the Royal Society of Canada?

In 2001, I organized a conference at UBC that led to the founding of Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equity (RACE), a cross-Canada network promoting the anti-racist and anti-colonial feminist scholarship of women of colour and Indigenous women scholars. These were the issues and questions we were working to bring into the Canadian university, into the various Canadian scholarly associations and networks, and into our relationships with each other.

At that conference, Patricia Monture, the Mohawk woman legal scholar who is now no longer with us, gave the following advice to those of us who had gathered on the UBC Vancouver campus, on Musqueam territories.

“First, always know who you are.” As Patricia said of herself, “It is my relationships with community that affirm why I am where I am [teaching at a university].” Patricia was advising us to ‘understand who you are,’ not only in existential terms, but in historical, social and political terms. I believe she was also asking us to know who we are in institutional terms. Who are we in this institution? Who are we to this institution?

Second, Patricia advised us to know what space we are in. UBC is, of course, on Indigenous territories. The university and its administration now routinely acknowledge and proudly point out that this site of the Vancouver campus was a place of learning for the Musqueam for centuries. But what kind of space of learning was this for the Musqueam and other Indigenous peoples before the arrival of settler colonialism on these shores? What was the space of learning for, for what purposes was this learning being passed on to future generations? And what kind of space of learning is the university today? For what purposes is this learning being passed on to future generations? Whose interests are being served in this learning today?

And third, Patricia advised us to value the experiences we have as forms of knowledge, as epistemologies that we bring to the university. For far too many of us, however, drawing upon these experiences and insisting that this knowledge matters leads to our construction as the ‘angry woman of colour.’

In the space that is the university today, brown and Black bodies are reduced to what Patricia called “equity objects.” The institution assumes the colour of our skin makes us natural experts in “equity,” thus essentializing equity work as a condition of our innate ontology. In this space, as Sara Ahmed has argued, the mere presence of Indigenous women and women of colour scholars is taken as confirmation of the institution’s respect for diversity and its commitment to tolerance. And many ‘equity objects’ are indeed grateful recipients of such institutional benevolence.

Interrogation or contestation of the equity, diversity and inclusion regime makes us unruly subjects in the institution. We become the constant source of irritation, of tension and of unsettling the established order of things.

So, in the spirit of celebrating such unsettlings, I will say that each one of us walks into this institution every day with a responsibility to our communities. Asking ourselves how we live up to this responsibility, I believe, is what the deteriorating conditions around the world today demand of us. There is much work to be done, and our urgency keeps growing by the day. The possibilities for change have to be grasped where we find them.

Sunera Thobani is a professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.


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