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n the spring of 2020, in the midst of protests being organized across the continent in response to centuries of state violence, I invested myself in organizing for transformation on campus. I worked to bring together Black students in an effort to make concrete changes. We met regularly to discuss our experiences and needs, and we built solidarity among non-Black students, faculty and administrators within and beyond the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto (U of T). Eventually, I co-wrote an open letter to the department regarding anti-Black racism and police brutality. We stood in solidarity with our colleagues from the Masters of Science in Planning program, who had recently penned a letter to the department insisting that a number of long-term strategies to operationalize racial equity be incorporated. This letter detailed the experiences of anti-Blackness that often go unrecognized and unaddressed within the university, and it made explicit how geography is central to these conversations. Our letter follows decades of grassroots organizing by Black communities and groups within and beyond the department to center subjugated knowledge within the academy, and together with the many other examples of Black resistance on campus, it prompted several changes including: (1) the development of specific plans for the recruitment, hiring and retention of Black faculty members holding continuing appointments; (2) the development of plans for systematic curricular review and change aimed at enhancing offerings on Black geographies, colonialism, Indigenous geographies, and anti-oppression; (3) a review and revision of the composition of the administrative leadership, and; (4) funding specifically for Black undergraduate and graduate students.
Universities across Canada responded in diverse ways to this global moment of Black revolt. Some institutions, like York and Dalhousie Universities have begun offering Black Canadian Studies Programs (Francis, 2019), while most others are investing in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies and frameworks, like U of T. Our open letter, endorsed by over 165 students, faculty, staff and administrators, was one of several that U of T received during this time demanding systemic and cultural change on campus. In early October of 2020, a U of T-led “National Dialogue” on anti-Black racism in the academy was launched (Wong, 2020). Since then, U of T has created an Anti-Black Racism Task Force, which issued 56 action-oriented measures and solutions to “tackle anti-Black racism and promote Black inclusion and excellence” across all three campuses (Thorold, 2021).
Canada’s largest university is a key site of this struggle. U of T’s three campuses have regularly erupted around incidents of racism in recent years (Denton, 2017; Kao, 2017; Sakr, 2017), and these eruptions take place despite the university’s investment in EDI initiatives since 1991 (Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, 2019). Interestingly, U of T has only just begun to collect race-based data as consequence of the organizing of groups like the U of T Black Faculty Working Group, a tri-campus association of Black faculty members who are committed to improving Black faculty recruitment and retention, Black student recruitment and success, and curriculum and academic programming (Regehr and Hannah-Moffat, 2016), and the Black Liberation Collective-UofT, a student activist group determined to transform institutions of higher education, that have worked tirelessly to address widespread institutional inequity. In particular, the absence of statistics outlining the proportion of students based on race, who are admitted to and subsequently graduate from the university, permits the institution to avoid addressing the known but under researched realities concerning race-based violence and discrimination on campus. As such, issues of race are not treated with urgency (Black Liberation Collective, 2015).
Black peoples globally have resisted anti-Blackness for centuries, and for over 60 years, Black communities on and off Canadian campuses have actively made demands of the University that highlight the disruptive potential of Black intellectual thought and praxis, and reveal the possibilities for alternative, anti-colonial and liberatory forms of knowledge production and world-making (hampton, 2020). These efforts at transformation have been monumental, and academic institutions have been forced to respond. However, institutional responses have often been formulated to disarm movements and critique rather than to respond to or repair systemic racism. As opposed to the end of racism and colonialism, institutional responses to systemic racism often reconfigure and renew cultures of whiteness and coloniality in higher education. Scholars are increasingly making this very critique of EDI frameworks (Ahmed, 2012; Dancy et al., 2018; Henry et al., 2017; Nash, 2019). By tracing the histories of resistance on campus, my doctoral project investigates the University and Black communities’ struggle over institutionalized EDI and earlier models of diversity discourse and practice. This project combines theory and praxis, and it offers a series of provocative inquiries concerning what diversity does within institutional settings.
EDI is a relatively new framework for addressing inequality that has quickly become the dominant paradigm across academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and corporations in a matter of a few short years. Recent scholarship suggests that within educational settings EDI activities have become a policy priority that is often tethered to several institutional action plans and performance reports (Bourassa, 2019; Tamtik and Guenter, 2019). This has led to an increase in (1) institutional strategic activities, including institutional political commitments, such as new equity offices, new senior administration positions and mandatory trainings, (2) student and faculty recruitment with programming and research supports, such as diversity admission policies, scholarships, access programs and curriculums, and (3) efforts to develop a more supportive institutional culture, such as student advisors, awards and celebrations (Tamtik and Guenter, 2019; Tavares, 2021). However, according to a study that analysed 50 strategic documents from 15 Canadian universities from 2011 to 2018, inconsistencies remain regarding how equity is defined in policy documents (Tamtik and Guenter, 2019).
The terms equity, diversity, and inclusion are often grouped together and used synonymously; however, they remain distinct. Within many institutions, diversity engages the question of who is in the room; inclusion often asks whether everyone’s ideas have been heard, and equity inquires about who is currently attempting to gain access to the room (but cannot) and whose presence among those within the room is under a constant state of erasure (Garcia et al., 2021). Oftentimes, institutional diversity discourses are heavily focused on who is present, as opposed to addressing the social structures and processes that produce these unequal relations (Ahmed, 2012; Ferguson, 2012). This is critical, as the development of diversity frameworks are often used to brand institutions as progressive, modern, and civil, yet they have also obscured the actual concerns and complaints of racialized people (Ahmed, 2012; Clough and Willse, 2011).
The process of naming and framing the violence inherent in the institutions that govern our study and our spaces, thereby foregrounding these issues as matters of injustice, is challenging and must be done collectively. I am inspired by the global circulation of emancipatory ideas, from Black student activism in North America to the rich countercultures of the Caribbean, and key campus struggles from around the world, including South Africa, Palestine and the UK. I try to locate these efforts at transformation within longer histories of popular resistance – all of which highlight the creative, dynamic, and pleasurable features of Black radical thought and resistance.
In preparing this response, I reflected upon what it means to engage in Black placemaking in a settler colonial context. To respond to this question, I am led to think with Tiffany Lethabo King (2019) who examines Black and Indigenous literatures, activisms, art, cultures, and lived experiences to ask what it might mean to create liveable futures between Black and Indigenous peoples. She responds to this urgent question by unpacking the idea of the “shoals,” which she uses to present a new way of comprehending settler-colonial violence, social relations, Indigeneity, and Blackness in the West (King, 2019). The shoals refer to the liminal space of relationality between Indigenous and Black studies, and it extends theories of Blackness in connection to the ocean (indicating rootlessness), and Indigeneity in connection to the land (signaling a challenge to coloniality) (King, 2019). This ambitious text relies on an incredible archive that begins in the eighteenth century and includes things like maps, films, novels and sculptures to illustrate how nurturing a relationship between Black and Indigenous peoples can bring about new ideas of coalitional politics (King, 2019).
Identifying and nurturing the solidarities that potentially emerge among Black and Indigenous peoples is not an easy project, and Zainab Amadahy and Bonita Lawrence (2009) express that ongoing dialogue between these communities is incredibly important. Moreover, Black and Indigenous theories (when read together) upend the settler colonial narratives of Blackness and Indigeneity that justify state-sanctioned violence and white supremacy (Amadahy and Lawrence, 2009; King, 2019). These literatures emphasize that Black placemaking in a settler colony is not a given, but instead a complex project of the Black radical imagination. Furthermore, thinking about these relations establishes an important distinction between placemaking and settlement, and is a critical step in actualizing generative learning environments that are worthy of Black learners and educators.
Ahmed S (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Amadahy Z and Lawrence B (2009) Indigenous peoples and Black people in Canada: Settlers or allies? In: Kempf A (ed) Breaching the Colonial Contract: Anti-Colonialism in the US and Canada. In Berlin: Springer, pp.105-136.
Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (2022) About the Office. University of Toronto. Available here.
Black Liberation Collective (2015) University of Toronto Demands. Available here.
Bourassa G (2019) Neoliberal multiculturalism and productive inclusion: Beyond the politics of fulfillment in education. Journal of Education Policy 36(2): 253-278.
Clough PT and Willse C (eds) (2011) Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dancy TE, Edwards KT and Davis JE (2018) Historically white universities and plantation politics: Anti-Blackness and higher education in the Black Lives Matter era. Urban Education 53(2): 176-195.
Denton JO (2017) Incident of anti-Black racism wracks elite Massey College. The Varsity, 2 October. Available here.
Ferguson RA (2012) The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Francis A (2019) The growing field of Black Canadian studies. University Affairs, 7 August. Available here.
Garcia CE, Walker W, Morgan D and Shi Y (2021) Aligning student affairs practice with espoused commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Journal of College Student Development 62(2): 137-153.
hampton r (2020) Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Henry F, Dua E, James CE, Kobayashi A, Li P, Ramos H and Smith MS (2017) The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Kao J (2017) Students protest at forum on social inequality. The Varsity, 4 October. Available here.
King TL (2019) The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies Durham: Duke University Press.
Nash JC (2019) Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Durham: Duke University Press.
Regehr C and Hannah-Moffat K (2016) Announcing the members of the Black Faculty Working Groups (PDAD&C #45). University of Toronto Communications for Academic Administrators. Available here.
Sakr N (2017) BSA organizes in response to racism in Faculty of Engineering. The Varsity, 4 December. Available here.
Tamtik M and Guenter M (2019) Policy analysis of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies in Canadian universities – How far have we come? Canadian Journal of Higher Education 49(3): 41-56.
Tavares V (2021) Feeling excluded: International students experience equity, diversity and inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1-18. Available here.
Thorold C (2021) U of T accepts all 56 recommendations of Anti-Black Racism Task Force. U of T News, 14 April. Available here.
Wong J (2020) Cross-country forum of professors, students aims to tackle anti-Black racism on campuses. CBC News. 2 October. Available here.
Mariba Douglas is a PhD Candidate in the department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto. Mariba is fascinated by the global circulation of emancipatory ideas, from Black student activism in North America to the rich countercultures of the Caribbean and beyond – all of which highlight the creativity and exuberance of Black radical thought and resistance. Mariba’s research examines the expansion of “equity, diversity and inclusion” initiatives in higher education as a feature of the persistence of anti-Blackness, contrasting these institutional accounts with vibrant histories of Black struggle and placemaking on Canadian campuses.