Hero banner image

We can answer that.

The podcast where we sit down with UCalgary professors, researchers and experts to get the answers to five questions submitted by you.


Episode 2: Unlearning racism

September 23, 2020

The fight against institutional and systemic racism is at a fever pitch, with a growing movement to expose and eradicate anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism in all of our public institutions.

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Malinda Smith, UCalgary’s new — and first — vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion, about how systemic racism manifests itself, the role that higher education can play in fighting racism, and what each of us can do in our everyday lives to make the world more equitable.

Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to "We Can Answer That". I'm your host, Mike MacKinnon. Each week, I sit down with a UCalgary expert to ask five listener-provided questions and shed light on topics that matter to you. Today, we're talking about racism and how Canadian post-secondaries can ignite change. Our guest is Dr. Malinda Smith, UCalgary's new and first Vice-Provost of Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion. Malinda's joined the university at an electrifying time in the fight against racism. Her role will be crucial for uncovering destructive prejudices and practices around anti-black, and anti-Indigenous racism, and pushing for change. The iron is hotter than ever for striking change. The Black Lives Matter movement is exploding, there are protests in the streets every night, and we've seen events like the recent Scholar’s Strike that took place on campuses across the country. Welcome, Malinda, and thanks for joining us.


Malinda Smith (MS): And thanks for having me here.


MM: So your job is new, and it's the first of its kind here at UCalgary. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you and why you took it?


MS: Well, it is new and it's the first of its kind in Alberta and also, one of the few in Western Canada. I was attracted to the University of Calgary because of the commitment of senior leadership, but also because of the kinds of... What I knew about the faculty advocating equity, diversity, inclusion, indigenization, commitment to mental health, but also because of the students. U of Calgary students are pretty nationally renowned for their engagement and the kinds of social justice initiatives they advance. So there seemed to me, both in the city more broadly, but also on campus, this deep commitment, and what people were looking for was somebody to help bring all of these interests together. And so for me, it was a no brainer to come here, and every minute I've been here, that's been confirmed.


MM: So you're talking about engagement on campuses with this kind of topic, but there's a general assumption that universities are progressive, and ahead of the curve on social issues, but you argued otherwise in a book you co-wrote called The Equity Myth, Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. What are the persistent barriers that make working and learning conditions inequitable at Canadian post-secondaries?


MS: Well, in the book, The Equity Myth, which I co-wrote with scholars from York University, Queens University, Dalhousie, we looked at four key areas on campus. We looked at representation. So for 30 years, we've been having these commitments around employment equity, around diversity and inclusion. And so we said, Well, after 30 years, you would expect there to be a diverse representation of racialized faculties, including black faculty, Indigenous faculty, women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ, increasingly. So in the case of racialized and Indigenous faculty, we found to the contrary, that despite the rhetoric, that was not happening. And in fact, if you disaggregate visible minorities, certainly black scholars and students are significantly underrepresented. So the rhetoric wasn't matching the reality. The other thing we looked at were institutional policies and strategies. And again, what we found was despite using the broad language of equity, diversity, and inclusion, most institutions had what I call silo policies. They would have gender equity policies, or they may have gender and sexual identity issues, but they didn't have policies specifically looking at racialized faculty. They have policies on Indigenous, but that's through the TRC not equity. And so we also found that if they did have policies on racialize, they didn't have anti-racism strategies as we seen borne out with Manitoba only having the first one nationally, and that's just released in the last month, they didn't have procedures for dealing with racial harassment, and they didn't have efforts to think about retention, or even barriers to student admissions. And we did look at discourse, so we looked at the mismatch between discourses, universities saying good things about themselves, but then you look at the practice on the ground and you found that the practice wasn't just there. So I think... You said, what are the barriers and biases? I think the barriers vary for each of the equity groups, so if you're a person with disabilities, the barriers would be something different. Yes, there are some physical or accessibility issues, but if you have an invisible disability, the barriers might be different, you might not want to disclose because of stigma, and we need education to deal with that. If you're racialized, you'd find that there are people who will have... I'll give you another example, last example, here, if you're a racialized faculty they're people who's... There's a tendency to have a hierarchy. So there are some who are considered model minorities, and then there's some who will... Black and other racialized faculty who encounter prejudice and barriers like deficit thinking. And so my own work suggests that if you're black, for example, the deficit mentality often that projected on the black students and faculty assumes you can't do something by virtue of being black, So it's a kind of skin stereotype, and I haven't seen much effort to address this and where it comes from. On the one hand, people say, they're colour blind, they're race neutral. They don't discriminate on the basis of race and colour, under the same time when you meet them, black students are profiled on campus, some of them are harassed, some of them are assumed not to be students, and similarly, the experience for black faculty is often revered. We're expected to be comedic, or to perform for people, or they think we are too angry or aggressive, or they think we are incapable of leadership. So the attitudes and barriers like that, differentially shape black, and racialized faculty.


MM: This year we've seen widespread escalation of Black Lives Matter, and the growing protest against racially motivated violence against black people. You're joining this university when the desire for change is stronger than ever. I assume you feel the weight of that. How do you think you'll be able to make positive change through this position?


MS: So, I'm an Albertan, so I am pretty realistic about both the short and longer term aims and objective, but one, first you need commitment. There needs to be an acknowledgement of need for change, and I think I can say, we can take as one example, the decision... The commitment of U of Calgary to The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and to senior leader in this moment, it is a sign of that. But the Black Lives Matter, I think the Scholars Strike, Black on Campus, These hashtag campaigns, Black in the Ivory, they have been signaling the need for change for some time, and now we hear institutional leaders saying we are listening, and we are learning. My view is okay, that's good, the question is, why is it just happening now? That's one question, it tells you we haven't been listening and learning, and as a consequence of that, people have been harmed by that, right? So people who have been speaking about the experience of racism, racial harassment, bullying have been speaking, but not heard, or they have not gotten... They've disclosed, but there has been no response. Now there, I think, not just at University of Calgary, but across Canada, there is this commitment, and including University of Calgary, as you know, is a partner in this national dialogue for inclusive and higher education, and those sessions will be taking place on the 1st and 2nd of October this year. But I think the commitment is there, it's strong, I know that the commitment is with the students union. I think there are many among the faculty who are deeply interested. And so my job and my responsibility is to build on these different stakeholders relationships in order to craft what I... Of equity, diversity, and inclusion, strategic direction. But for me, that has to be inclusive, it has to be both bottom up and top down. It has... and so I'm working with faculties to build an infrastructure, which would be able to advance this. So I'll just be very clear. Many universities have a discourse around equity, diversity inclusion, they have a high level conversations around... But they don't have the infrastructure to deliver on the promise and the commitment. So without the infrastructure, without the resourcing, without the metrics to evaluate outcomes, we aren't going to know how we are doing. So my plan working with the EDI, the office team, working with university stakeholders is to build an infrastructure where we are not just talking about equity, diversity, inclusion, but we are actually acting on commitments, and then we have a way of assessing how well we are doing.


MM: That leads perfectly into my next question. The Scholar’s Strike on September 9th and 10th paused campuses across the country to focus on teaching about police brutality, and anti-black, and anti-Indigenous violence. So how do you know if those kinds of things are working? How do you measure the success of that kind of effort in terms of moving universities to change?


MS: The Scholar’s Strike built on initiatives that had been occurring and intensifying, I would say over the last months. And so since the Congress, Umass, and social sciences, where a young student named Shelby McPhee, was a master student at Acadia was profiled. There were profiling incidences on University of Ottawa, led to the hashtag Black on Campus. There were other hashtag campaigns, Black in The Ivory initiatives. But before that people forget that there were others who were saying hashtag I too, am Dalhousie, I too, am McGill, I too, am Harvard. And this is what a professor looked like, another hashtag campaign. All of these were campaigns over the last months, but years, aimed at trying to draw attention to the experiences of racialized, and Indigenous faculties, staff, and students on campus. They weren't framed exclusively around racism per se, but they were also framed around actually not even being able to access the university. So about admissions, about retention, about completion, about hiring, about advancement, about who gets the seat at leadership tables. So they were both about the experiences of racialized and Indigenous faculties. They were also about the experiences of why we have yet to take up the thorny issue. Which many don't want to take up is to say, why is there a preference for whiteness, even as we talk about diversity, but that makes people uncomfortable. One of the things that someone in my role has to do, is to be able to facilitate these uncomfortable discussions. To say, we do have a preference for sameness, people who are like us, we are more comfortable with, this is not new. The question is how do we break that so that we can actually increase diversity, and racialize minorities, and Indigenous minorities in the student and faculty staff complement, but certainly at the leadership tables. And I'm pretty clear, I think about being very honest and upfront about this conversation in all spaces. So the Scholar’s Strike, I think, built on this momentum, and so not surprisingly, there were over 60,000 people who tuned into various of those sessions. And I think the event that's going to be happening on the 1st of October and the 2nd of October will further build on and galvanize movement for a more racially diverse, more Indigenous diverse, and certainly more inclusive university.


MM: You were talking about hashtags in social media. A lot of people post things on Instagram, or write stories with the intention of promoting equality. And here we are putting out a podcast on the topic, but how can we genuinely make a difference if we pull the lens out toward the broader community? So, me as a staff member, students, everyone in the general public, what can people in the community do every day to help eliminate racism?


MS: We have to deal with this issue of denial. We have to deal with understanding what racism is, and we have to deal with the reality that racism, like any kind of -ism, is something that we must look... We must learn to be comfortable talking about. And so, you know what happens if you say somebody is engaged in racism, immediately, there's a reaction "what? You're calling me a racist?", And the effective response, the emotions lead to a diversion, people get angry, they get frustrated, the conversation spirals into anger and despair. We actually need to shift away from that kind of engagement. That's one interpersonal, kind of cultural, social... That response. We need to better able... Better respond to racism. But that actually means we need in the school system, including teachers. For me, I would like to look at something deeper than the interpersonal, I want to look at what's happening in our curriculum. I want to look at... That means I want to ask questions about what we are teaching in our faculties of education. I want to ask responses about why are the police behaving this way? Now, surely we weren't born with racism. That means we learned it, that means it's socialized, so we need to think about how do we unlearn racism. And again, that also means the police. We have to look at how police training actually might be reinforcing, whether intended or not, stereotypes, and biases, which lead to profiling and carding. Well, if they learned it, how do they unlearn it? And then what are the consequences, if they engage in this conduct? We can't keep dismissing or denying. So every day I think people need to educate themselves, they need to unlearn racism, They need to... But, the systemic component means that we actually need institutions to be looking at their policies, and procedures, to see how they are reinforcing systemic inequities. We need to see how their... In university, how their admissions policies are impacting students, we need to see how hiring policies are impacting the diversity among our proffesoriate staff, and university leadership. And we need to see who gets the retention policies, the climate issues. This means I am suggesting that universities need to study themselves, and colleges needs to study themselves the way we study other institutions. We don't want to study corporations or nonprofit sector. We want to study how we are doing in order to address... Identify the barriers that persists, and then to transform them. And that means then that we actually need to focus on good data, good policy, relevant initiatives, and we need evidence based, strategic directions. And I think that is part of what I'm hoping to work with others... University of Calgary to do. And my sense is there is a deep commitment to that more kind of rigorous approach to equity and diversity inclusion that goes beyond the symbolic, to actually, looking at the kind of concrete measures that we can engage in together in order to make our university not just inclusive, but also our society to be a much more democratic, and inclusive, and pluralist space. And make the university among the greatest universities in Canada, as Calgary already is among the greatest societies, and cities in Canada, but also in the world.


MM: I'm going to break script here and ask a sixth question. You mentioned an event on October one and two.


MS: Yeah.


MM: Can you tell us about that?


MS: So it's called the National Dialogues for Inclusive, Higher Education, and that is being facilitated at the University of Toronto, in concert with dozens of universities and colleges, University of... I'm representing University of Calgary as one of the 14 advisory committee members. There's another 27 individuals across the U of T system who are facilitating these conversations, and we have got to be looking at... So the dialogues on the 1st and 2nd of October, we'll be looking at student success, admissions and success, staff admissions and success, faculty admissions and success. They're going to be looking at how to ensure curriculum is more inclusive and how to ensure that there are mechanisms and processes in place to ensure not only anti-Black racism, but also more inclusive, higher education. And out of those dialogues in the 1st and 2nd of October, we are hoping to have... The working title is called "Scarborough Principles on Inclusive Higher Education". So we are on, I think the Provost, Dru Marshall and myself, we're very happy... We'll be speaking at this event, but also we are very happy to be helping, to contribute to this national endeavour.


MM: This has been, "We Can Answer That". We've been talking to Dr. Malinda Smith, Vice-Provost of equity, diversity, and inclusion about how Canadian post-secondaries, can play a role in eliminating racism in our communities. You can subscribe to, "We Can Answer That" on Apple, Google, or Spotify, or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts, follow our social channels to see who'll take the answer seat in our next episode, and to send us questions you'd like our experts to answer. "We Can Answer That" is a production of the University of Calgary. Malinda, thanks for joining us, and thanks for listening.


Other ways to listen and subscribe
Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts

Holding hands to show support