The front line is everywhere

York University's Certificate in Anti-Racist Research & Practice

By Carole Yawney | 1993-03-01 12:00:00

Anna did her applied research project at a First Nations community health care centre. She had wanted to examine fetal alcohol syndrome but the center had a different priority, so Anna worked with a group of staff and volunteers to design a research project on AIDS and indigenous peoples. Anna was especially interested in the way in which the ethnocentrism of the dominant medical system marginalized the problem of AIDS in her community and she explored ways in which this could be challenged.

Cleveland's idea was to work with a group of Caribbean students to develop an Afrocentric cultural program for Black youth in one of Toronto's detention centres. They had some successes but mostly came up against insurmountable obstacles. Cleveland's applied research project documented this process, which went on for over a year. His report identified the kinds of institutional barriers and interpersonal difficulties one faces in initiating radical cultural alternatives.

Olive's project is to help a nursing organization develop an anti-racist policy. Alvin is working with one of the municipalities to do the same. Louise cooperated with a Black teacher's association to conduct a major survey of high school students of Afro-Caribbean background. Winston is developing bibliographic and other resource materials for a First Nations community organization that is preparing a major report on their experience of racism. And Anita is assisting one of the boards of education to develop materials for an anti-racist curriculum.

These are some of the applied research projects that students in the Certificate in Anti-Racist Research and Practice designed. They reveal the underlying principles that guide the antiracist educational initiative at York University. It is based in the Sociology Department at Atkinson College, which teaches adults attending degree programs part-time at night. Since a small faculty collective introduced this crrriculum in 1989 we have had the opportunity to continue developing a responsible and workable approach to anti-racist teaching.

While community activists have been rallying against racism for decades, antiracism is only now emerging as a fashionable cause. Although the attention is laudatory, we have seen with regard to both women's issues and environmental concerns how dominant interests place limits on such principles. It is important to recognize the contribution and legitimacy of anti-racist workers based in grassroots organizations. They possess legitimate knowledge based on practical experience and political struggle. For example, how many times have representatives of the state expressed surprise when one of their task forces uncovers the racism that community authorities have been telling us about for a long time? This is like the "discovery" of the Americas by Columbus! There is a danger of social institutions and self-proclaimed experts appropriating and even subverting these anti-racist energies.

In developing our own program and responding to students' demands for a more inclusive curriculum, after extensive consultation outside the university, we decided that what we could offer in good faith was practical training in antiracist research skills related to institutional racism and the implementation of change. But this research is to be undertaken collaboratively with community anti-racist organizations. Research priorities are determined by the social needs of the community, and not unilaterally by an ivory tower academic.

Indeed, the more general principle here has to do with anti-racist education of an applied nature which leads to action. Effective anti-racist education involves commitment to an ongoing process of challenging racist behaviors and attitudes, institutional racism, and the cultural means of reproducing racism on a daily basis. It means adopting openminded and flexible approaches to racism, not standardized and formulaic routines that suggest the job is done upon successful completion of a seminar or workshop. In fact, the work is only beginning at that point.

In a more formal educational setting, students can be encouraged to develop alternative formats for expressing their anti-racist learnings. For example, they can work collectively to design and present information kits that make data more immediately accessible. One group of women students helped organize a Black Families Against the (Gulf) War march, and produced a package on how to organize an anti-racist demonstration. Another group of students filled a portable file drawer with enough materials for a mini-course for Caribbean parents and their children in the school system. This project is now circulating through one of the Boards of Education and will be lodged there.

Or students can develop alternative communication skills, by trying their hand at writing reports, newspaper articles, speeches, letters of protest, and poetry. For example, on two different occasions students in a racism and popular culture course took on toy manufacturers who were selling games that stereotyped First Nations people, with the result that the product was with drawn from the market with profuse apologies.

Anti-racist education focuses on institutional change in the workplace, the criminal justice system, educational programs, the health care field, and the media. It is helpful to contextualize these problems historically. The history and dynamic of racism, seen from a non-Eurocentric perpsective, reveals that it is embedded in and integral to capitalist society. This understanding points to farreaching changes that anti-racist work needs to accomplish over the long haul. In fact, an historical approach enables us to make the connections between oppression based on "race" and that based on such factors as gender or class.

In other words, while anti-racist education emphasizes the specificity of racism, an integrated approach to multiple oppressions allows us to understand how they reinforce each other. In Black Looks: Race and Representation bell hooks identifies this "white supremist capitalist patriarchy" as the "new world order." Now, with the consolidating of an exploitive global economic system and the intensification and increasing sophistication of racism, anti-racist education needs to develop a broad front.

This requires an anti-racist pedagogy that is grounded in the life experiences of both students and teachers. Participants exchange and compare their points of view. Group projects get people working together. Challenging interpersonal dynamics develop, creating opportunities to put ideas into practice. Eventually solidarity arises, and students frequently evolve anti-racist support networks that continue after the course is over.

Since all social institutions reflect the biases of our dominant culture, anti-racist educational programs frequently have to challenge racist practices where they operate. Ironically, while anti-racism is one of the growth industries of the '90s, this decade is also experiencing major cutbacks in spending for social services. At York University, most major gains made in the area of anti-racism have been as a result of pressure and protest. To suggest curricular review and reform raises the issue of academic freedom in many quarters. There is also the problem of developing strategies to make the faculty more inclusive and reflective of the student population it serves. Meanwhile, the Office of Race and Ethnic Relations, which itself is the product of a protracted process, is continually trying to keep up with numerous complaints of racism. Anti-racist educators learn indeed that the front line is everywhere.

In any situation, being anti-racist and proactive means a serious commitment of resources. But more than that, it means challenging and changing the power structure that has benefited from racism and other forms of oppression. To borrow a line from contemporary education policy, it's about life-long learning.

Carole Yawney is an anthropologist who teaches in the Certificate in Anti-Racist Research and Practice, Sociology Department, Atkinson College, York University.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1993, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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