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Opinion: U of T must decolonize its curricula

Insensitivity and bigotry in course readings characterize our education on important topics
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BRITTANY GEROW/THE VARSITY
BRITTANY GEROW/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses racism.

While reading U of T President Meric Gertler’s 2015 statement on diversity and inclusion, which stated that “diversity, inclusion, respect, and civility are among the University of Toronto’s fundamental values,” I was left with one question: where is the diversity, inclusion, respect, and civility that the president claims is so significant to U of T? 

While living in bomb shelters for weeks on end, starting at seven years old, my mother knew that she could no longer live in her own country. Both of my parents watched as the prospering, modern country they once called home perished along with thousands of its innocent citizens. After enduring decades of political and economic instability, they fought through the struggles of immigration in hopes of ensuring a better life for their children.

Once my parents reached the United States, they were met with hate crimes and countless social, economic, educational, and occupational glass ceilings. Twenty years later, their motivation to provide a safe environment for their children to prosper through thick and thin is the reason that I am majoring in political science and sociology. The generational trauma passed down to me and my parents’ perseverance taught me that the voices of people of colour are necessary and untapped gold mines of wisdom that will undoubtedly further social and political justice. 

Last week, I sat at my desk, excited to continue my POL208 — Introduction to International Relations weekly reading. As the PDF loaded, I gasped, stunned at the image on my screen. There, on the first page of that nuclear proliferation article, stood a caricature of a calm, sophisticated US President George W. Bush and an angry, grotesque Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. I showed it to my classmates, who were equally stunned.

Although the artistic style of caricatures is used to exaggerate features and elicit an emotional response from its audience, arguing that this cartoon has no racist implications is ignorant, to say the least. This cartoon was neither appropriate nor necessary. This was further proven by the fact that when I looked up the article in question online, none of the online sources included this cartoon with the article, meaning that this was a very avertible situation that only occurred due to a lack of awareness and allyship on the part of the professor. This was only one example of the many moments in my postsecondary career when I have felt alienated and villainized. 

There are also classes that include little, if any, racial, religious, sexual, and gender diversity in terms of the authors of assigned readings, even if the topics discussed in the course are directly related to those communities. It is backward to only use white authors when discussing topics such as racism, new challenges in global politics, and capitalism — topics that could benefit from the perspective of minoritized communities.

As stated by Gertler himself, “Outstanding scholarship, teaching, and learning can thrive only in an environment that embraces the broadest range of people and encourages the free expression of their diverse perspectives. Indeed, these values speak to the very mission of the University. They spark education, discovery, and understanding and so take their place among humanity’s greatest forces for good.” 

Yet I and thousands of other U of T students are paying for an education that is lacking diversity in course curricula. Thus, not only are many of the current curricula at U of T bigoted, but they also lead students to garner an insufficient education due to ignorance by the university and some professors, despite the university’s boasts of inclusivity and diversity. 

“Decolonize the curriculum” has become a well-known slogan for a growing movement in regions including the United Kingdom and North America over the last few years, due to a growing understanding of the skewed education in Western societies. This slogan encompasses foundational alterations to education, such as the diversification of content to address social justice and the reimagination of assessments to allow diverse students to exemplify proficiency through diverse methods. As an institution that has been affiliated with racist social media attacks against Black students, U of T should not be exempt from this.

A study by the Angus Reid Institute found that 50 per cent of Canadian students between the ages of 12–17 who responded to the survey witness racial bullying at school. With such evidence of rampant racism at institutions, U of T must take action and resolve the apathy and widespread hate crimes toward racialized students and community members. Although U of T has offices and services to promote inclusivity such as the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, this change must be top-down and include checks and balances. Without top-down solutions that establish checks and balances, professors — even those from programs solely focused on law, power dynamics, and the functioning of society, like political science and sociology — may be promoting a colonized education. 

Giselle Dalili is a second-year political science and sociology student at New College.