On April 10, the Black Student Association of the University of Toronto collaborated with the Caribbean Studies Student Union, the Organization for Latin American Students, the Asian Institute, the Asian Alliance, and the BIPOC in Politics Network to host a roundtable event addressing the issue of racism in academia. 

The event brought together students, staff, and faculty at the George Ignatieff Theatre. In this roundtable format, attendees were encouraged to share their experiences with racism in academia. Nisha Toomey, a facilitator, educator, researcher, and migrant rights activist of Desi descent, opened the event by sharing her interest in the interrelationship between settler colonialism, environmental destruction, mobilities, and labour exploitation with the audience. 

Centring the West in the classroom

To illustrate racism in Canada, Toomey shared her childhood experiences and recalled her peers’ dismissive attitude towards her Hindu and Jain beliefs. She attributed her classmates’ ignorance to the Eurocentrism in the school environment — specifically, how much of academia treats Western ideologies as “universal truths.” Cultural practices and ideas outside the Western world are frequently left out of curricula — for example, although Hinduism was her religion growing up, Toomey recalled high school culture day as the only time Hinduism was ever discussed at her school. 

This trend is still allowed to continue into university. The Department of Philosophy at U of T does not require philosophy specialists, majors, or minors to take courses on philosophy outside the Western world, such as Eastern and Islamic philosophy. These philosophical traditions are just as established, and leaving them out of the curriculum only reinforces to students that their cultures and traditions do not matter. 

To understand modern-day racism, Toomey asserted that one must understand seventeenth-century European colonialism, when Europeans understood themselves as ‘superior’ to everyone else to justify the hierarchization of people and subsequently the exploitation of lands and slavery. This underlying belief continues to this day, where it underpins the migrant worker economy. Migrant workers are brought to Western countries or former colonial powers  to do work for less pay than regular citizens, while not being offered the same rights, freedoms, and privileges of regular citizens. The relationship between colonial powers and BIPOC communities is nothing but parasitic.  

After Toomey’s speech, the panel welcomed professors Kevin Edmonds of Caribbean Studies, Melissa Levin of African Studies, and Takashi Fujitani of Asian Pacific Studies to share with students their observations on racism in academia. 

Fujitani brought the audience’s attention to unmarked whiteness at our university. “There are a lot of departments that are named as, say, ‘Medieval Studies’ or ‘Renaissance and Reformation,’ but they’re actually only about Europe,” Fujitani remarked. Another instance of unmarked whiteness — as Levin brought up earlier on in the event— is how the Eurocentric knowledge system is often presented as “universal” in academic journals. In turn, this undermines knowledge produced by non-white scholars. Fujitani connected this to Japanese colonialism, and how its impacts on East Asian countries are not talked about enough in the academic space.  

Academia as a space to fight for change 

The common sentiment among Tooney, Edmonds, Levin, and Fujitani is that the universities play a crucial role in combating racism. In the space of knowledge production, students, staff, and faculty are obligated to reflect on our biases. As Levin put it, it is incumbent upon us when we sit in the space of knowledge production to reflect on what we are doing as a community. In classrooms, we should be encouraged to test each others’ assumptions. 

Moreover, Fujitani said, racialized people should acknowledge the power they hold on a global scale. Contrary to the narrative that people of colour are “minorities” — which Fujitani stressed — we are in the far greater majority of people. Powerful alliances can be made upon recognizing this. 

Edmonds shared that even though Caribbean Studies is his specialty, he would educate students on the history of different countries and the different experiences of migration to raise cultural awareness in classrooms.

Feedback from students

After each guest speaker finished their sharing, student attendees were given the opportunity to reflect on anti-racist pedagogies during a Q & A panel segment.

During the panel, the audience asked whether students could realistically make an impact in combating racism in academia, since students are not the ones facilitating coursework. Toomey responded by reminding students that we actually have more power than we think. She encouraged students that we can make a difference in academia by giving our teachers evaluations and supporting professors of marginalized communities by nominating them for awards.

Another issue discussed during the Q & A segment was whether it is productive for members of the BIPOC community to establish a dichotomy between themselves and their white counterparts. Toomey remarked that race is socially constructed, and rather than seeing the world in a dichotomy,  we should strive for collaboration over competition. “It’s not just about calling people out and telling them off… it’s having curiosity and humility,” Toomey explained. 


Despite persistent challenges, some departments at the university have made strides in reducing Eurocentricity. Some 2023 winter semester courses I have taken, such as Introduction to Canadian Literature offered by the Department of English, and Canadian English offered by the Department of Linguistics offered an excellent variety of perspectives. 

In the Canadian Literature class, for example, I learned that my Chinese ancestors built the Canadian Pacific Railway from F.R. Scott’s book All the Spikes but the Last. Chinese immigrant workers were given the most dangerous tasks; they received half the pay of their white counterparts and were deliberately omitted from history. The book’s title evokes the infamous photo titled “The Last Spike,” where the Canadian Pacific Railway’s company director, Donald Smith, was photographed with his group of white company officials and labourers driving in the final ceremonial railway spike. Not even one of the 15,000 Chinese workers employed is to be found in the historical photo. 

This is the photo that the roundtable facilitator Nisha Tooney showed in her slideshow presentation. It reminded us that non-Western voices are crucial; we cannot omit them from history like the voices of those Chinese railroad labourers. 

Being Canadian is to embrace our multiculturalism, and our pedagogies should represent the different cultural beliefs and practices that make up the country. U of T prides itself on being one of Canada’s leading universities and acknowledges a “culture of inclusive excellence” as foundational to the university. Such a culture should be reflected in course curriculums. The Anti-Racist Pedagogies roundtable was a hopeful example of BIPOC faculty engaging in meaningful dialogues and reflection so that the university can live up to its commitments.