By Audra A. Diptee.
I have realized that I am truly a slow learner. This is an odd admission for a history professor to make, but it holds true when it comes to understanding the politics of prejudice in the Canadian academy.
One of the things I was slow to learn over the last decade is that there are white liberal academics, and then there are white academic liberals. The primary difference between the two has to do with theory and practice. The vast majority of Canadian academics are eager to take a principled stand against racism and other forms of prejudice. They will speak loudly against racism in South Africa, teach courses on human rights, shed tears when they teach students about the horrors of the Holocaust, and leave their students with no doubt about the links between racism and colonialism. In other words, they are happy to deal with the ugliness of prejudice and injustice when it is elsewhere, in another time, and far removed. In fact, just about everyone under the Canadian academic sun is a hero to the underdog when it comes to dealing with prejudice theoretically. They will boast of introducing students to subaltern theory, advise them about the importance of trying to locate the voice of the voiceless, reference Frantz Fanon and Edward Said with authority, and proudly make Gayatri Spivac’s article “Can the subaltern speak?” required reading in their courses. In that context, they are nothing short of superheroes.
I have learnt that it is only when human beings have an opportunity to practise their principles that one can truly know the depth of their commitment. When it comes to dealing with issues of prejudice on the home turf (i.e. academia), unfortunately, only a small minority of white liberal academics will step up to the plate. To that minority, I am forever grateful. Thank you for being willing to embrace difference even when it makes you uncomfortable. Thank you for being one of those academics who not only teaches about the subaltern but who is also able to walk along side and support subaltern academics. Thank you for not trying to reproduce the academy as it exists. Thank you for recognizing that academics who fit the criteria for being subaltern and have somehow catapulted themselves out of that existence and into academic life, can speak for the subaltern, and can bring the subaltern perspective into the academic discourse in a way that is far more legitimate than the rest of us could ever dream of doing. Thank you for understanding that by virtue of being subaltern, they will not walk and talk like Canadian academics as popularly imagined. Thank you for knowing that they will not “fit in” easily, and they will adjust with difficulty to academic culture – despite their academic credentials – precisely because they are subaltern. Thank you for not assuming the role of academic gatekeeper. Thank you for practising your principles.
To all those Canadian academics who fight the idea of prejudice, who have bravely researched and published about these injustices (while advancing their own careers), but who are also capable of marginalizing, excluding, bullying, and ridiculing – all for the purpose of reproducing their narrow vision of the academy – which often includes excusing the less-than-mediocre who have the cultural capital to easily “fit in,” believe it or not, I also owe you thanks. Thank you for destroying what you believe in. Thank you for ensuring that the next generation of Canadian academics will not follow in your footsteps. By exposing your students to your theoretical stand against prejudice, you have ensured that the next generation of Canadians – most of whom will have grown up in a more diverse world than you did – will fight against your idea of what the Canadian academy should be. Thank you for giving them the tools to practise their principles – even if you cannot. Thank you for giving me hope.
I recently realized there was reason for hope after I saw a young Canadian university student perform a spoken word poem he wrote. His words were directed to his generation of young Canadians but in defiance of yours:
…This will not be our Canada
We will not be the true north strong and free we foresaw
It will be their Canada
Based on old concepts, old logic and old law …
Our passion is hidden
Beneath the text books and tests
Behind the formulas and equations
Then locked up in the vault of success …
They defeat us easily, time and time again
And when we are down on our knees we are forced to bend
To their rules, to accept their ideas as our own
And pretend like that’s the only thing we have ever known
So how can we defeat them?
How do we even fight back?
How can we find our inspiration
So our world doesn’t fade to black?
We dance, we sing, we draw, we speak,
We read, we write, we build, we critique,
We calculate, we solve, we memorize, and we remember,
We run, we jump, we climb, we whatever
We do whatever it takes
To show them they are wrong
We must raise the stakes
To prove that we are strong …
This is an excerpt of a wonderful performance piece written by an inspiring young Canadian. To all those liberal academic colleagues who are incapable of practising their principles, in case you missed it, you represent “Old Canada.” Thank you for giving students the tools they need to realize that your Canada does not represent their Canada, and that they can “read, write, critique, and speak” against all that “Old Canada” represents. Thank you for being part of a process that undermines the very thing you protect, defend, and love about academia. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.