Return to Menu

Lisa and Lisa: A Dialogue


The following is an edited version of a paper submitted by two University of Victoria students for a Women's Studies assignment in connection with the Making History, Constructing `Race' Conference

lisaO: So Lisa, lets talk about some of the key themes from the Teaching and Learning Race Theory/Anti-racism sessional. What did you get out of it?

lisaN: A major theme for me is that the university setting, as an institution, is white identified, white centred and a reaffirmation of racial identification for white students. What Ashok was saying about racism and "modes of containment" was integral in that we tend to think that racism is out there, out yonder, and we don't think of it as part of our own education system‹the university is conceptualized as this radical progressive place for change but it's not. The university is a microcosm of a greater system of social inequality. Women's studies replicates many of the same power structures and exclusions. Coming from that place as a white person, I am trying to dissect how the university setting reaffirms my white identity, as normalized, do you know what I mean?

Education is a political issue for exploited and oppressed people.
bell hooks

lisaO: I think that the issues that were touched on in this sessional gave me some tools and a critical eye in resistance and survival in the university. These approaches that the university is using around anti-racist strategies are not working. I know first-hand. The approaches presently used are around learning about other people's cultures, a cultural essentialist approach and then the world will be a better place right? The university is in control of knowledge and how it is presented, conveyed and understood. Aruna touched on the fact that the methods of teaching anti-racist theory are not working because students distance themselves. It's that whole concept of "what's at stake and for whom?" Aruna said that the system prevents students from thinking that they have anything to get out of anti-racist pedagogy.

lisaN: Exactly. Although Aruna stressed the limitations of creating anti-racist pedagogy in a university setting, illuminating how the university structure has institutionalized punishments for professors who step outside of the traditional modes of transmitting whiteness, she has used the university setting as a site of struggle and change. In her own classroom, she had decided to do away with the conventional modes of teaching the standard readings per week with class discussion.

lisaO: Yeah. In her English class she gave her students a project for the semester and in that project her students were asked to identify all the ways in which the university is a racist institution. This involved the students actually getting out of the classroom and physically documenting and deconstructing the ways in which the university affirms whiteness.

lisaN: Good point. Also, not only did she want her students to deconstruct how the institution is racist but she wanted them to devise an ideal university structure that is anti-racist. This is valuable to feminist anti-racist pedagogy because not only does it require collaborative participation, but it goes beyond deconstructing the problems within the institution and insists that the students be involved in creating strategies for change.

lisaO: It's interesting what was said at the round-table discussion regarding the objectification of visible minorities within academia, literature and the university itself. What does a university professor who is a woman of colour signify to her students even before she speaks? There is an encoded message. The body signifies non whiteness. Systems of racialization create an arena for non white professors to be inserted within the structure. Her physical transition into territory that is supposedly not her own inscribes meaning on her body, her words, her behaviour, actions and teaching style. How is a non white professor perceived as an expert about racism and that is all she has to offer her class?

lisaN: The fetishization of writers of colour is where texts produced by writers of colour are viewed as anthropological studies and/or ethnographies and subsequently the writers and teachers are viewed as subjects. Readers of these novels are constantly trying to draw cultural links. There is no room for creative thinking or critical approaches because this writing is always seen as coming from cultural experiences, an artifact of culture. Ashok interjected with the example of Margaret Atwood. Does Margaret Atwood get asked whether the protagonist in her next novel comes from personal experience? No. She is not inextricably tied to her characters in any way. She is conceived of as having an imagination. Margaret Atwood is Canada's prize! So how can we get past all of this?

lisaO: It's difficult. Some suggestions that came out of the conference and this session in particular involved deconstructing why some students are complacent and distanced. They haven't recognized their position although Aruna said that we shouldn't demonize students, everybody has responsibility in replicating the system as university students. It's not about placing blame, rather it's acknowledging that it's naturalized in the structure and realizing where we fit within that structure, that it privileges some and not others.

lisaN: Another point brought up was the conceptualization of the current anti-racist strategies on campus as progressive, but for whom? It's regressive when it's treating minority students as subjects for study and not centering on deconstructing the power structure implicated whiteness.

lisaO: Aruna posed the question of whether the university has gone past community recovery given that academic structures make us do things alone. Do we have time for dialogue? What is a sense of community within the university structure? Is it a place where we can do this work together when it's structured to isolate us and tear us apart?

lisaN: Yes. As students, we should take this as a challenge to be more participatory and responsible for the learning environment that we want and one that is desperately needed.

Lisa Nixon, a UVic student, is majoring in Women's Studies and loves food. Lisa Okada, also a UVic student, is majoring in Women's Studies with a minor in sociology and loves rabbits.

Arun Sri Vastava, Ashok Manthur, Larissa Lai, University of Calgary Roy Miki, Simon Fraser University

Return to Menu