Idle No More: On The Politics of Teaching Indigenous and Racialized Literatures in The Academy

As a doctoral student in English, I am frequently asked (by family, friends, and acquaintances) what it is that I study and teach. While my dissertation, specifically, is a study of the rhetoric of sexual violence and memoirs about rape, my research and teaching interests about violence and trauma have also revolved around racialized and Indigenous literatures written in Canada. In the past few years, I’ve studied a number of traumas and incidents of violence perpetrated against racialized populations in Canada, from head taxes on Chinese immigrants and the “Continuous Journey” provision that resulted in the Komagata Maru incident, from Japanese Canadian internment to abuses against Indigenous communities through both the Indian Act and the implementation of residential schools.

My passion for learning more about these horrendous parts of Canadian history comes out of an energy that I have seen in both my fellow colleagues and many of my own students: an anger about having been lied to and misinformed about the insidious racism and systemic oppression that characterizes much of past and present Canadian history. How many of us understand the ways in which Chinese immigrants were encouraged to come to Canada to undertake deadly labour to build our railways, and yet were later charged exorbitant head taxes in order to prevent too many Asian people from entering “white” Canada? How many of us know that the fairgrounds of the Pacific National Exhibition were once a holding place for Japanese Canadian citizens who were deemed to be threats to the government during World War 2, and who subsequently had their rights and their possessions stripped from them when they were sent to interment camps? How many of us have EVER heard about the Komagata Maru incident? (I only learned about it 2010.) And, as is presently important with resurgence of Indigenous rights through the Idle No More movement, how many of us really understand the ways in which Indigenous communities have been subject to legal, political, cultural, economic, and linguistic genocide and oppression?

While I have always borne some measure of awareness of racialized histories and prejudices due to the fact that I am the mixed-race daughter of immigrants (a white European mother and a black Caribbean father), I am still a woman whose racialization is not readily discernible (neither in my appearance nor my name), and I have rarely, if EVER, been the subject of racial commentaries. I do not know what it is like to be openly targeted for racialized violence. I do not know what it is like to be denied access to places or to institutions based on my racial identity.

I am also someone who was, like many other students who have gone through the Canadian public school system, misinformed and denied access to information about many of the legacies of violence that make up our national history.

And so, one of the big questions that I’ve been asking myself in the past few years (and especially now, as I ally myself with the Idle No More movement) is this: with my personal and educational history, and as someone who works within the “ivory” tower of the academy, how do I conceptualize the ways in which I talk to younger generations about racialized violence and oppression of all kinds, and about Indigenous oppression in particular?

As I have learned more and more about colonial violence in Canada, I have realized that I, too, have had to take it upon myself to decolonize the ways in which I think, act, and speak. For instance, as I sat down to begin writing this article, I initially wrote the following sentence: “For the past two years, I have taught Indigenous and multicultural literatures at the University of British Columbia.” As I stop to think a bit more critically, in the spirit of decolonization, I start to formulate this thought much differently: “For the past two years, I have had the privilege of facilitating discussions about a wide variety of racialized and Indigenous literatures produced in Canada, and I do so at a university which is built on unceded Musqueam territory.” Let me explain a bit further:

  • My job is a privilege, because my socioeconomic position has allowed me to enter into a system that is not freely available to all citizens who wish to attain a higher education. It is a privilege, too, because in my role as a graduate student and teaching assistant, I have been afforded a certain measure of power to access and disseminate information, to speak and to be heard.
  • My job is to facilitate discussions, not necessarily to “teach” these works. In my view, the works themselves are the teachers. The didacticism and “mastery” associated with many Western views of teaching, in my opinion, often risk reproducing colonialism within my position. I merely employ the research and education that I have gained in order to help students listen to the voices of the authors and the characters, to offer them some context, and to encourage my students to think critically about the society, the nation, and yes, even the educational institution(s) in which they circulate and exist.
  • My job is to talk about Indigenous and racialized literatures produced in Canada, not merely to lump these texts in within a monolithic tradition of “Canadian Literature.” I emphasize to my students that many of these texts, whether Indigenous, Trinidadian, South Asian, Chinese, Japanese, or Ukrainian, come from rich cultural and artistic traditions that pre-date “Canadian” history. I encourage my students to shy away from the multiculturalism narrative that is often a front for political and cultural assimilation, and to adopt one that more fully acknowledges multiplicity and complexity in personal and communal histories.
  • My job means that I am a guest on the lands of of the Musqueam nation, so while I “officially” work and study at the University of British Columbia, I am always keenly aware that I am on unceded Indigenous territory.

It’s easy for those who have positions of relative power, from graduate students to professors to administrators, to believe that the system within which they work, one that analyses and discusses issues of race in sociological, political, historical, or linguistic terms is somehow inherently geared towards effecting real change or challenging “official” versions of history.

It’s also easy to believe that people within the academy are not themselves, to various degrees, steeped in many of the same attitudes (whether of racism, sexism, ableism, classism) that they portend to abhor. (I’ve heard a lot of stories from fellow classmates and from professors about awful incidents of hypocrisy and harassment.)

It is not easy work to take patriarchy and elitism out of the academy, and it is certainly not easy to take colonialism out of the academy. There is sometimes resistance in my classroom, though it generally takes the shape of quiet protest, blank stares, or insistence that they feel bad about what happened, but that they can’t take on responsibility, or that racialized populations need to just get over and move past what’s happened. It’s not easy to remind people of what goes in the world around them, to get them to notice that prejudice is insidious and ongoing.

While I may not often be out in the streets, at rallies and gatherings, like many of the other phenomenal activists and allies, I know that every time that I walk into my classroom, or talk about my work, I have an opportunity (and, more importantly, a duty), to be Idle No More.

To my many professors and colleagues, who have taught me by example how to think critically about race and nation, about community and activism, thank you for being Idle No More.

To my students, who struggle with these difficult topics in my classrooms, and especially to those who make themselves vulnerable by acknowledging their own need to listen more and reflect more on racialized and Indigenous histories, or by making themselves vulnerable by speaking about their own experiences with prejudice and violence, thank you for being Idle No More.

To my fellow allies and activist friends, who are brave and inspiring in your actions and in your words, thank you for being Idle No More.

And, most importantly, to the Indigenous nations that are rising up around the world, and especially here in Canada, on Turtle Island, miigwetch. Thank you for leading and inviting us all to be Idle No More.

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