Features | Classroom colonialisms

Calling out racism and working towards decolonial anthropology at McGill

When I try to explain what socio-cultural anthropology is, I usually say that it’s ‘like sociology but with stories instead of statistics.’ My peers and I appreciate it for its power to help us question and deconstruct our our own ways of thinking and living. Anthropologists can use their research and writing for fostering cross-cultural understanding, like Zora Neale Hurston, and for challenging the ideas behind systems of oppression, like Laura Nader or Audra Simpson. Of course, there is a lot of anthropology that we are not proud of, both in the past and the present. Anthropologists have often been on the wrong side of history – using their research and theories to promote and justify slavery, colonialism, assimilation policies, and biological and cultural racism. Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr. wrote “In believing they could find the key to man’s behaviour, [anthropologists] have, like the churches, become forerunners of destruction.” Anthropology can be a tool for Othering, for speaking over people, for cramming the diversity of human experience into Eurocentric theories of humanity.

While most of our courses at McGill critically examine these practices, and some encourage alternative anthropological practices, our classrooms often perpetuate the very colonial relationships and ideologies that anthropology tries to destabilize and critique. My peers and I identify colonialism in our studies as the privileging of white people and white ideologies to the detriment of Indigenous people and people of colour, and the marginalization of their ideas. In anthropology, this often manifests as the study of historically and contemporarily colonized peoples using Western methodologies and theoretical frameworks. It also shows up when we talk about colonialism as part of the history of anthropology, in order to ignore the fact that colonial ideologies and attitudes persist in present practices. We as students, as well as our professors and administration, perpetuate colonialism through our silence and our failure to challenge the status quo. When we don’t question why most readings on the syllabus are by white men, or the ways that racialized students are made to feel uncomfortable and excluded in our classrooms, we further ingrain these practices as the normal, natural way of the academic world. This is the meaning of “structural colonialism.”

“In believing they could find the key to man’s behaviour, [anthropologists] have, like the churches, become forerunners of destruction.”

While “decolonizing anthropology” is a catchy slogan for our goal, I’m wary of diluting the real meaning of “decolonization.” As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write, “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” In the case of McGill, decolonization means returning stolen land to the Kanien’kehá:ka and Anishnaabe people. Recognizing and respecting that, I maintain that it’s important to agitate for an anthropology that allows Indigenous and other peoples from colonized countries to speak for themselves. Indigenous scholar and critical anthropologist Kim Tallbear explained to me in an interview that she would define “decolonial anthropology” as “the actual practice of anthropology in the service of anticolonialism.” While “colonialism” means literally stealing land from Indigenous peoples, it also can refer to the ways white supremacy has structured our language, our knowledge, and our sense of self. As such, I continue to use the language of “decolonization” while acknowledging that no matter how much we work towards making McGill’s anthropology program diverse and inclusive, we can never really decolonize this institution as long as it stands on stolen Indigenous land.

Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd argues that “The academy is anthropology’s ‘human error:’ the white supremacist, Imperial human dimensions of the academy itself prevent the re-imagining of disciplines like anthropology.” Therefore, the “classroom colonialism” explored in this article has as much to do with how the university works as it does with how anthropology works. Through this article, I hope to make these colonial practices visible, and encourage the whole of the McGill community toward anticolonial action in our academic spaces.

We can never really decolonize this institution as long as it stands on stolen Indigenous land.

The “I”s in this article refer to Meara, but Marcelle contributed greatly to both the writing and thinking behind this piece, and we therefore conceive of it as a shared piece. Both of us are current or former McGill anthropology students. I (Meara), as a white settler student from Alberta, have not directly experienced the marginalization that my friends and classmates of colour have described to me – in my studies, or elsewhere. While it is by no means the place of white or settler students to take leadership roles in decolonial projects, it is also unacceptable for us to remain silent on the issue. My intention in writing this article is to continue the work, which has been led by Indigenous and people of colour for decades, of making colonialism visible in our academic spaces. Everything in this article is owing to these scholars and to the folks generous enough to share their stories and thoughts in interviews.

Politics of the canon

There are certain anthropologists and scholars that every anthro student ‘needs to know’ by graduation: Malinowski, Boas, Geertz, Mead, Evans-Pritchard, Foucault, Fanon, Marx, Butler; in short, “the canon.” These scholars have had large impacts on how the discipline of anthropology has developed, and need to be studied in order for us to understand where contemporary theories and practices originate. However, it’s important that we think critically about who we read and who else we might be ignoring. Sara Ahmed, a feminist cultural studies scholar, addresses the politics of the canon on her blog, Feminist Killjoys, as it works through our collective “citational practices.” The thrust of her argument is that if we continue to center our academic work around mostly white, mostly male scholars, these scholars will retain the power to guide our academic disciplines. They become easier to access, more relevant to contemporary research, and slip easily into the canon. If, instead, we challenge ourselves to reference and think with scholars who have been marginalized through racism and sexism, we can deconstruct hierarchies of power in the academy and challenge the notion of canonical texts altogether.

If we continue to center our academic work around mostly white, mostly male scholars, these scholars will retain the power to guide our academic disciplines.

One example of a critical approach to the canon is that of McGill professor Gretchen Bakke, who taught me an anthropology theory course in 2016. In a recent interview, she argued that when studying canonical texts, instead of uncritical acceptance, it’s important that students learn to analyze how these texts are in conversation with others in the field. This allows us to trace not just how anthropology as a discipline changes and transforms, but what political, theoretical, social, and geographical contexts shaped its transformation. Further, it allows us to see what texts were not canonized, and how some theoretical moves were made at the expense of others. As Tallbear explained to me, “because anthropology has had the self-reflexive moment, and has had feminist anthropology and people of colour anthropology and Indigenous anthropology, in the world I run in, it has incorporated those critiques into the canon. It’s still marginal, but at least it hasn’t written it out of the canon in the way that, say, the biological sciences don’t incorporate their histories of failure around race.” Both Bakke and Tallbear reveal that the anthropological canon is changeable and changing, and that we must ask ourselves why some voices still remain marginal to the conversation.

Politics of the classroom

Who is included in the canon, on our syllabus, and in our faculty has implications not just for the discipline as a whole, but in the lives of my friends and classmates at McGill. Several classmates – all women of colour – have shared stories with me of being made to feel that they are not legitimate students of anthropology, and that their identities and their knowledge don’t belong in anthropology classrooms.

Marie*, a U3 international development student, started her degree in anthropology but soon became frustrated and disillusioned by the colonial dynamics of the discipline (though she says that international development is not much better). As a Black African woman, she could not see her identity or experiences reflected in either her professors or the authors of her course texts. Black African women were not presented as anthropologists, despite the fact that Black Africans are often the subjects of anthropological study in canonical texts. Of course, there are plenty of Black African anthropologists, such as Clara Fayorsey, Kwesi Kwaa Prah, and Maxwell Owusu, but none have been taught in any of Marie’s or my classes, while plenty of white Euro-American anthropologists are centered in the discipline.

Black African women were not presented as anthropologists, despite the fact that Black Africans are often the subjects of anthropological study in canonical texts.

Messaouda*, a recent McGill graduate with a major in anthropology, is of mixed race background, identifying as both North African and Mexican, and experienced explicit discrimination from a professor. At the start of her final semester, she realized that she was missing a required course for which she didn’t have the prerequisites. The student asked to take the prerequisite course concurrently with the required course, explaining her need to graduate that semester. She explained how so very few students who, like her, grew up in foster care graduate university.

Still, both the professor and the department head refused her request. Thankfully, the Dean of Students approved her enrollment. But before starting the course, she visited the professor who had originally refused her entry. “The professor told me that ‘people like me’ were lucky to be at McGill, and that I should take advantage of the precious time I got in the classroom. The professor said that this might be my only chance to experience an education like this, and that I should be grateful and not want to rush the experience.”

“Through repetition of the sentence that ‘someone like me’ should appreciate my time in university, she condescendingly implied that I would surely never be equipped to do research, so again, I’d better simply enjoy the time I have as a student. I felt horrible throughout the entire encounter, some moments were so insulting and difficult to endure; I remember squeezing my phone and holding back my tears. I was shocked and angered, particularly by the phrase ‘people like you;’ was the professor referring to my skin colour? My persistence in academia despite my status, my class, my past as a child in care? Which angle of my Otherness, of my deviance in relation to a predominantly privileged white anthropology department personnel was this professor really referring to?”

“I was shocked and angered, particularly by the phrase ‘people like you;’ was the professor referring to my skin colour?”

Bekkie*, a South Korean anthropology student raised in Canada, noticed in both anthropology and other Arts disciplines that many of her professors and classmates valued her contributions to the class as a “case-study,” but not as a theorist: “A lot of professors expect their white students to elaborate on the theoretical side, asking questions about readings and whatnot. Where, for a student of colour to speak out and be taken seriously, it’s more powerful to come from their experience rather than like, ‘my critique of this thing…’” She went on to say, “when I wrote an essay about my own story, I felt like [professors were] more fascinated than when I introduced an idea of doing something which was more academic or theoretical. I don’t know whether to take that as my advantage, or as a kind of fetishization of the Other.”

This apparent anthropological fetishization of the Other prevents Bekkie and other students of colour from being recognized as fully capable theorists and intellectuals beyond their stories about culturally exotic “life experience.” While this is likely a phenomenon in many disciplines, it is particularly troubling in anthropology, where the field’s colonial tradition is characterized by white anthropologists studying communities of colour. Bekkie described the long-term repercussions of this academic fetishization: “My personal identity was actually quite shifted – to think that I’m this, that I’m a case study. And in many senses it’s better to be a case study, [because that’s what’s validated by the system].”

“To think that I’m this, that I’m a case study.”

Messaouda and Bekkie both argued that the unequal power relationship between professors and students is central to the maintenance of structural colonialism in universities. For example, Bekkie described a professor who introduced the scholar Paul Farmer as an example of an anthropologist doing ethically responsible, relevant anthropological work. When a student questioned this, making an argument that Farmer’s project is actually an example of colonial “white saviour complex,” the teacher quickly shut down the critique. Bekkie explained that it’s difficult, both intellectually and practically, to challenge the theoretical frameworks that your professor brings into the classroom. Even assuming that your professor values independent thought, doing research and theoretical work to craft critical arguments, rather than just regurgitating what you’ve already been taught, is more than many students have time or energy for. We are, then, rewarded for agreeing with our professors, and maintaining the status quo. We could say that professors operate in their classrooms like canonized scholars do in our citational webs – their ideas, legitimized by the academic institution, guide and limit the theoretical and political boundaries of the course.

This dynamic was clearly demonstrated in an anthropology class I was attending at the beginning of this semester. On the first day of classes, the film Of the North by Dominic Gagnon was shown. The film is a compilation of “found footage” uploaded to YouTube, all depicting people and places in Northern Canada. Many Indigenous artists and activists have accused the film’s director of blatantly perpetuating a racist stereotype of the Inuit as drunks, and, after much public agitation, the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) officially apologized for including it in their 2015 festival. Our class discussion, however, engaged with the film as a “controversial” art piece rather than explicitly addressing the troubling political and social climate that produced this film and is reproduced by it. After Gagnon came in to speak about his film, many students voiced their discomfort and outrage, but critical engagement with the film or the discussion with Gagnon was not encouraged or given space by the professor. This event demonstrated once again the power of our professors in guiding and limiting the theoretical and political limits of discussion.

Visions and schemes for decolonial anthropologies

If we’ve decided that something needs to change, and we’ve decided that that change might be called ‘decolonizing,’ we next need to ask: what might a decolonial anthropology look like at McGill? And who needs to do what to make decolonial anthropology a reality on our campus? Do professors have to change the ways they teach? Does the administration need to change their policies? Do students need to speak up a little louder? Do we need protests? Calm conversations in board rooms? I would say yes, we need all of those things.

A group of McGill anthropology undergraduate and graduate students have started a working group this semester intent on doing what we can to support decolonial scholarship and pedagogy in our department. This could take a number of different forms, so we’re currently reaching out to other groups and individuals on campus who have a stake in and a perspective on (de)colonial practices at Mcgill. This seems like an overwhelming project, especially considering the final reality that we are still on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka and Anishnaabe land. Still, there are hundreds of small steps that we can and must take to confront the structural colonialism of our department and our university. We can start by learning from students organizing around decolonial academia on campuses in England, South Africa, and Alberta::

The students’ union at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, despite the institution’s fairly imperialist name, is a group committed to decolonization in many spheres of life at their university. The union’s 2016-2017 “Decolonizing SOAS: Confronting the white Institution” campaign aims to increase critical conversation about the school’s racial inequalities and colonial structures, paying particular focus to the politics of the canon in their courses. They demand that “the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).” Further, they demand that “If white philosophers are required, [they must be approached] from a critical standpoint.” To this end, they’ve set up a working group between students, faculty, staff and administration to discuss how these goals will be achieved.

And who needs to do what to make decolonial anthropology a reality on our campus?

At the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2015, a student campaign formed around the slogan “Rhodes Must Fall,” a call to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, an early British imperialist, from UCT campus. The campaign was confrontational from the outset, and it worked. Rose, a member of Rhodes Must Fall’s Oxford University chapter, reports: “On March 9, 2015, a student threw a bucket of human faeces on the statue, and participated in a toyi-toyi dance with other protesters. Gaining both media attention and support, a swift vote saw the removal of the statue one month later. It was a victory in the fight for the decolonisation of education in South Africa.” This action grew into an ongoing movement, described on the group’s Facebook page as “A student, staff, and worker movement mobilising against institutional white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for the complete decolonization of UCT.” It sparked similar movements at universities around South Africa and at the University of Oxford in England. All of the campaigns are ongoing, involving actions both diplomatic and militant, symbolic and material.

A third inspiring example is the Native Studies Course Requirement Group at the University of Alberta. Following the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Ontario, students and professors at the University of Alberta are calling for one course in the Native Studies department to be a requirement for all university undergraduates. They’ve circulated a petition, and they’re continuing to hold panels and consultations with various stakeholders.

“If white philosophers are required, [they must be approached] from a critical standpoint.”

Here at McGill, the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education is conducting research and drafting proposals for initiatives that might better support Indigenous students as well as promote Indigenous education in various academic programs. Their recommendations will doubtless be relevant to the anthropology department, as well as all students and professors at McGill, but the official institutional response to structural colonialism will not dismantle the system. As illustrated in the examples above, there are things that we, as students, as well as our professors, can and must do in our individual practices and as organized collectives to challenge colonial academic practices at McGill.

A clear first step, according to McGill professor Eduardo Kohn, is to directly confront the lack of racial diversity in the anthropology faculty. Kohn holds that diversifying faculty is key, since once they’re hired, professors have a lot of freedom within their courses. Marcelle and Bekkie echoed the need for diverse professorships. Marcelle explained that it’s the “multiplicity of voices” that makes anthropology powerful, and that this must include not only racial diversity but people from “all walks of life.” The faculty has been pressing for better gender equity in recent years, but anthropology professors are keenly aware that the majority of the faculty is still white. Kohn offered a couple explanations for this. First, he acknowledged the structural barriers for people of colour in the academic world – like racialized poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, and lack of role models – which translate into fewer scholars of colour eligible for faculty positions. However, there is also a dynamic more specific to McGill: the department’s job postings are for very “specialized hires,” seeking scholars with particular academic interests and assets. Often, Kohn explained, the specializations are ones which are not primarily engaged with by scholars of colour. The factors which lead to racial divisions of research/labor are complex and beyond the scope of McGill, but is something which must be recognized when developing hiring practices. The McGill administration prefers specialized hires rather than “casting a wide net,” because it takes less work and holds less risk. According to a 2016 SSMU report on equity in the hiring of McGill academic staff, “There is a lack of commitment, formalized practice, and transparency in regards to employment equity at McGill.” Further, the report notes that “Equity at McGill has largely focused on women (and by proxy, white women) as opposed to other identity categories,” at the expense of racialized academics.

Often, Kohn explained, the specializations are ones which are not primarily engaged with by scholars of colour.

Second, we need to start more explicitly discussing the political contexts and implications of our studies. What we read, how we discuss it, what research we do, and what theories we promote are caught up in real-world struggles for justice and liberty. In her book, Native American DNA, Kim Tallbear describes research as a political tool, through which knowledge is collected and mobilized to either promote or undermine the needs and desires of communities of people. This reminded me of a course I took with professor Colin Scott, which focused on the historical, cultural and political contexts of Indigenous projects for self-determination. We read texts with explicitly political engagements, and carried this into our conversations and assignments. It made visible the connections between research, theory and politics in our own studies.

Marcelle argued that the anthropology faculty, both individually and collectively, needs to be more open about discussing personal and collective politics in academic settings. Then, rather than overlooking the political and ideological assumptions we’re working within, the political entanglements of our education can be openly discussed and debated. When I mentioned this to Eduardo Kohn, he noted that political and ideological engagements must be handled carefully, to ensure that classrooms remain welcome spaces for conversation; spaces of ‘play,’ and not political dogma. So, while we must address and grapple with our politics in educational spaces, we also must, as Marcelle said, “be more aware […] when you say something, pay attention to who you’re excluding.”

Is it possible to decolonize our discipline’s canon while still providing students with the necessary context to understand contemporary conversations? As Kohn noted, anthropology professors at McGill have a lot of freedom in determining their own syllabi; a freedom that it might not be beneficial to take away by pushing for external regulation of course curriculum. It’ll come down to a combination of factors: more diverse readings, more transparency about political ideology, better hiring equity and professor diversity, and more student input on syllabi.

“When you say something, pay attention to who you’re excluding.”

Another essential practice is consciously creating more equitable, antiracist classroom practices. Treating students equally is not a passive act. Working within an intellectual and institutional context of racial inequality, both students and professors must actively work to make sure that students of colour are not fetishized, marginalized, and written out of the discipline. For white students, this means questioning the ways in which we take up space in the classroom, questioning the whiteness of the curriculum, and actively validating and supporting the contributions made in classes by students of colour. It means calling out our professors when they do or say things which oppress or silence our classmates and marginalized communities. Bekkie emphasized the role of language in classroom power dynamics: “the conversation is in English, which deters a lot of English as a second language speakers from speaking out. Even me, I’ve been speaking English for twelve years, and I’m usually pretty confident, but in classes I’ll just like choke up completely. […] When I’ve talked to a lot of other people about it, they feel similarly, that they can’t articulate enough.” While it’s not practical to decenter English as the language of discussion, making space for alternative means of communication in classrooms and assignments has been identified by both Marcelle and Bekkie as critical to overcoming colonial academic standards. Their suggestions include allowing students to do readings or assignments in languages other than French or English when possible, and making space for students to complete assignments with images, videos, presentations, and creative writing.

“Even me, I’ve been speaking English for twelve years, and I’m usually pretty confident, but in classes I’ll just like choke up completely.”

Lastly, we cannot discount the power of direct action and making a fuss. If, in trying to work within the system, we discover that those in power cling to it too tightly to consider reform, there is value in taking and using the power we have to fight for the university we want. Demonstrations, art, theatre, writing, sit-ins, and popular education are all tools available to us. While the focus is and should always remain on decolonization for the sake of colonized peoples, we all benefit when structural colonialism is challenged. As Marcelle said, “let us accept and examine the complexity that many minority students find themselves in. If we allow their stories, their intuitions, and responses to lead the dialogue, we can find ourselves guiding academic knowledge towards new theoretical insights.”

If you are interested in getting involved with, or staying informed about, the anthropology student working group mentioned above, email me, Meara, at meara.kirwin@mail.mcgill.ca. We’re very open to feedback, involvement and ideas for collaboration from both within and beyond the department and the university.

*Names have been changed


An earlier version of this piece stated that there is no equity office in the McGill administration and no equity training for search committees. In fact, McGill has both.

The Daily regrets the error.


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