Decolonization is not a metaphor

McGill’s first panel on Decolonizing Approaches to Research tackles important questions and presents methods for liberating research from colonial theory and practice
The February panel included Dr. Saleem Razak, Terri Givens, Jean Saint-Vil (moderator) and Jamilah Dei-Sharpe

On Thursday, February 17, a virtual panel was convened on decolonizing research – a topic that is connected to broad efforts related to decolonization at McGill through commitments set out in the 2020 Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism (AP-ABR). Three panelists including McGill professor and the Provost’s Academic Lead and Advisor on AP-ABR, Terri Givens, discussed meaningful approaches to co-creating knowledge beneficial to racialized communities.

Givens was joined by moderator Jean Saint-Vil, Special Advisor to the Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation; Dr. Saleem Razak, professor of Pediatrics and Health Sciences Education at McGill, as well as the Director of the Pediatric Critical Care Unit at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and Director of McGill’s Office of Social Accountability and Community Engagement; and, Jamilah Dei-Sharpe, an emerging sociologist completing her Ph.D. of Social and Cultural Analysis at Concordia University, specializing in decolonial pedagogy, Black masculinity studies, Black Canadian studies, popular music studies and anti-racist education.

Saint-Vil opened the panel cautioning that, “an hour and a half will only allow us to start the conversation for all that needs to be covered.” Despite the time limitation, the panel explored many topics of importance to the McGill community in its efforts to decolonize research on campus and to contribute to decolonizing efforts in Canada and abroad.

The honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Housing, Diversity, and Inclusion, delivered opening remarks. “Black Canadian history is Canadian history,” he said. “The story and the contributions and the excellence of Black Canadian communities cannot be captured by a single month.” Minister Hussen reflected on his family history in the context of decolonizing research. “As someone who was born in Africa, my parents and grandparents went through the colonial experience and they went through the liberation process as well,” he said. “They educated us on the destruction, both physical and otherwise, that colonization did to the people subjected to it. In terms of liberation, it is important to decolonize our minds and the parameters of the research conducted.”

Examining the ecosystem of knowledge

Saint-Vil kick-started the discussion with the question, “while the foundation of some disciplines is Eurocentric, how do we shift the narrative?

Razak employed the ecosystem analogy to highlight the importance of co-created knowledge systems, arguing that research institutions around the world are imbued with strengths and can take approaches to knowledge generation that will differ from the approaches currently championed by McGill.

Razak also pointed to the fact that North-South research collaborations are currently plagued by inequities.  “One of the things for us to think about at McGill University is that there is an inherent, almost 100 per cent risk when we develop North-South relationships with other universities that the relationship will be exploitative”, he said. He pointed out that while many McGill students benefit from field semesters at the McGill Bellairs Research Institute, located in Holetown Barbados, the benefits of this research activity to Barbadians are unclear.

Razak offered a model to address these inequities: The North-South-South tripartite research collaboration. UNESCO describes this triangular model as, “two or more developing countries collaborating with a third developed country which contributes knowledge, technology and resources.” Saint-Vil described the concrete actions McGill is taking to explore this model through a working group. This working group, comprised of members of the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan team, the Bellairs Research Institute, and Black students’ affairs representatives, is investigating how to further mutually beneficial collaborations with the Bellairs Research Institute and other Caribbean institutions engaged in research and learning. The group is focused on topics such as Barbadian-Canadian relations, Caribbean studies, slavery studies, post-imperial studies, sustainability studies, and the blue economy, which is the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs.

Razak also explained the hierarchy of knowledge within the medical field. He suggested that by engaging to a greater degree in co-creative research practices – research that involves the people it seeks to serve – the knowledge generated will be of greater benefit to society. He cited the example of research on hypertension in Black and South Asian populations where the prevalence of the disease is high. When researching the disease, he advised, scientists must consult and co-create the research questions with patients from the impacted communities. As an example, he cited the development of pulse oximeters, which were tested on light-skinned individuals in the 1980s, and as a result, are less effective when used for dark-skinned individuals.

Decolonization is not a metaphor

Jamilah Dei-Sharpe, whose research is focused on Black masculinities in Canada, expanded the discussion of research conducted on human participants, specifically racialized people. “Decolonizing research is a commitment to acknowledging and replacing approaches that have carried the same dehumanizing and exploitative practices established in the 15th and 19th centuries during the Euro-colonial regime,” she said. “To make sure that decolonization is not a metaphor, I believe that this research must also strive for material change.”

Dei-Sharpe explained that material change could include sharing and retrieving Indigenous knowledges, while also replacing systems that impede Indigenous sovereignty, Black freedom, and Asian and gender-diverse rights. She called attention to the western scientific method, which since the 17th century has set the standard for who and what is studied in research institutions— a method that has positioned Europeans and white people as authorities. She presented the idea that research, defined by Dei-Sharpe as “the practice of watching, categorizing and conducting interventions on the other,” has underpinned colonial practices by justifying domination of racialized people.  She emphasized that by excluding racialized people from the design and execution of research these attitudes persist.

Dei-Sharp pointed to her doctoral research as an example of decolonizing the classroom. She and her research team have created pedagogical packages based on interviews with grassroots organizers who are dedicated to combating systemic racism in the context of COVID-19. These packages included critical questions and assignments. “In this form, we were telling the educators and the students that there are ways to take oral history and lived experiences and bring it into your lives and your work,” she said. “Cite it, bring it into your syllabus— it’s all about the methodology that you use.”

Celebrating Black excellence in research

Givens, who joined McGill in June 2021, stated that her goal is to change the discipline of political science. She called for more diverse faculty hiring, and for research institutions to value the research these faculty members conduct. She reflected on the trajectory of her career as an academic and the barriers she faced in conducting research. “When I started out as a researcher in the 1990s, the study of race was seen as marginal,” she said. “In trying to study issues of race in Europe, I could not even use the term race – despite the history, it was considered problematic.” She added, “this is why I wrote my book The Roots of Racism to show how historically the racialization of peoples is entwined in that transatlantic perspective.”

The Roots of Racism: The Politics of White Supremacy in the US and Europe, published in 2022, focuses in part on trailblazing Black researchers, such as Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche, a pioneer in decolonizing research and a civil rights leader, and Merze Tate, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University and who later joined the Department of History at Howard University as one of only two female faculty members. Givens also celebrated W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Givens lamented that in her study of immigration policy, she was often told by colleagues that there was no connection between colonialism and immigration, a perspective she categorized as “so not true – the only way you can understand why certain people go to other countries is because of colonial relationships.”

The student perspective

Also participating in the discussion were Asia Blackman, masters student in epidemiology and the first recipient of the inaugural Charles R. Drew Fellowship, and Khaelan King, a McGill undergraduate student.

As a political science major, King reflected that, “colonization plays a huge role in the way that academia at McGill is generally perceived.” She added that, “through my time as a student I have hardly had any classes that don’t emphasize colonialism. I think that in order to actively educate our student body from a global perspective, our research methods and the selection of professors has to be more inclusive.” She pointed to the fact that at McGill some professors actively make their syllabi more inclusive, an example she hopes is followed by more faculty members.

Blackman echoed this point, arguing that university courses must grapple with white supremacy’s roots in health research, the practice of global health, as well as its impact on population health. She added, “I think it is important to acknowledge that decolonization is a multi-step process that employs undoing the dominant structure and it can’t be accomplished in just a few small steps.” In agreement, Givens voiced a key takeaway from the panel discussion: “If we can’t name it, then we can’t address it.”

A recording of the panel discussion will be available shortly.

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Robert Thomas
1 year ago

Working in a STEM field, at a high level, I suspect my Asian colleagues, who publish > 50% of the research in my field, would find this statement grossly offensive as it minimizes their contributions, “She called attention to the western scientific method, which since the 17th century has set the standard for who and what is studied in research institutions— a method that has positioned Europeans and white people as authorities.”

1 year ago

It’s disingenuous to berate Eurocentric, western frameworks and to claim that you are “decolonizing” anything at all, when all of this narcissistic navel-gazing is only possible thanks to the West’s individualistic culture. Try being so utterly wrapped up in yourself and in identity politics in a communitarian society…