Emmanuel Tabi on fighting oppression, honouring diverse voices and fostering a courageous classroom

"Being challenged is important, but being challenged in a kind, caring and also courageous way. Nelson Mandela tells us that courage is not the absence of fear, it's triumph over fear"

Emmanuel Tabi is a happy man and it shows. His smile frequently lights up the recent 45-minute Teams interview with the McGill Reporter – not an easy task given the impersonal, often dreary, nature of online interaction.  

“I’m really excited and I can’t hide it,” Tabi says – with a huge smile, of course.

Emmanuel Tabi is an assistant professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in EducationShane Parent

Tabi has every reason to be happy. He started at McGill last fall as an assistant professor in Black/African Studies in Education in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE). He is part of McGill’s recent cluster hire of Black tenure-track professors – one of the Action Items in the University’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism.

“I feel really honoured, and it’s such a privilege to be here. If you told me when I started my PhD journey that I would end up being a tenure-track faculty member at McGill doing Black studies in education, I might have fainted,” he laughs. “I never want this feeling to go away.”

Moving from the GTA, Tabi, his wife and their two young sons have settled in nicely, quickly making friends with their neighbours and enjoying the “great parks,” “nice walks” and the nearby daycare.

“When we started dating, we were talking about different places in Canada where we’d like to live and Montreal was on top of the list,” says Tabi. “And now, here we are.”

Read the interview below.

Can you give us a bit of your background?

My PHD is from OISE/University of Toronto, and my post-doc is from University of Windsor. I was working for the Peel District School Board and also doing consultant work with the York Region District School Board, specifically around anti-black racism within the arts.

What was your reaction when McGill hired you?

Oh man, I still smile. I don’t want this feeling to go anywhere.

It’s a really special time. My mom died back in 2015 and I wish she was alive to experience this,  just to say thank you for all she did for me… For her to come from the small island of Grenada and raise a Black kid in Canada isn’t easy … And the way she stood up for me and advocated for me… And, now, for her son to be a professor of education at an institution like McGill, it’s really incredible.

And, I’ve been really embraced within the [DISE] department. I feel at home.

How have you settled into to Montreal?

It’s such a huge opportunity to be in Montreal – especially with all its Black history and the Black communities that are here, and that have been here. Just to continue learning about their histories and stories.

One of my heroes is Oscar Peterson – Oscar Emmanuel Peterson [laughing].

I am a classical pianist, and I was taught through the Royal Conservatory, though I am out of practice a bit. When I was a kid, my mom would buy me Oscar Peterson videos and get cassettes from the library to motivate me…he’s one of the greatest pianists of all time. But also having a Black Canadian like him [as a role model] was very important for me. Haydain Neale from Jacksoul was also important for me.

Tell us about your primary areas of interest in your research.

My research has been pretty broad.

In my postdoc I looked at Black youth in the Windsor-Detroit-Toronto area and their educational trajectories. I was also a Co-chair of the African Diaspora Youth conference with Dr. Andrew Allen.

My dissertation work looked at how Black activists used their cultural production, specifically spoken word and rapping, in their community education work and in their activism.

I also focus on issues of anti-oppression, anti-patriarchy, anti-racism, and anti-homophobia.

You also address issues of underrepresented people within underrepresented groups.

When we say ‘Blackness,’ it’s not a monolithic experience. In Toronto, I worked on many projects with Dr. Lance McCready, particularly the Educational Trajectories of Black Young Men Project in which we conducted focus groups with community organizations such as Black CAP (Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention).  With these focus groups, we spoke to gender-nonconforming, queer, gay Black youths. Their experiences are different than other Black youth, right?

It is important that we draw from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of Intersectionality, and understanding how gender, class, ableism, citizenship, and other social and political factors and realities intersect with race and how our identities and perceptions are shaped and framed through these social constructs. So, instead of saying ‘all Black youth go through this…,’ we have to make sure we speak to the many different lives, identities and realities that Black folks experience.

That’s why this work is important, because there are many different lived experiences. You can’t look at a demographic and say ‘this is the definitive experience,’ we have to centre our stories.

We have to make sure as many voices as possible are represented, within our research, within our conversation, and within our classrooms. This is paramount for me.

What is the difference between equity and equality?

Equality is ‘I’m going to buy you the exact same shoes that I have so we can be equal.’ But equity is more about responding to the specific needs of an individual, a family and a community. What type of shoes do you need?  What is your shoe size? You might not even want shoes!

In understanding equity, we have to understand history and how we got here.

For example, in working with Indigenous communities, we have to understand that their needs [are linked] to a very particular history, a history of colonization, a history of genocide.

We can’t lump together all people who are not white, say this is what they need. The experiences are so different.

How do we gain this understanding?

Conversation is critical. Narrative inquiry is critical. Centering the lived experiences and the voices of racialized people is such an important part of it.

In order to be truly equitable, we need to hear these voices tell us what the issues are, as opposed to questioning them.

I’ve been asked many times over the past few years ‘What can we do for Black people?’

The first thing I say is ‘Believe them.’

Often, I talk to people that I’ve never met before. But we’ve had similar experiences, particularly within the education system. We have similar bodies in the same system. The outcomes can be so similar.

It’s not a conspiracy. [Black people] don’t sit down and plan what we’re going to say to make people feel sorry for us.

Believe us, that’s part of equity. Know the histories and how we came to a place. Black history and Black realities predate slavery.

McGill is hiring more Black tenure-track professors. What do initiatives like this mean for McGill and other institutions?

Yes, it’s important, but it’s not only about hiring Black folks, right? Its about others also doing the anti-racist work as well. And when hiring Black folks, there needs to be a diverse pool of Black folks; Black women, Black queer folks, Black trans folks.  It’s constantly moving against that idea, that Blackness is a monolith.

Cluster hires are important [for several reasons]. First, we are able to support one another as we begin this journey. As well, representation is important.

I loved playing hockey growing up and it’s still my favorite sport. But I was always told that there are no Black people in hockey. It hit me, even though I knew of Willy O’Ree and other Black hockey players. That’s why Jerome Iginla was huge for me.

The other day I was picking my son up from daycare and there was a Black kid walking up the street with his hockey bag and skates. I wonder how much of an influence P.K. Subban had on that boy? Because it’s not only about us as Black people, but it’s also about the communities we’re entering. Does that community see us as being part it?

If representation is important to Black students, what does a more diverse faculty mean for white students?

I’d be interested to know how many of my students had a Black educator before me.

I’ve seen it in the classroom before. It took some students time to process what they were seeing. ‘OK, he’s Black, he’s my professor, and he’s smart.’ That’s a lot of adjectives that they don’t often associate with Blackness, right before their eyes.

I had one student who came to see me after class and he said ‘I’m racist but I don’t want to be. My family is racist, my small-town community is racist… but I don’t want to be.’ And he came to every single one of my office hours and we talked for a whole semester. We just sat down and we talked.

That came from a class in which we were talking about Philando Castile, who was murdered in front of his wife and daughter. I was really upset because I was recently married and I felt that could have been me.

In previous classes, this student was always sitting with his arms were folded. He didn’t really want listen. But after that class he came to me and he said he had watched the video while I was talking. ‘That was wrong,’ he said. ‘I want talk about this.’

The reality, though, is its exhausting. Even though as an educator it’s important, as a Black person, speaking to the things that have traumatized me and have traumatized others take an extra level of energy and focus.

It sounds like a pretty challenging atmosphere at times

It can be. But challenge is important if we want to learn.

The readings in my classes are often pieces that have challenged me, they challenge my understanding of pedagogy, literacy, teaching and education. Challenge – not comfort – leads to growth, and I really enjoy being part of our students growth.

Being challenged is important, but being challenged in a kind, caring and also courageous way. Nelson Mandela tells us that courage is not the absence of fear, its triumph over fear, right?

And then I ask myself what does a courageous classroom look like? Both for me and for my students? And how do we level these hierarchies and have conversations – especially when we’re doing equity work, because we’re all coming in with very particular political views.

So, conversation is important in your classroom?

Absolutely. The way we respond to one another’s journals and such – the things we agree with and the things we disagree with. How can we continue to be kind within those discussions?  We’re evolving beings, and it’s important to think of education as transformational as opposed to a final destination.

Is the classroom still transformational for you?

Always. It is an exchange that we have with our students, an exchange we have with our faculty. It’s a constant exchange and you grow through those exchanges.

I’m a Canadian but being here in Quebec is a different context. I’m excited to continue to learn about this particular context and growing my understanding. It helps me better understand my students and where they are coming from.

All the courses I’ve ever taught I begin with Linda Christensen’s idea around the Where I’m From poems.

We do that in our first class, and people have the option to share or not share. But everyone gets to hear the different voices.

You hear where people are from – not only geographically – we learn about different cultures and values. That’s where the dialogue starts.

I get to know my students. Instead of imposing a curriculum on them, we now ask ‘how does this curriculum speak to who you are as a person, who you’re transforming into, and who you want to be?’

It’s exciting. That’s why I’m so happy [laughing]. You see this smile? You can’t fake it.

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2 years ago

Wonderful! Dr. Tabi is an amazing asset to the McGill community!

eric boakye kwarteng
2 years ago

What a great and inspiring interview, Dr. Tabi. You are a source of knowledge to us,” African Youth and the black community”. Cheers.