#ScholarStrike and Anti-Racism in the Humanities


Naomi Osaka wearing a mask that bears the name of Elijah McClain, 23, who died after police offices in Colorado used a carotid hold designed to render him unconscious. (Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images/AFP)

Throughout the 2020 US Open tennis tournament, Naomi Osaka, the world’s number three-ranked player on the WTA tour, wore a different face mask to each of the seven rounds she played in. Each mask bore the name of a Black American who had faced police violence: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.  On the last day of the tournament, a journalist from ESPN asked her what message she had wanted to send by wearing masks with these names. Her response came in the form of a question: “What was the message you got?”

In the wake of anti-racist movements across North America, including the direct action on September 9th and 10th associated with the US-led #ScholarStrike and its Canadian counterpart #ScholarStrikeCanada, we might also ask: “What was the message you got?”  

This is an academic year like no other, as the pandemic forced us to move our teaching to the online environment. But, in other ways, our circumstances have not changed. We still live in a settler state that has prospered as a direct result of racism and discrimination. And we still share a responsibility to make things better. Our students are from several dozen countries and speak a range of home languages; they have a variety of racial and ethnic identities. As educators, we need to teach this diverse student population with care and respect, and be attentive to the long history of racist exclusions in British Columbia.

#ScholarStrike was a call to attend to the ongoing brutality experienced by Black and Indigenous people. To strike is to reject the status quo; to insist on transformation. It is about collective responsibility for change, in our crucial role as educators. A strike is an opportunity for us all to pause and reflect on what underlies this moment, and on what can and should be done next.

We, the authors of this article, are current and former UVic faculty members who share a commitment to decolonizing and anti-racist pedagogy. Our group formed when several of us participated in a 2016 Learning and Teaching Centre session chaired by English department graduate student Tiffany Chan, where we considered how UVic could move beyond “diversity and inclusion” as necessary, yet not sufficient, aspects of institutional transformation. Gillian Calder and Rebecca Johnson’s reconciliation blog for law professors has helped us think through the ways in which teaching and learning are connected to anti-racist commitments. We value and have benefited from the many colleagues who are committed to this work and whose writing has shaped our thinking.

By going on strike, our goal in early September was to share teaching resources and get the word out to our colleagues working on Vancouver Island and beyond. Despite the pressures of returning to the classroom in a pandemic, we felt this was a moment to stop and take stock in order to ensure that we are continuing to work against the racism and colonialism that has prompted such movements as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. We connected with Toronto colleagues who hosted virtual teach-ins on YouTube, which are still available on the Scholar Strike Canada channel.

The reaction, response and uptake to the strike varied across institutions, departments and faculties. We particularly appreciate the support of the UVic and Camosun Faculty Associations who helped publicize this initiative and the many colleagues who have reached out through our website and via email. And we are encouraged that many instructors committed to addressing in their courses continued racism against people of color in our communities.

Why we chose to strike

Academia, where we research, analyze and teach about race, violence and the law, has not always kept pace with the activism and protest movements in our communities. State violence against Indigenous and Black peoples, as well as people of colour and other marginalized communities, both at the individual and community level, has helped constitute settler colonialism in Canada and the United States. Such violence includes incidents of police brutality and a background of over-policing in both countries, as well as ongoing systemic violence against Indigenous persons like Colton Boushie, Tina Fontaine and Cindy Gladue, whose deaths the settler legal system struggles to address. Indeed, the 2019 Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls states unambiguously that Canada has engaged in a deliberate, though sometimes covert, campaign of genocide against Indigenous peoples. 

In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the United States, Dr. Anthea Taylor and Dr. Kevin Gannon called for academics, under the banner of #ScholarStrike, to follow the example of community activists, athletes and many others — including UVic students and alumni like Vanessa Simon, Pamphinette Buisa, and Asiyah Robinson, who have done so much to draw attention to anti-Black racism to show our support for Black Lives Matter and to protest against the failure of authorities to treat racialized citizens with care and respect.

What we can do next 

Here at UVic, where there have been similar calls to action for years, and where precarious employment makes collective and individual action risky for many of us, we pose this question: how much did (or would) it take for us to adopt an anti-racist and anti-colonial stance towards our work? How do we extend the University’s important Indigenization and reconciliation commitments to consider our roles as educators with responsibilities to our students, our colleagues and our communities? How do we demonstrate these efforts in our teaching environments?

For some, these questions are unsettling in the throes of the pandemic and all that the upheaval of the past six months has brought to our work and personal lives. However, it is also important to recognize that these kinds of worries often result from institutionalized training that views equity, anti-racism and anti-colonialism as afterthoughts to the main work of pedagogy. This is the kind of institutionalized training due to which, all things being asserted as equal, job searches still lead to inequitable results. This is the same institutional training that reminds us to read out a land acknowledgement before official events, but does not suggest any concrete ways of taking responsibility for our presence on this land. And this is the same institution where instructors attempting to diversify their syllabi frequently struggle with the question of which “core” readings to omit so that they can include materials like the ones at the heart of #ScholarStrike. In short, academic institutions too frequently work to maintain the very systems of oppression that need to be dismantled to achieve true equity, to abolish racism and to transform. 

Crises like our current pandemic tend to amplify existing conditions of injustice; not all of us are challenged to the same extent or in the same ways. As we think through our efforts to engage in excellent online pedagogy, we can also re-imagine how and why we teach in light of long histories of racial injustice and settler colonialism. This is why the language of a “strike” was useful; it suggested on some level ceasing “business as usual” and engaging in something different. It is a pause and a disruption, because business as usual was not working for many people.

What message did you get? is a question to keep asking, within our classrooms and without. 

The year ahead is unsettlingly uncertain. Our argument here, however, is that this can and ought to be a moment of radical transformation. The new normal will not have to perpetuate the injustices of the old normal. But the only way that we can ensure this is by centering practices of equity and inclusion in our research, our teaching and our commitments to each other. Even as we navigate our new environment, we can use the energy of #ScholarStrike to transform, reimagine and change.

Dr. Audrey Yap, UVic (Philosophy)

Dr. Heidi Tiedemann Darroch, Camosun (English/Access)

Professor Gillian Calder, UVic (Law)

Dr. Shamma Boyarin, UVic (English)

Dr. Janni Aragon, UVic (Technology & Society)