Q&A Interview with UTP Author Sunera Thobani

“I am very thankful that working with the contributors, and learning from their research, kept me determined to analyze the parallels between the practices I was tracking within the institution and within global politics, namely appropriation, dispossession, and retribution.” Check out UTP author Sunera Thobani’s insightful answers about her recent book Coloniality and Racial (In) Justice in the University.

Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?

The idea for this book began with a conference that I organized – with the support of the UBC Faculty Association – to address how colonializing and racializing practices were gaining new ground within the university. Canadian universities take great pride in their representation as leading global educational institutions, yet my own experience researching and participating in anti-racist and human rights workshops at academic conferences showed me how resistant, even hostile, this institution remained to anti-racist praxis. The institution also displays resistance to meaningful change in its curriculum and pedagogies, its hegemonic Eurocentrism, and its administrative practices. The conference allowed many of the contributors to develop a shared analysis of how the university is reproducing contemporary forms of white superiority and its related racisms, and how it is training future generations of students, including international students, into the governmentalities of these brutalizing formations.

What was the research process like for this book? What were some surprising things/sources you found during your research and working with so many contributors? 

The research process was intellectually vibrant and energizing, but in some ways also a bit daunting. The synergies between the research approaches of the contributors was very exciting to follow as the collection grew in scope. The various inter/disciplinary perspectives and methods on which we draw, our wide range of expertise in the relationship of the university to the asymmetrical histories and power relations that shape North American societies, was very generative for my own thinking about the institution.          

              Working on my own chapter was, however, formidable, and at times unnerving. My chapter included studying my own experiences within the university, which demanded revisiting the workings of a very toxic working culture. Many of us who experience the intimidating and demoralizing effects of the practices I document are focused on survival. Revisiting these experiences, taking the time to situate them within their larger institutional, socio-political, and historical contexts demands a certain kind of grit from the researcher. I am very thankful that working with the contributors, and learning from their research, kept me determined to analyze the parallels between the practices I was tracking within the institution and within global politics, namely appropriation, dispossession, and retribution. The contributors, especially students, contract and junior faculty, have taken considerable risk in writing about these topics. Their courage and clarity of vision were deeply inspiring to me. 

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

The biggest challenge in this project was to remain open to the possibility of change in this institution, given how deeply its working cultures, knowledge production, and pedagogical approaches rely on suppressing the forms of knowledge produced by generations of scholars and intellectuals of colour and of Indigenous ancestry. The histories and accomplishments of the movements that have produced anti-colonial and anti-racist praxis are rendered illegible within the modern university, within its institutionalized Eurocentric disciplinary structure, which now includes the “progressive” interdisciplinary fields. My own academic work is grounded in anti-colonial critical race theoretical traditions and activism; this field of scholarship and political engagement has yet to even be recognized within the Canadian university, except in the work of a very small community of academics. 

What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book? 

Working with the press editors was a very positive experience. I found them to be very supportive of our project. I am very thankful for their support in helping me navigate the various stages of the production process. We did face some challenges, particularly on the issue of copyright, which led one of the contributors to withdraw his contribution. Academic presses do need to take up this issue of copyright. Critical race and anti-colonial scholars are often subject to punitive practices within the university, and university presses need to interrogate whether they are themselves developing ethical solutions, including greater flexibility in publishing contracts.

              I am thankful to the press editors that we were able to successfully negotiate the book cover, which features the artwork of Dr. annie ross, one of the book’s contributors. annie’s cover image takes the book to a different level; it speaks to, and of, the book’s contents in a graphic and very visceral sense.

What do you hope the impact of this work will be? How do you think that Coloniality and Racial (In)Justice in the University being published will affect the way readers think and talk about the university/academia?

I hope this book sparks debates about the foundational logics of the university – and how these are reworked within the institution’s contemporary practices – that go beyond the worn-out Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion framework. This framework has been debunked by critical race scholars for a number of decades as advancing an integrationist, conciliatory, and profoundly anti-intersectional project. This framework contains, rather than advances, transformative projects that can potentially counter racial injustices within, and beyond, the university. Yet EDI has received a new lease on life in the university’s response to the global resurgence of Indigenous, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist movements that are yet again demanding an end to racial violence and injustice. 

              I think this book is unique in Canadian scholarship on the university, most of which is either laudatory of the institution or critical of its corporatization. Both approaches remain silent on the foundational logics, politics, and practices of this institution, which this collection identifies as thoroughly invested in racial-colonial forms of knowledge and governance. This collection is also unique as we situate the university at the centre of nation-state formation, and at the centre of global neo-liberal governance practices that have led to the various catastrophies and violences that mark the present times.


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