Represent, represent: The importance of diversity at UofT and beyond

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 Social Issues edition of The Underground.

U of T is often touted as a beacon of light when it comes to diversity, but that diversity is not reflected in the teaching staff.

When I’m not writing and editing articles for The Underground, I work as a hospitality worker for UTSG’s catering company, St. George Catering. In addition to setting up the event spaces and serving food, I spend a fair amount of time at work observing the people attending these events. People-watching is particularly interesting around the end of the Fall and Spring semesters, as many of the events I work for are celebratory outings for faculties and staff. Being that they’re professors employed by the University of Toronto, they are supposedly among the world’s brightest minds in their respective fields, so it’s interesting observing them congregate away from their usual habitat of offices or lecterns. One thing I’ve noticed is that, despite their prestige, they’re no different than the rest of us. They make messes, they get tipsy and cause a ruckus, they take bigger portions than they’re supposed to﹘ the usual. Another thing I’ve noticed is how few of them are black. There’s usually one or none; and if I’m lucky, there’ll be a couple racially-ambiguous people who might be black.

A 2012 study by the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association revealed that visible minorities are underrepresented in the teaching staff at 14 of 17 major universities, even though 24 percent of visible minorities have a Ph.D. Huda Hassan, a Ph.D. student in women and gender studies at UofT, began offering help to black women completing their grad school applications free-of-charge to pay forward those who had helped her when she was first applying for her graduate degrees. Another motivation for Hassan was seeing more black faces in the realm of academia.

“There’s an issue of diversity in academia and there’s definitely an issue of seeing black folk in academia,” Hassan tells Metro News Toronto. “I don’t think that’s a commentary on black folks. That’s a commentary on the academy.”  

The lack of diversity among U of T’s teaching staff is not reflective of its student population. According to a 2014 survey, nearly 60 percent of all U of T students identify as “non-white”. Both staff and students are aware of the lack of diversity among the university’s faculty members according to one professor. “I’ve had numerous students tell me I’m the first female faculty member of colour they’ve had here from students who’ve been here for 3-4 years,” Rachel La Touche explains. La Touche is a sociology professor at UTSG and believes that diversity is hugely important when it comes to university for a variety of reasons.

Having faces that look like yours isn’t the most important issue regarding diversity, however, La Touche believes that it does matter: “For students who are interested in pursuing higher education but perhaps note that it doesn’t seem like a place for them because they don’t see anyone who looks like them in those institutions,” she says. Diversity also means representing a variety of ideas and perspectives, which is particularly important in academia. Recall the story of U of T English professor David Gilmour who said he was “not interested in teaching books by women” or “Chinese authors” because they don’t resonate with him on a personal level. Gilmour has the right to instruct his class as he sees fit and, while he may not identify with the works of female or Chinese authors, students in his class might, but these students won’t have their experiences reflected in the curriculum because they are not reflected in the staff.

A strong sense of community is especially important to Indigenous students, according to Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, director of the First Nations House at U of T. Hamilton-Diabo likens the FNH to a community centre where Indigenous students can receive academic support and advice, financial support, library access, connect with elders and other drop-in services: “Whatever the issue is, we want them to open up and get to know us too. And that’s a very important part of our process; building that relationship, making sure they’re understood and that helps us respond to them,” Hamilton-Diabo explains. A community of support is important because “students are in programs and sometimes they’re the only ones representing the Indigenous community so they feel alone. It can be difficult for them to connect with other students, the faculty or what they’re studying, but just finding students with similar experiences can actually help” he adds.  

As the city — and the world — grows increasingly diverse, so does the importance of having equal representation in different areas of life. The Honorable Jean Augustine is Canada’s first black female Member of Parliament and one of the people responsible for getting February recognized as Black History Month in Canada. Augustine believes that more representation and inclusion can lead to progress on issues facing marginalized peoples, particularly when it comes to people in decision-making positions. Seeing people who are similar to you in these positions can also be a source of inspiration too: “If you can’t see yourself there, it becomes harder to get there,” Augustine states.

There have been times at work where I’ve thought that becoming a prof is an unreachable goal. There have been times at work where I’ve thought that I need to become a prof just so that some black student 10-15 years from now doesn’t have to feel the same way that I did. Inclusion and representation give children someone to look up to, someone like them, someone to give them permission to have and pursue their dreams. Role models give us goals to reach and paths to follow, but if there isn’t a path already outlined for you, don’t be afraid to blaze a trail of your own.