This past week I had the opportunity to attend one of the largest and most prestigious scholarly conferences in Canada. The annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences gathers around 70 different scholarly organizations all holding their conferences under the same roof over a span of a few days. In the building, or should I say ivory towers, were a collection of academics, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners. In attendance were the people who push ideas forward and essentially shape the discourse of the country. Because of the massive weight heaved upon the shoulders of these contributors, it was stunning to see exactly what I saw there.
Let me backtrack. I don’t think I mean stunning in an encouraging tone. Maybe disappointing would be a better word. Or perhaps shocking. Both appalling and alarming. Yeah, those words would be a little more accurate.
Domino, domino, only spot a few blacks the higher I go…
As thousands of major thinkers converged on the campus at the University of Calgary, I found myself looking around trying to find groups who looked like me. When I gave up on that, I tried to just find people who looked like me. After a few hours, I was happy merely to see someone who looked like me. Swimming through the ivory towers in a sea of ivory skin-tones caused a tiny knot to merge in my stomach. I began to ask myself if I even belonged here.
How could a conference of scholars be so homogenous in 2016? I scrolled through the itinerary of presentations and panels, searching up words like “black”, “urban”, and “minority” to name a few. Throughout the entire 6-day conference, I found about 5 (and that may be a stretch). The knot grew a little bigger.
I sat in on a few of these panels and listened to professors discuss “multi-cultural education” and “diversity in practice” through a bevy of statistics and slides. The more you know, the less you understand. The philosophical truth behind that age-old quote resonated with me louder and louder as each minute of a presentation passed. I am new to the academic field. But after hearing talks about multiculturalism in pre-service teachers without interrogating the term multiculturalism, I began to wonder if academia would be a fit for me. The ivory towers became a stifling space to be around. I’ve never drowned or suffocated before, but I felt as if I was coming close.
On reflection, one can assume that university, or higher education operates as a cleanser of sorts. Ironically, university, or the ivory tower is supposed to be the space that signifies liberation, individualism, and creativity. But the longer I stayed there, the more I felt like in order to succeed in this environment I would have to become some sort of puppet. I could feel these “academics” looking at me as I strolled through the conference wearing ripped jeans and a snapback. As stifling as the scholarly conference felt, it only made my passion, resolve, and desire to make a change even more hardbound.
I am not here to knock the ivory towers down. The great Audrey Lorde states, “the master’s tools will never be used to destroy the master’s house.” And I understand that the ivory towers work as a function of the hegemonic power. So instead of drowning, I will tread water for as long as I can. Visiting the ivory towers made me realize just how mechanical the institution of academia is. With no regrets, I must say that I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not here to break the towers down; I am just coming to redecorate the insides a little bit.
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