Enacting anti-racism and activist pedagogies in teacher education

May 31, 2023
Dave Hazzan

By Dave Hazzan, writer and academic, completing his PhD in History at York University

There is no such thing as neutrality; it simply means siding with the oppressor. 

Those words from Elie Wiesel helped guide the editors and authors of the forthcoming collection Enacting Anti-Racism and Activist Pedagogies in Teacher Education: Canadian Perspectives. Editor Zuhra Abawi of Niagara College explained how, too often, teachers are expected to be detached and neutral, and activist teachers are often pushed out of the system and turned down for promotion because of their activist work. Yet without teacher activism, Abawi explains, academia remains a racist, colonial place, and teachers find themselves caught in a conundrum – to choose their careers or their belief that the education system can and should change for the better. 

That is why the book is dedicated to activists worldwide, said editor Ardavan Eizadirad of Wilfrid Laurier University. “We can be activists in different ways,” Eizadirad said. “For us, research is activism, writing is activism.” 

Broken up into fifteen chapters, Enacting Anti-Racism and Activist Pedagogies in Teacher Education: Canadian Perspectives is a compendium written not just by teachers and professors but young scholars, non-established writers, and people outside the academy. It encompasses various voices, and “that’s why we’re proud of the book,” Eizadirad said. 

Chapter One, written by the editors, is about the weaponization of difference. The point is to “disrupt notions in dominant discourse and popular culture, which reflects in the system,” Eizadirad said. He noted that the same people being pushed out of schools – Black and Indigenous youth – are also the ones who are filling the prisons most quickly. What, the editors ask, is the teacher’s central role given these inequalities? 

Chapter Fifteen was written by graduate students Marycarmen Lara-Villanueva and Zainab Zafar. They describe themselves as mother-scholars concerned with their professions and their children’s futures. “Anti-racists are silenced in places not built for us,” Zafar said. Their chapter focuses on the “domestication” of anti-racism – that is, turning anti-racism work into a slogan or a pitch, but not backed with any action. Using Robin Diangelo’s work to situate their own, they note three ways schools domesticate anti-racist work: dilute anti-racism, rely on white women’s leadership, and encourage everyone to wait for liberation. 

Being disruptive and connected to other liberatory movements, like anti-capitalism, is severed when anti-racist work is domesticated. Lara-Villanueva said this domestication involves disconnecting anti-racism from its roots in activism. When it comes to making material anti-racist change, white educators and parents seem to want to change the pace and ask for more patience. 

The work Lara-Villanueva and Zafar do is rooted in their Islamic spirituality, and they chose the poet Rumi as a non-western thinker they could use as a model. Rumi’s teachings, like love as a transformative force, speak directly to their work. Unfortunately, like anti-racist teaching, Rumi has also been watered down and domesticated. Lara-Villanueva and Zafar are looking to change that narrative. 

The authors and editors had a message for those seeking to engage in anti-racist work – join us, but understand this is not a dinner party. Editor Andrew Campbell said, “This kind of work is consequential. You don’t spend a life teaching anti-racism and expect the carpet to rolled out for [you].” Campbell stressed that activism is not about personal success. “You are pushing against, and people don’t like that.” He said many graduate students want to do this work, and “that’s great, but it’s hard. It’s heavy.”  

“Far too many people coming into activism and decolonization work thinking it’s a fairy tale,” Campbell said. “And it’s not.” Being an ally – or even better, a co-conspirator – requires you to be uncomfortable. And that discomfort “can be a full-time job.” 

Enacting Anti-Racism and Activist Pedagogies in Teacher Education: Canadian Perspectives will be published in June by Canadian Scholars.