Q and A with Dr. Christopher Taylor, Black Equity Strategist and Anti-Racism Advisor

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Christopher Taylor (Department of History) was appointed Black Equity Strategist and Anti-Racism Advisor in the Faculty of Arts by Dean Sheila Ager this fall. The position was established in response to urgent calls for the University and the Faculty to take action against racism, and particularly in this context, anti-Black racism. Dr. Taylor participated in this Q and A to speak about his new role.

Christopher Taylor

Tell us about your dual role as Black Equity Strategist and Anti-Racism Advisor.

First of all, working on equity and anti-racism are two different but parallel things. The anti-racism piece is looking at the system, changing it, confronting it, challenging it. The race equity piece is about what we’re doing for the Black students already in the weeds of the system.

On the Black Equity Strategist side, I’m focused on Black students and how we make their experience much better. Specifically, what can I — who identify as a cishet (cisgender and heterosexual), able-bodied, Black male — do to help these students? How do we ensure they have an experience that is much more fruitful and beneficial for them? For example, if they want to get into co-op or have mentorship opportunities, what kind of conversations are we having about what we can offer them? What can I do to help them graduate and prepare for a future beyond UW?

Anti-racism is fundamentally about challenging and changing structures and systems, including policies, practices and procedures. For example, how do we shift away from how we currently present curricula? How do we shift away from euro-centric epistemologies? How, and whom, we hire?

How are you collaborating with and supporting Black students in Arts?

First, I have to give credit to a Black student for even bringing me into this space. She came to my office when I’d been at Waterloo for just a week to talk to me about what’s happening. I found that if you have a connection with students, if you have a good working relationship with them, you can really get the pulse of what’s happening in a particular institution.

One of the big things I do with students is expose them to the system, particularly the Black students in my classes. And I say to them, look, I’m not going to tell you how you should be, but I do want you to see how the system works and how you can decide what you want to do to navigate it, accept it, or change it. That’s what I want to do with Black students: support them academically and professionally.

In another area, I would say that, unfortunately, we have is a lack of resources for supporting the mental health of Black students —particularly when incidents happen on campus and they feel they have nowhere else to go. So, they come to me or the handful of other Black faculty on campus. I’ve pretty much been the Black Equity Strategist for a while, and now it’s been formalized.

What are the current ideas regarding anti-racism curricular changes?

We’re still working out the particulars, but when it comes to developing a Black Studies program, Dr. Kathy Hogarth at Renison and Dr. Vershawn Young in Communication Arts are leading that project. This curricular development does fall under my purview in this role.

But it does need to be said that just because there will be a Black Studies program doesn’t mean there does not need to be a review of curricula across departments. We need to ask: What are we doing to engage more with Black topics? For example, I come from the History department: How do we examine how we teach global history? How do we reframe and include the Transatlantic Slave Trade within global history? Every major European country had a role to play in the Trade, so why is this not a part of European History? When we teach the French Revolution, where is Toussaint and Dessalines? Where is Guadeloupe in Canadian History? Do our texts include Black philosophers, theorists, and thinkers such as Baldwin and Fanon? Do we think of transnational law by including what happened in Rwanda? How do we think of Blackness beyond African Americans? Are we considering Blackness in Brazil, for instance, where there is the largest population of Black people outside of the African continent? So, when we look at curricula across Arts, we need to ask if we’re including Blackness as an add-on or as integral to human history, which it is.

What kinds of changes to course content can be made right now?

I think we canreally focus on anti-racist pedagogy and anti-racist language. And these are things that we can do in our syllabi right now. For example, if we’re engaging with the term BIPOC in the classroom, do we know if everyone knows what it means to say Black, Indigenous and People of Colour? Do we know that this BIPOC term in fact reinforces anti-Black racism and perpetuates the lateral violence of settler colonialism? Are we really engaging with the land acknowledgement and understand what it means that our university is on the Haldimand Tract? Do we know what decolonization means as opposed to anti-colonization? Are the courses we teach drawing connections between systems of oppression, climate change, patriarchy? Are we articulating how these systems of oppression are tied to white supremacy?

Please expand on how the term BIPOC reinforces racism.

When we use the term “BIPOC” it is an essentialist reduction of all “non-white” people as one homogenous group. It is effectively the 2020 version of the term “visible minority.”

As it relates to anti-Black racism, we have seen over the course of the summer and fall, folks and institutions adopting the term BIPOC in an attempt to confront anti-Black racism. What happens is Blackness, and Black people, get subsumed under this “BIPOC” umbrella without actually addressing the specific and unique factors that support and perpetuate anti-Black racism. If we have too few Black faculty on campus, why do we need a strategy to hire more BIPOC faculty? If Black people are being killed by the police, why do we need a strategy to address how BIPOC folks are treated by the police? If we need a Black Studies Program, why do we need a BIPOC-focused program? It’s a form of lateral violence. It’s an Oppression Olympics of pitting “non-white” peoples against each other for limited resources. The oppressor has coopted the language of the oppressed in an attempt to pretend that anti-Black racism, or anti-Indigenous racism, or Islamophobia can be fixed with an acronym.

Can we really say that BIPOC is different than saying All Lives Matter?

Tell us a bit about the Black Faculty Collective.

The Black Faculty Collective came out of centuries of collective struggles against white supremacy, but was galvanized by the events of spring 2020 and the shifts happening globally. We have about 13 Black faculty in campus, and only two are full professors. Here is our vision statement: “The Black Faculty Collective envisions an equitable learning, working, research and teaching environment at the University of Waterloo.” Our mission is: “By centering Blackness, our mission is to transform our institutions by and confronting, challenging and dismantling white supremacy within our policies, structures, teaching and communities.”

The Black Faculty Collective is also a community space so we can come together and unpack our challenges. Pretty much anything that is happening in the EDI-R (equity, diversity, inclusivity, and anti-racism) space, the collective is there.

How can white faculty and staff, in our particular roles, support Black equity and anti-racism? 

We all have spheres of influence, and we need to recognize that we can influence interactions with Black and Indigenous folx and other People of Colour on campus. So that might mean to pause before acting, to catch micro-aggressions that can actually impact how a student does on an exam, for example. We all need to be mindful and introspective, be aware of our positionality and the power that we have.

To address a problem, institutions often say, Let’s form a committee. But why? We need to re-think these outdated and euro-centric models of change that just end up being MWPs (Make Work Projects) that placate demands for action. It’s really about what you as individuals in the system are going to do to make a difference. Yes, there are structural things that we need to understand and change, but that can also make us flip off our personal responsibilities. Racism, and particularly white supremacy, is all of our problem.

Also, engage with me in this role: check in with me if you have questions about what you are doing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I want faculty and staff to know that I’m not here to demonize white people. I’m not scary! Don’t listen to false narratives. Demanding and advocating for change, staying firm on your beliefs, and living with integrity, does not make you the ‘Angry Black person.’ Nor does it make you difficult to work with. I think when people see the title Black Equity Strategist and Anti-Racism Advisor, it might appear that Christopher is anti-white. No. I’m anti-oppression, I’m anti-racism and I’m anti-white supremacy as a system.

One other thing I’d like to advocate to whomever is reading this is to understand that white supremacy is actually a detriment to white people too. So, if we are making this environment —A. much more equitable for Black students, B. much more anti-oppressive and anti-racist for all — it’s going to benefit every single person on campus, whether you’re white, Black, or purple.

One of the parallels I want people to think about is connecting white supremacy with other forms of oppression like patriarchy and rape culture. That’s a key piece of the Black Equity Strategist: I’m not just here for Black men or Black women; I’m here for all the intersections of Blackness. The non-binary, the non-conformist. And when we talk about the Anti-Racism Advisor, I’m advocating for all students, faculty and staff — everyone.

This interview was originally published in Inside Arts newsletter for staff and faculty members in Arts.