Awad Ibrahim

Thinking through the work of anti-racism

The following is the keynote speech by Professor Awad Ibrahim at the launch of his position as Anti-Racism Professor at the University of Ottawa on 2 November, 2022.

(SLIDE) Thinking through the work of anti-racism: A poetic conversation expanding from arts to politics” |

Réflexions sur la riposte au racisme : lecture poétique des arts, de la politique et d’autres sujets

(SLIDE) Nous rendons hommage au peuple algonquin, gardien traditionnel de cette terre. Nous reconnaissons le lien sacré de longue date l’unissant à ce territoire, qui demeure non cédé. Nous rendons également hommage à toutes les personnes autochtones qui habitent Ottawa, qu’elles soient de la région ou d’ailleurs au Canada. Nous reconnaissons les gardiennes et gardiens des savoirs traditionnels de tous âges. Nous honorons aussi leurs dirigeantes et dirigeants d’hier, d’aujourd’hui et de demain, au courage indéniable. 

J’accuse : I want to accuse all of us who came walking or driving to this event: On our way to this event, we just walked on dead people. So, indulge me : Close your eyes and let us not just remember them but let us hear their voices. Native people used to live and roam this land that we call home, this land that we call the University of Ottawa.

Come back now!

(SLIDE) Si vous avez jamais essayé d’organiser un évènement, vous savez que ça prend énormément d’énergie et d’organisation et du temps. Alors, merci Noura Ouchen, Christine Cusak, Leila Armesto.

Avant tout, merci Richard Barwell pour être un champion et un avocat pour cette poste de Professeur d’Air Canada en Anti-racisme. Aussi, merci Ouida Loeffelholz, ambassadeurs, et vous toutes et tous pour être ici ce soir. Thank you all for being here. I know you had better choices, so thank you my people in the hall, my people across this beautiful country of ours, thank you my people in Sudan and elsewhere.

But and above all, nothing could have happened without Calin Rovinescu. Un gros, gros merci pour être là et un gros gros merci pour être vous-même ! Merci Valerie and all Air Canada posse (as we say in Hip-Hop).

Your collective effort became an answer to Mustafa Ahmed, this 12 year from Toronto.


How do we not let Mustafa Ahmed down? How do we make sure that we do not leave him hanging dry as a single rose in a rundown park?

En effect, c’est ça la question que j’aimerai aborder ce soir. Mais avant de commencer, je voulais m’assurer dans quelle langue dois-je m’adresser ? Français, anglais ou les deux ?

Slido. On n’a pas de traduction, alors ceci détermine la langue que je vais utiliser. Je m’excuse auprès de mes collègues francophones puisque la majorité de mon discours va être en anglais mais je serai ravi à recevoir vos questions plus tard en français.

I have a few bombs that I am going to drop. Are you ready for the first one?

Can I get a witness?

(SLIDE) We are all poets. I know some of you have heard me saying this before, but whether you want to or not, by virtue of being human, you are a poet. Each single one of us is a poet because we write a line in the book of life. We are not totally free to write that line that is our life, but at the end of the day, we are responsible of and responsible for the pen with which we write the story of our life.

In his wonderful discussion with Sophie, the protagonist Alberto in Sophie’s World reminds the fourteen-year old Sophie about the meaning of life and our roles in it. As humans, argues Alberto, (SLIDE) “We are condemned to improvise. We are like actors dragged onto the stage without having learned our lines, with no script and no prompter to whisper stage directions to us. We must decide for ourselves how to live” (Gaarder, 1996, p. 457). Thus, as philosophers, educators and humans, we are left with this question: In this improvised theatre that we call life (or education), which direction and/or destination should we take and how do we get there?

This is the question I want to pose for all of us. I will offer an answer but I am also curious what your answer will be. So, my primary aim in this presentation is to (SLIDE) think through (Derrida) the work of anti-racism (hence the title of my talk). I will do this by proposing the idea of “strong poetry” as the work of anti-racism and “strong poet” as a better description for a person who aims to embody and take on anti-racism as an identity.

Let me explain.

In thinking through this idea of poetry and strong poetry, poet and strong poet, I am working with (SLIDE) Richard Rorty who himself is working with Harold Bloom. Rorty argues that there are two types of human beings, poets and strong poets. Poets are those who live, in the sense of being in the world, they eat, sleep, give birth and die. Nothing is absolutely remarkable about their lives. When they are gone, they may be remembered by the people who love them and they may leave one or two remarkable lines that are remembered by the people who lived with them. My mom used to say … or my dad used to say … (and they cite what she or he used to say; we remember what our parents used to say since we are their products). Let me share with you one of own mom’s memorable lines. She used to say, “In life, there are certain things that you look for and you work hard to get them, but there are other things that will look for you, they search for you and find you.” I love that line. After all, here we are at the University of Ottawa: A land that belongs to Algonquin people, we are brought together by a gift from Air Canada, namely by Calin Rovinescu, some of us come the UK (our Dean), I come from the Sudan, some from Montreal (Tim), and others God forbid are from Vancouver, and so on. According to my mom, we should always be open to be surprised by the things that look for us and not only by the things we ourselves look for.

Can I get a witness?

Going back to Richard Rorty, there is nothing absolutely remarkable about poets. However, once in awhile, someone comes in with (SLIDE) strong conviction, clear mind and convincing articulation to tell us something new, to invent the known in an unknown language, to point the compass to directions we have not yet thought about. They have the language and the vision and their articulation, ideas and the totality of their scripts are so freshly new that one finds oneself mesmerized by the texts as much as by the ideas. Rorty calls them strong poets. The strong poet, Rorty (1989) explains, is horrified at simply being “a copy or a replica”; she has the courage and audacity to engage, look for and think through the “blind impresses,” the gaps and the blind spots of thoughts, ideas and practices (p. 43). By blind impresses, I am referring to difficult knowledges – problems, if you like – that society prefers not to face, be it racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ethno-supremacy or homophobia. In the face of formidable pressure, the strong poet will choose to walk through these “problems,” so to speak, and deal with them at the individual, national and global level. These are the Mahatma Ghandis of the world, these are the Martin Luther King Jrs of the world, the Nelson Mandelas, the Rosa Parks and so on. These are the people (along with their visions) I think about when I think about anti-racism. Let me outline some elements of that vision, their vision, the vision of anti-racism. I call them principles of anti-racism and I have 15 of them:

  1. (SLIDE) Strong poets would argue that we need history. We need to know where we were so that we are better informed when we try to envision a better future. If we want to change something, we better know what is it that we want to change. To use bell hooks’s term, if we want to eat something, we better know what it is that we are eating. We don’t want to be like a beginning PhD student who declares that their topic hasn’t been studied only to find out that there is a mountain of scholarship on the topic. With that spirit, we need to know the shoulders upon which anti-racism scholarship was built, and I am situating my reading of anti-racism squarely in Canada, which is quite different than elsewhere, especially the US.

Built on a history of genocide and colonialism, the beginning and early narrative of what became to be called Canada was very simple: build a European country with European and Christian values. Despite sometimes using an integrationist approach and other times a cultural pluralist approach, the actual implemented policy in Canada was: Assimilation, assimilation, assimilation. This was the official policy of the state until 1971 when Pierre Elliot Trudeau declared the official policy of Multiculturalism. As he put it, (SLIDE) “There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the original peoples, and yet another for all the others. For although there are two official languages there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedent over any other … A policy of multiculturalism with in a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians.” To use the word of Homi Bhabha, this policy unfortunately turned into a (SLIDE) policy of containment, a policy of add and stare, us and them. In practice, multiculturalism was a way of saying, ‘you, different cultures, come here. Let us “celebrate” you but within the framework “we” set up for you.’ This led Carl James to argue that maybe what we had with multiculturalism was actually not multiculturalism at all but multiethnicity. That is, we do actually have different ethnic groups who find themselves in one place but this does not make for multiculturalism, where multiculturalism is seen as the equal treatment of different cultures.

Frustrated by the impasse of multiculturalism, Canadian scholars started to look to other fields of scholarship, fields such as Black studies, cultural studies, critical pedagogy, radical feminism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, queer studies, critical race theory, social justice. Building on this massive scholarship from Canada and elsewhere, scholars like George Dei, among so many others including our colleague Tim Stanley, started talking about anti-racism. Like Offred in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), who gave birth out of frustration, so too anti-racism was conceived and given birth to out of frustration.

Can I get a witness?

  • Let us start from the beginning: (SLIDE) what do we mean by anti-racism? (SLIDE) Anti-racism is an action-oriented strategy for institutional and systemic change to address racism and other forms of discrimination in society and challenge the interlocking system of social oppression. It is a process (i.e., open, flexible, reflexive and always in-progress) of comprehensive societal reform and concerns all, be it minority or majority. Anti-racism is a critical discourse that explicitly names the issues of social difference (class, gender, race, ability and sexuality) as issues of power rather than as matter of cultural and ethnic variety, and argues that social groups are racialized, ethnicized, classed and gendered for differential and unequal treatment.
  • Even though it is called anti-racism, anti-racism argues that, from a scientific and genetic point of view, (SLIDE) there is nothing called race. There is nothing called Black or White. We made up these categories and we deal with them as if they were true. Bomb number 2: Race is a human invention and it does not really exist. It is an empty vessel and we as society put meanings into it. After all, the struggle of anti-racism is not race, however we define it, but the epistemic violence and the sickness of racism: a sickness that is affecting both the oppressor and the oppressed. If race does not really exist scientifically and genetically, and if in fact the genetic difference within the same race is larger than between races, then we are left with the social and historical construction of race which is used not for biological purpose but to rank and above all distribute wealth and power. After all, it is the economic exploitation that created race, it is not race that created economic exploitation. Ask me later about the story of how race came about, but everyone should know the name Carolus Linnaeus. He is the one who invented race as we know it now.
  • Anti-racism argues that (SLIDE) race is not ethnicity, where ethnicity is based on cultural criteria (like food, cloth, religion, language, etc.). I know it is hard to wrap our heads around it, but it gets complicated when we realize that the so-called racial groups also have cultures. Culture for anti-racism can be defined in two different ways: 1) as a system of norms and values and 2) as a map where things make sense. As cultural beings, we are like fish in water. If a fish is asked to think about something, the last thing it would think about is water. It is everywhere and all around it, like the air I am breathing right now. This is what I am referring to when I refer to Canadianness. Canadianness for us is like water. It is all around us. This is why I have been arguing that (SLIDE) there are no Canadians in Canada. We become Canadians only when we travel outside and leave Canada. In Canada, we are from Ontario, the Maritimes, the Prairies, the Rockies, or God forbid from Hamilton. The only place where I lived where people actually brag about being from the place where they live are the Americans. On the other hand, we Canadians have created this mythology that we don’t have Canadian culture. Ask an immigrant and they would sit you down for hours and tell you what Canadian culture is.

Can I get a witness?

  • For anti-racism, (SLIDE) class and gender struggle is central. Similar to race, gender is a socially constructed category and it is an invented category used as a technology of and for power and wealth distribution. Social class, on the other hand, is a category that is central to social struggle but it does not receive as much attention as it should. But we know from research, social class has a significant impact on educational outcome. After all, as Paul Willis asked a few years ago, why do working class kids get working class job? And in our current time, why do rich people tend to fall under different set of rules?
  • As we could see, (SLIDE) categories of difference include not only race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality, but also language, religion, and culture, among so many others. However, for anti-racism, there is something about race that brings chill to the room. We are ready to talk about everything but race. As soon as you bring race into the discussion, people’s spines go up and they sit up straight (no puns intended). Race is the one category that people prefer not to talk about, so anti-racism strategically essentializes this category as an entrance to dealing with and talking about other social categories.
  • As a social transformation framework, anti-racism works with what it calls the (SLIDE) ‘interlocking system of social oppression.’ This is a framework that begins with these two arguments: 1) no form of oppression is acceptable and 2) oppression is not hierarchical (that is, no one person is oppressed all the time in all social categories). Here we must ask: How do we struggle against Islamophobia or anti-Black or anti-Indigenous racism and at the same time how do we combat the homophobia that might exist within Black, Muslim or Indigenous communities? According to the interlocking system of social oppression, no one is off the hook, whether a minority or a majority person; after all, oppressed people are not immune of being oppressors. Just look at what is happening in Iran, in Syria, in Sudan or in Columbia. I invite all of us to think hard about why on earth an oppressed would turn into a vicious oppressor?

Can I get a witness?

  • (SLIDE) Anti-racism concerns all of us, not just minority groups. Indeed, it should concern the majority group even more because they are the one that is in control, so their impact in social transformation is bigger and more impactful. Here, we need to modify our language. When we talk about majority and minority, this is not about number, it is about power. This is why we need to say ‘majoritarian’ and ‘minoritarian’ groups. After all, groups are made a majority or made a minority, there is no absolute majority and absolute minority. Let me explain. Even though women are majority in terms of number, they are minoritized (i.e. made a minority) because of their access and close proximity to power.
  • This is why we need to question how come certain groups find themselves closer to absolute power and others furthest from it? Is this access to power or the lack thereof because of privilege or is it earned? The answer to this question is not only about acknowledging the individual privilege but more importantly about institutionalized power that contains a reservoir of privilege for some to freely tap into.

Can I get a witness?

  1. As soon as you bring privilege, White people have a sense of (SLIDE) guilt. In one extreme, there is a sense of, ‘Oh my God, what should I do with the privilege I have’? In other extreme, ‘I work really hard and I didn’t just get here by chance, so it is not my responsibility that others do not have what I have.’ For me, neither position is helpful. Frankly, I don’t have the answer because I am not a White person as you could see, but we all need to remember: 1) that we need to move beyond the paralyzing sense of guilt (it is very unproductive and gets us nowhere), 2) in order to move beyond this paralyzing sense of guilt, we need to enter into courageous conversations with courageous people, 3) that we inherited our current situation with its environmental degradation, economic apartheid, and world conflicts, but we are free to either do something about it or choose not to do anything, 4) whether we do something about it or not, we need to remember that that is a decision, that is a choice, 5) if we are free to choose, then we need to remind ourselves that the past does influence our present but it does not determine the future and the path we chart for ourselves, and 6) with total freedom comes total  and awesome responsibility. For Jean-Paul Sartre, human freedom is a condemnation, that is we are condemned to be free, but we are free nonetheless. We are free to take a totally different path than what we inherited. Yes, if history is a mountain, we are sitting on top of it. What we make out of that history and the meaning we give to it is totally our own. We can give it a positive meaning or we can bring nothingness to it.
  2. If it seeks transformation, (SLIDE) anti-racism cannot afford to be rigid or become a series of workshops and sensitivity training. According to Sonia Kang’s work, bomb #3: equity, diversity and inclusion and other sensitivity training has little to no impact, especially in the long run. Indeed, and this may be surprising to people, this type of training has a negative effect since, from institutional point of view, we check the box of sensitivity training. We did it! This is why, from an anti-racist perspective, the focus should on leadership and institutional change, the two areas that have proven to have a long lasting effective.
  3. Those who work within anti-racism – the strong poets – should work within an economy of hospitality. We can’t afford to make statements, we should encourage and do everything possible to keep conversations going. Once you make a statement, which is hard not to do especially when you are confronted by a racist or sexist person, you are shutting down the conversation. After all, anti-racism is not one conversation with one person but an ongoing process, where no one gets up in the morning and rub their belly and say, I am so anti-racist today. As a mindset, as a way of being in the world, and as a daily exercise, we are forever anti-racist.

Can I get a witness?

  1. Within anti-racism, EDI is a step in a ladder where equity is its pinnacle, so for me, the order should be: diversity, inclusion and equity (or DIE) from least important to most important. Here, talking about diversity is tautological (i.e. stating what we already know), it is likelooking around this room and say, wow, we have diverse people. For me, talking about inclusion is more important than talking about diversity. After all, Clarence Thomas is in the US Supreme Court. The pinnacle of DIE for me is (SLIDE) equity, which is different than equality. Equality is treating everybody the same, but equity is treating everybody according to their need.
  2. While seeing diversity and difference as wealth, (SLIDE) having a brilliant EDI (to use the conventional abbreviation) or an anti-racist policy should not replace the doing of EDI or anti-racism; the saying should not replace the doing.
  3. Having said all of this, in conclusion, I want us to see anti-racism and EDI as an act of love. We love the community we have and we know we could be or do better than where we are. What I am proposing should not be seen or heard as bashing, especially of Canada, but as a courageous critique, as a courageous vision of where we could actually be as Canadians. I am critiquing out of love. I want us not to lose sight of the fact that we in Canada have something to offer the rest of the world. Certainly imperfect, especially when it comes to Indigenous people, certainly the level of poverty and homelessness is simply unacceptable, nonetheless there is something about the Canadian experience the rest of the world can learn from. From peace to social welfare to inclusion to our struggle with the nightmare of our past, there is something to ponder in this story that we call Canada. I am extremely mindful this is a bomb and it needs many and further conversations among us, but I would propose it as a tentative statement. After all, there is an immigrant by the name of Calin Rovinescu who saw a better Canada and who decided not to be on the fence but to do something to bring into existence a better Canada, to create the space through this Professorship where courageous conversations could begin. This is an act of love.

Can I get a witness?

  1. Since I have the ears of Air Canada and without being presumptuous and assume that this is not currently happening within Air Canada, one of the things I hope to work on with Air Canada is an anti-racism institute. This is an institute that is hosted here at the University of Ottawa and brings three levels within Air Canada (1) staff, including HR, 2) what can be called, front-line customer service, including on the phone and in person service and flight attendants, and 3) leadership teams). Second, I hope to create a national art competition called ‘Canada Deal with (Anti)-Racism!’ Using art, the idea here is to open up spaces where young people from coast to coast to coast express different ways of combating racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, anti-homophobia, anti-Islamophobia, etc. The art that is produced by young people will then be used in the different outlets of Air Canada. Picture this: you are on a flight from Ottawa to Frankfurt and you open Air Canada magazine or Duty Free magazine and you see these (3 SLIDES). Picture this, you are taking a flight from Calgary to Ottawa and on arrival, this is what the flight attendant would say: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Ottawa, our nation’s capital. Ladies and gentlemen, did you know that the origin of the name “Ottawa” is derived from the Algonquin word adawe, meaning “to trade”? The word refers to the indigenous peoples who used the river to trade, hunt, fish, camp, harvest plants, ceremonies, and for other traditional uses.” Picture this, you are waiting for your flight going God forbid to Heathrow airport. On the right and on the left of the Air Canada employees who check your passport and ticket just before boarding and you read this (1 SLIDE). Small gestures of love. Through these gestures of love, my hope is to build on the story of Canada and the story of Air Canada in particular. To do so, however, we must realize where we are and we absolutely must understand that time does not change anything, people do, but that change will come sooner or later
  2. : PLAY: La fin, you can applaud now!