The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and Anti-Racist Education

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Reflecting on anti-racism in higher education settings and beyond.

“Teach thinkers to think, – a needed knowledge in a day of loose and careless logic; and they whose lot is gravest must have the carefulest [sic] training to think aright.” In 1903, in a collection of essays, “The Souls of Black Folk”, American scholar and civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, sought to make sense of the ever more discriminatory and segregationist society in which he and other African-Americans found themselves. These words still ring true today, as we mark Black History Month, as well as the Lunar New Year, celebrated in Chinese and numerous other Asian cultures. 

In many ways, W.E.B Du Bois prepared the ground for the anti-racism and radical empathy we strive to achieve today. Today’s scholars, such as Ibram X. Kendi, Terri Givens, or Isabel Wilkerson, seek to transcend proactively the socio-economic and political divides perpetuated by structural, systemic racism, and a modern-day caste system.  

How can we — in higher education – combat racism and oppression across the span of human life? Du Bois’ answer to this question was that the “function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, …; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, […]” He goes on to argue that “such training will give us poise to encourage the prejudices that bulwark society […]” Du Bois called for a higher education that is not just about skills-building, but that prepares humankind to think more broadly, to eradicate social, economic, and political inequities, while also underscoring the importance and value of cultural difference.  As my colleague, McGill Professor Terri Givens and others have noted, today’s “social relations are broken” (Givens, 2020, p.35) and require what Du Bois called “social surgery.” This is delicate, challenging but also rewarding work. And it involves life-long learning.  

We must remember that the concepts of “race and racism are power constructs of the modern world.” (Kendi, 2019, p. 238) Human beings learned and internalized these ideas only relatively recently; they emerged only a few hundred years ago. This means that we can, and must, also unlearn them. Kendi and Wilkerson both draw analogies between racism and classism and disease – whether as a cancer (Kendi) or a manifestation of the current coronavirus pandemic (Wilkerson) which has disproportionately negatively impacted people of African, Asian, and Latin American descent in the U.S., for example. Disease can be contained, slowed down, and even cured in most instances.  

W.E.B. Du Bois had impact through his rigorous and keen powers of observation and evidence-based argumentation. He documented carefully what he saw and heard, he trained others to do the same. He questioned the assumptions about what it means to be Black or White, and he continued to learn and refine his understanding of what he observed and experienced throughout his life. Such dynamic, evidence-based learning, critical analysis, and mentorship are key elements of successful life-long continuing education.  

Today we wade through thousands of incidences of “loose logic” — whether about the virus, democratic institutions, peace and security, or this strange concept we call race. I challenge all of us to think carefully and critically in and out of the classroom, and to act to overcome the inequities that otherwise are so easily perpetuated and spread by thoughtless behaviour and heartless institutions.  

As we enter the year of the water tiger according to the Chinese zodiac, let us muster the bravery and strength of this animal not only to combat evil but to forge a path of hope and self-consciousness. 

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