McGill’s Faculty of Education hosted a panel on Feb. 17 titled “Decolonizing Approaches to Research” that addressed colonial barriers to research through the lens of McGill’s research relationship with Barbados. Moderated by Jean St. Vil, a special advisor to the vice principal, the panel featured professor Terri Givens, provost’s academic lead and advisor on McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, Dr. Saleem Razak, a pediatrics and health sciences professor, PhD candidate Jamilah Dei-Sharpe, and students Asia Blackman (M.Sc. Epidemiology) and Khaelan King. The panel was part of the university’s official programming for Black History Month.
Throughout the online event, St. Vil directed questions at specific panelists, who traced pervasive colonial attitudes to the historical foundations of research that continue to influence the way that knowledge is produced in academic institutions.
Dei-Sharpe detailed the predatory relationship that often exists between researchers and racialized participants. She referenced “dehumanizing and exploitative [research] practices” Western scientists have conducted throughout history, and stressed the urgent need for change. The sociological concept of the “white gaze,” Dei-Sharpe explained, is one such colonial effect that needs to be dismantled in academia.
“For me, research is a way to understand the world, people, and the environment that we frequent,” Dei-Sharpe said. “Since the 17th century, the Western scientific method has propelled a standard for who and what is researched, and how to conduct research that positions the European and racially white person with the authority to interpret and draw conclusions on the world.”
Razak elaborated on his belief that the whitewashed standard for research has not only made academia non-inclusive as an educational space, but also had negative impacts on the value and accuracy of studies. Oftentimes, the populations whose data is used for research have little involvement in the scientific process. This has especially been true in the field of medicine, one of the many factors contributing to systemic medical racism.
“There are pulse oximeters that measure the pulse of the blood, [which are] absolutely crucial to care in the hospital,” Razak said. “But they were designed in the ‘80s and tested on light-skinned individuals. They have now evolved, but for a long time, they were less accurate in dark-skinned individuals. That’s an example of a systemic racist research protocol.”
Because universities are involved not just in research, but education, it is essential that course curricula be decolonized, explained King. If not, the colonial stains on the research process will seep into classrooms—and young minds—unchecked. Though she recognizes that many courses do acknowledge the past colonial harm that has been done, she explained that much of this acknowledgement is whitewashed through a Western, colonial, lens, and does not come from the perspective of people who have actually been harmed by colonial forces.
“In order for McGill to actively educate our student body from a global perspective, our research methods and the selection of professors has to be more inclusive,” King said. “As a student, for me, the importance really lies in the material that we’re consuming, [and] in utilizing reading materials that give alternative perspectives […] because we know [that] time and time again, history has been told from the perspective of the victors [….] Broadening the way that we’re approaching research [is] the first step in decolonizing it.”