Working to make academic spaces more equitable and welcoming for racialized individuals has always been a labour of love for Dr. Sandra Dixon, and one she feels the weight of at times. 

The registered psychologist and associate professor in the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Education recognizes that while her research is fueled by her own lived experiences as a woman of colour in higher education, the stories of her peers can be very different from her own.

“As researchers, we all come to the research space with our biases and assumptions, and that’s something we can’t get away from. Culture frames our thinking in ways we might not even be conscious of, so we need to be cognizant of how these biases and assumptions influence us,” Dixon says.

“Knowing that my experiences do not represent all racialized individuals and being willing to learn, relearn and deconstruct certain narratives is very important. Recognizing that I’m not the expert on someone else’s experience, even though I’m a racialized individual myself.”

Dixon grew up in Toronto and has been with ULethbridge since 2016. Her program of research encompasses culturally adapted counselling practices amongst minoritized groups, cultural identity reconstruction and ethno-cultural diversity issues. She was named one of the first recipients of the ULethbridge Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Scholars Award for 2021-2022. 

Her current work, a book-length volume she’s writing alongside Dr. Cecille DePass, University of Calgary researcher and associate professor emerita, started with gathering anecdotal data from more than 40 contributors. The individuals shared their experiences as racialized faculty members in western higher education institutions.

Dixon says it’s important to recognize the courage shown by those who willingly shared their stories, despite the possible repercussions. Participants were given the option to assume a pseudonym for the project, if it made them more comfortable actively participating, an option she says very few contributors chose to take in their writing.

“Even I get reluctant sometimes to share my lived experiences as a racialized individual, because of how I may be perceived, and not wanting to be judged or mislabelled or othered,” she says.

“I understand why a lot of these individuals can be hesitant to speak freely. They worry it could prevent them from receiving tenure, or moving up into other senior academic positions; we’re really mindful of the potential implications there could be for our contributors in their current roles.” 

Dixon says it has been very rewarding to create “brave spaces” for participants to openly share their stories, which often go unheard or are dismissed in predominantly white spaces. She says many contributors have indicated that being a part of the project has been liberating, giving them the freedom to document their subjective realities as racialized academics.

 “Even in certain academic contexts, a lot of these individuals feel that they can’t take up too much space, so they ‘shrink themselves in’ because they don’t feel comfortable presenting themselves fully and authentically,” she says. “The fear of being misunderstood in their actions, language and mannerisms leads to self-imposed behaviours to ‘fit in’ and remain under the radar, and this can be emotionally taxing.”

“You know, whether that be the angry Black woman, or being seen as too loud or aggressive when expressing certain viewpoints; unfortunately, negative stereotypes, microaggressions and biased assumptions about racialized faculty tend to impact how they present themselves.” 

Being aware of how racialized academics are negatively perceived by their peers, despite their knowledge and expertise, is just one of the common threads that Dixon has identified. She says another is the idea of feeling like the token individual in white-dominant spaces. 

“I talk about performativity versus non-performative action, and an example of performativity can be when institutions say they’re implementing an EDI initiative, and then only one racialized individual is hired,” she says. “That’s a good place to start, but it’s not enough. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is the individuals that are hired do not have a voice at the decision-making table, they’re not given the opportunity to demonstrate their full abilities and strengths, or offer their unique perspectives, so they can’t contribute to making effective systemic changes.”

Dixon says research of this nature can be taxing, with a great deal of empathy and emotional labour involved in listening to others being vulnerable, but she also finds the work endlessly rewarding. 

“I’m very grateful to be in a position where I’m able to co-create these brave spaces and facilitate such uncomfortable but important conversations,” she says. “I feel very privileged and humbled to take this journey alongside these well-established scholars in the field.”

Dixon’s talk, titled Owning my Voice and Speaking my Truth in Academic Spaces, takes place on Thursday, February 29 at 7 p.m. in the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge.