Interview with George Dei, Ph.D. from the University of Toronto on Anti-racist, Decolonial, Anti-colonial, and Inclusive Perspectives on Educational Equity
About George J. Sefa Dei, Ph.D.: George Dei is Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where he is also Director of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies. A leading voice in anti-racist, decolonial, and anticolonial perspectives in education, Dr. Dei is author, co-author, editor, and/or co-editor of over 40 books, including Anti-Racism Education: Theory and Practice, Fanon and Education: Thinking Through Pedagogical Possibilities, and, most recently, Elders’ Cultural Knowledges and the Question of Black / African Indigeneity in Education.
Dr. Dei’s work has been recognized with some of the highest accolades in academic scholarship and community engagement. Dr. Dei is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the country’s most distinguished award for an academic scholar. In 2021, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators. He is also a recipient of the Social Justice Award from the Paulo Freire Democratic Project out of Chapman University, the title of Professor Extraordinaire from the University of South Africa, and the Whitworth Award for Career Research in Education, among many other honors.
Dr. Dei is a three-time Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow. Dr. Dei was born in Asokore-Koforidua, Ghana and has been a traditional chief, specifically as the Gyaasehene of Asokore, Koforidua in the New Juaben Traditional Area of Ghana, since 2007. He received his B.A. from the University of Ghana, his M.A. from McMaster University in Ontario, and his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you move from your early research in social anthropology on Ghanaian communities and international development to your influential work on anti-racist, decolonial, and inclusive education?
[Dr. George Dei] Thank you for the opportunity to have this discussion. I was born in Ghana. I came to Canada in 1979. I had my undergraduate schooling in Ghana, and when I came to Canada for my graduate education, my research was on the question of African and international development.
I wanted to understand why, when we talk about development, it is conceptualized as what some people lack or what they have the potential to become rather than looking at local peoples’ creativity, resourcefulness, and how people think through solutions to their own problems. I was more interested in looking at local resilience and strategies of survival. At the time I was doing my doctorate, there was a drought and famine afflicting the local communities in Ghana, and I wanted to see how people were coping with that using their local cultural resource knowledge and creativity.
Even with this focus, it did not take me long to recognize that race and racial identity was missing from our discussions on development. Who are the people who want to go and help? What attitudes do they have? How do these identities implicate the work that they do? What privileges do they come with? These are very important questions because they help us to understand development and its goals and objectives. I also remember, in the early 1980s, we would see images of so-called starving babies in Somalia and Ethiopia on our TV screens. When I saw these images, I realized that people were not being presented with the full context of what led to the Black and African bodies whom they saw as helpless.
To me, this pointed to the way we need to be very decolonial and anticolonial in our thinking to ask critical questions. When we talk about the global context, the global is not just somewhere “out there.” It is both “here” and “there,” and emerges from the interconnections between “here” and “there.” I began to connect these dots between race and development, which raised critical questions about complicity and therefore responsibility. It also led me to think about history. People like John Parker talk about how Africa’s history is messy, and some of it is fiction. I think it is very important to see how all of these things are connected.
After I completed my Ph.D., I got a position at the University of Toronto as faculty in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This opened my eyes to broader questions of social justice and education. When we talk about education, we need to define it broadly. It is not only what happens in the classroom and school settings. Education happens everywhere. In transitioning between social anthropology and education, I became interested in questions of how we talk about development, race, identity, class, gender, and sexuality and the implications they have for schooling. At the University of Toronto, I began to explore these questions around race, equity, diversity, and difference in terms of knowledge production, representation, resource sharing, and power.
These are educational issues. We need to think critically, which, for me, is about teaching and learning. That is education. It does not have to be in a classroom. It can be in the workplace. It can be in our communities. It can be in the streets.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you introduce us to how you conceptualize educational equity in your research and practice? More specifically, how does an anti-racist and anticolonial perspective reframe our common discourses on equity in education?
[Dr. George Dei] For me, equity is about dealing with questions of power. It is about centeredness, validation, legitimation, and recognition. It is about representation. When we talk about equity, how do we address questions of representation to ensure there is power and resource sharing and that everyone has a sense of belonging and inclusion? How do we make it so that people are not existing on the margins but find themselves centered in their experiences, histories, and knowledges?
This is very important, and you can only deal with it by bringing a critical eye that is decolonial and anticolonial. What I mean by decolonial and anticolonial in this sense is about, first, the mind. It is about coming into critical consciousness, as Paulo Freire discussed early on. In my later years, I am beginning to read new works about decolonization and the importance of the Land. For example, where I am now on Turtle Island is Land stolen from Indigenous peoples. As a colleague of mine, Eve Tuck discusses, decolonization is not a metaphor. It has to do with concrete matters, one of which is the Land. It is from the Land that people draw their identity, their capacity for representation, and affirm their cultures and knowledges.
It is crucial to move beyond an “either/or” approach when tackling decolonization. Decentering Western hegemony requires recognizing the very metaphoricity of the term itself. While the question of the mind holds significant weight in fostering critical consciousness, true decolonization demands more. We must delve deeper, embracing the metaphor’s call to action: asking new questions grounded in non-Western epistemes [ways of knowing] and Indigenous philosophies. This journey begins by actively dismantling colonialism and imperialism within ourselves and understanding how these forces cultivate an oppressor consciousness. Only then can we truly engage in transformative social justice and equity work that goes beyond mere tolerance or celebration. This work strives for human liberation in its totality, empowering individuals and communities to reclaim their agency, control their destinies, and design their own futures based on their own terms and knowledge systems.
I talk about inclusion, but you can be included while you are still existing on the margins. Inclusion must be about centeredness. That is why we need a radical understanding of inclusion. How do you hope to accomplish change by adding to what already exists when that which already exists is the source of the problem in the first place? We must begin anew and think anew. This means dismantling, abolishing, and creating. This can be done even through speculative imaginaries. Creative thought — thinking that something different is possible — is very important.
In one of the courses I teach at the University, I talk about African development, and I ask what might have happened if colonialism had not happened. That allows students to think about possibilities. It allows you to see that colonialism was a deliberate choice. Africa would not have been stuck; it would have found new futures. This is very creative and powerful because it allows us to imagine another possible world.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your most recent book is Elders’ Cultural Knowledges and the Question of Black / African Indigeneity in Education, written with Wambui Karanja and Grace Erger. Would you provide us some background on this book project, and explore its proposition that Indigenous Elders and their cultural knowledges ought to be integrated into schools?
[Dr. George Dei] First of all, this is work I am doing with my graduate students. That book was the theoretical conceptualization of the educational role of African Elders. We are also coming out with a new book, which is based on concrete work with Elders, educators, and students, talking about the relevance of Elder education and how we can implement this in schools.
The question of African Indigeneity is very important. When we talk about African history, it did not start with the advent of Europe. It did not start with 1492. We need to talk about Africa before Europe. We also need to resist the idea of Indigeneity as static. We have to see it as part of the face of human history. The Bolivian scholar, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, talks about Indigenous modernity as a spiral. History is not linear. The present, past, and future are fused. When I talk about African history, I talk about the relevance of reclaiming the past, reflecting on the present, and projecting into the future.
To come back to the question of African Indigeneity, the best educators of this body of knowledge are its cultural custodians, the Elders. How do we ensure we can work with the knowledge of our African Elders? The late Maya Angelou talks about bearing the gifts of our ancestors. When I speak to you, I speak to you bearing the gifts of knowledge that my ancestors gave me, knowledge passed down by Elders from generation to generation.
How do we engage with Elders’ knowledge? It has to do with responsibility, with community building, sharing, respect, and generosity. How do we use this knowledge to break down colonial hierarchies that limit our thinking, and instead think in circles where we are connected and see ourselves as a community? How can we use Elders to teach discipline rather than simply enforce it? When you go to an Elder for advice, they are not going to hand you a piece of information and tell you to leave with it. They are going to ask you to take a seat. Maybe you were planning on staying for five minutes, but you will not come out for an hour. They will tell you all of these stories, and you are supposed to pick something from that.
Elders’ knowledge is very important. I have called it “Elder Crit.” They have lessons for how we teach and learn, how we engage students, and talk about student wellbeing. Student wellbeing is not just academic; it is social, mental, physical, and emotional. This connects to the idea of caregiving and community engagement. Elders are situated in communities and they are caregivers, counselors and advisors. When a student is going through a problem and/or a difficult task, Elders can assist in showing the youth the path.
There is an Igbo proverb that says, “What an Elder sees sitting down a young person cannot see standing up.” To lose the insight of Elders is the death of knowledge, wisdom, and intergenerational experience. How do we tap into their wealth of knowledge to assist our school teachers and administrators in providing education? We cannot talk about Elders without questions of Land, relationships to environments, accountability, responsibility, transparency, and ethics. To create ethical learning communities would require the presence of Elders.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Integrating Indigenous and community knowledge into education is something you have written about with respect to Canada, Ghana, and the broader African educational context. You have also examined global education with respect to its colonial and neoliberal tendencies. Are there important differences you would highlight in conducting antiracist and decolonial educational research in these different contexts or important ways they are similar because of the influence of neoliberalism and colonialism on global education you discuss in your work?
[Dr. George Dei] Local contexts have their own contextual knowledges. One of the examples I gave earlier is that, here on Turtle Island, the Land is very important. Land is also important in Africa, but the question of the curriculum and the mind is pressing as well. I talk about “the African University” as being a colonial satellite of the Western academy. My friend Molefi Kete Asante makes a similar point, which is that we do not have African universities. Instead, we have universities in Africa. This is a big distinction.
How do we work with local knowledge? I am influenced by Kwesi Prah, who says, if universities in Africa have centers for African studies, one has to ask what the other departments are doing. That should be the starting point if they are based on the Continent. It has to be integrated into everything we do.
When grappling with colonialism, we have to recognize that the challenges we deal with are interconnected, but there are also specificities. Strong decolonial work acknowledges the specificities while looking for the points of convergence. Practitioners of decolonial work can also learn from each other in this way. We need to ask what decolonial work on Turtle Island can learn from decolonial work in Africa, and vice versa.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] You have been an advocate of Africentric Schools, the first of which launched in Toronto in 2009, as an alternative to White colonial forms of pedagogy. Would you describe Africentric Schools to our readers and explore how you see them as uniquely important to cultivating educational equity? Do you find the idea of Africentric Schools still subject to the same controversy they provoked ten years ago?
[Dr. George Dei] The idea of Africentric schools arose from the literature of scholars like Molefi Kete Asante, Ama Mazama, Maulana Karenga, and other scholars who discuss Afrocentricity. Certain things become very important including questions of culture, centeredness, history, and spirituality. How do we engage this? When we talk about culture, for example, how do we center our learners in their cultures? It does not mean they will not learn about other things, but you want to center them in their own cultures so they can begin to read the world from that perspective.
We spoke earlier about Elders. You cannot talk about Elders without talking about African spirituality, and this spirituality centers the moral fiber and character of the learner. You have a responsibility to not only yourself as a learner but also to members of your schooling community, so you do not get into hierarchies and fierce competition. If you are doing well, for example, you have a responsibility to use your knowledge to assist those who are facing challenges. You do not get into this competitive mode where you want to be the only one known as the A+ student.
This demands acknowledging that your success is intricately interwoven with the experiences and contributions of others. Your hard work and achievements are collectively created with other students, your teachers, your parents, and your Elders. You understand that success is not merely academic, but also involves cultivating strong interpersonal relations and contributing meaningfully to your communities. Building this sense of responsibility draws heavily on the Ubuntu philosophy which emphasizes the interconnectedness of self and community. The proverb “I am because we are, and because we are, I am” captures this principle. Education grounded in this philosophy fosters students who understand that their individual growth is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of their community. They recognize that their actions have consequences, not just for themselves, but for those around them. This understanding cultivates a deep sense of responsibility: a commitment to act with integrity, empathy, and justice, creating a future where everyone can thrive.
This does not mean we do not have a sense of individuality, but individuality matters with respect to its connection to the community. We make a distinction between the competitive individual and the cooperative individual. The latter is part of the community and works to build the community. The idea that the community is as good as we collectively make it is an Africentric teaching. We are responsible for more than ourselves. When we talk about our rights, these are important, but they must be connected to responsibilities.
Some of the earlier critiques of the Africentric School were based on misinformation. People thought these schools would only teach about Africa and Blackness. That was an entry point. We want to affirm students in their identities, center them in their cultures, and let them look at the world through their own eyes. In fact, the Africentric School is not solely defined by the identity of the learner. It is more about the teachings about responsibility, ethics, accountability, humility, generosity, sharing, and the treatment of history as the totality of a peoples’ lived experiences. It is also about asking critical questions.
I always make the point that the world does not begin with Europe. When you go to Zimbabwe, there is a waterfall called Victoria Falls. Some people used to say an English explorer discovered it, as if it never existed before it was seen by a particular European body. Having a critical, Africentric lens allows us to set questions on the table that challenge these kinds of histories.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] You are Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies at the University of Toronto. Would you introduce us to the Centre and highlight some of the work you have done there since its founding in 1996? Are there important shifts you would trace in the trajectory of the struggle for educational equity over the course of your career, or perhaps critical ways things have not changed?
[Dr. George Dei] I worked together with two colleagues, the late Roxana Ng and Sherene Razack, to establish the Centre. Early on, we saw it as a space that would allow us to center the question of race in schooling and education. We recognized that, unless we had a space that gives visibility to that scholarship, people will always want to push it aside. People do not want to talk about it, in part because they refuse to see race as also about Whiteness and White privilege.
To be able to talk about race in our discipline was critical, as was being able to support our students and work with our communities. For some of us, particularly Black, Indigenous, and racialized scholars in the academy, local communities are our spiritual backbone. They give us our support. We must always be grounded in these communities, so part of the work of the Centre was about making connections with our local communities. They helped support us, and this allowed us to make our work relevant to the issues that mattered to them.
We also understood at the time that you could not talk about race without talking about its intersections. Race intersects with gender, sexuality, class, and ability. Understanding these intersections has been the focus of the Centre. Race maintains its full effects when it is connected with gender, class, and sexuality. Today, we talk about trans and nonbinary identities as well, which is a crucial part of the conversation. Over the years, the center has also been increasingly raising the question of Indigeneity. We cannot talk about these issues without connecting them to issues of Indigeneity and colonialism.
We have a series of conversations where we invite scholars to engage in dialogue about these issues. We do research around these questions. We have a conference we do every two years, the Decolonizing Conference, which attracts almost a thousand people. We also work with school boards — we will be called to assist them, or make presentations on these issues for them.
The Centre has been trying to talk about race and oppression in an intersectional way without forgetting that people do not want to talk about race, so we have to make it central and salient in our work even as we explore its intersections. We also strive to make connections that allow us to build solidarities and establish relationships with the communities we draw our students from. We support community engagement as well. Sometimes communities need a space and we host them as a way of giving back.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Based on your experience and research, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators trying to advance educational equity through their own research?
[Dr. George Dei] One is that anti-racist, decolonial, and anticolonial work is not just for a limited few. It is for everyone. When I talk to my students, I often tell them that I have never met a decolonized person. If you have seen one, let me know. I am not decolonized. As many scholars have said, decolonization is a process. There is always this tension: whenever you try to decolonize, the colonial is waiting behind, pulling you back. Our practices themselves can become hegemonic.
My advice is to recognize that this work is for everyone. We have to define our entry points. Your entry point could be around White privilege and White supremacy. It could be concerned with strengthening the capacities of local communities and helping them find solutions to their own problems. For others, it could be mentoring young, Black learners. It could be to make connections between communities: between Black and Indigenous communities, between Black and Asian communities, between Black and African communities.
It is also critical that we vocalize our politics. Decolonial work cannot be done undercover. We cannot maintain silence about our decolonial and anticolonial practices. It has to be in the open, and we should have the courage to speak about it. We are going to make people upset, but it is very important, especially in our current moment when we are dealing with anti-woke fantasies.
People talk about critical race theory as indoctrination, but when you ask them to define it, they cannot. They have been so misinformed. What is wrong with being “woke”? To be “woke” is to learn truths and histories. We cannot edit histories. We teach history, not for what we want to know, but for all of its truths. Choosing not to engage with our histories is a huge problem. What are you afraid of?
I was watching TV the other day, and someone made the point that “woke” is a term that began in the African American community. It used to mean working to expose the hidden truths. Certain truths have been hidden away from us. For example, did you know it was a group of Black women scientists who discovered the mathematical formula that landed a human being in space? This is hidden from us, and we should know that. To be awoken to that is a good thing.
This leads to another very important point. We must become warriors. I use the term “academic warriors,” because we will not make progress on these issues over a cup of tea. We are going to upset people because we are challenging their privilege. Today, White nationalism is no longer on the fringes. It is being centered, in terms of antiSemitism, antiBlackness, and antiIndigenous hate. Violence, lies, blatant disregard for truth: we have to call this out. We cannot be complicit. History will not forgive us for our silence on these issues.
This is my advice to those who are coming up in this climate. History never absolves us of our responsibilities. History never absolves us of our deeds. We must always recognize that, wherever we are, we cannot simply stand there; we have to act. To know is to act politically and responsibly.
There are a lot of false equivalencies in our current discourse. People talk about Black Lives Matter and feel the need to talk about how White lives matter or all lives matter. The reason we talk about Black Lives Matter is because Black lives have not mattered, while White lives have. We do not have to respond with the racist slogan that all lives matter. When we talk about Black Lives Matter, we do not have to say, “but law and order is important.” Of course we care about law and order, but we are talking about pain and suffering. To paint your fears and anxieties over our pain and suffering is harmful. We have to call out these false equivalencies.
I also would advise those coming up to work to remain grounded spiritually and within communities. The self and the other are connected. Engage in mentorship and mutual support, and do not get caught in a competitive mode. The political economy of academia means that we are caught up in this competition. We have to break away from that. If we are serious about advancing equity work, we have to see this work as being about human liberation, about building communities, and about calling out power and privilege — calling out oppression, violence, and hate wherever and in whatever form we see it.
Communities are not built all of a sudden. We build communities one brick at a time. That means building solidarities that validate, legitimize, and heal us. Communicating our truths, voices, and experiences requires not only a complex curriculum but also a climate, environment, and social organization within our institutions that foster this.
Finally, we come back to history. As I have said, history must read as the totality of a people’s lived experiences. History is not just about events; it is about ideas and practices. We need to work to preserve this sense of history in the communities we build.
Thank you, Dr. George Sefa Dei, for your excellent and inspiring insight into how to foster equity in education spaces, both in the national and international arenas! Also, thank you for your scholarship and advocacy regarding the urgent value of educating this and subsequent generations about Indigenous customs, values, and practices.