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Legislative leaders stand on the steps of a government building in Jackson, Mississippi.
United States Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, centre, and other members of the House express their objections to the banning of teaching of Critical Race Theory in Mississippi in March. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Critical race theory and feminism are not taking over our universities

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Conservative observers everywhere are complaining about a supposed surge in feminist and critical race theories being taught in colleges and universities.

In Hungary, the government went even further and banned gender studies master’s degrees country-wide. Their reasoning: to avoid the spread of ideas about the social construction of gender.

In the United States, Republican lawmakers have embarked on a war against critical race theory at lower levels of education, fearing it will indoctrinate their kids even before they get to higher education institutions.

Many believe universities are spending too much money to “infuse” feminist and critical race approaches, which risk messing up curriculum and fostering division. Is this actually true? Are feminist and critical race studies taking over our classrooms and universities?

Protesters seen holding placards.
People protest against the teaching of critical race theory outside the New Mexico Public Education Department in Albuquerque. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

My personal experience, as well as my research, points to the contrary. When I was a graduate student in international relations (IR) from 2011 to 2020, gender approaches were barely addressed, or were compartmentalized to one single week of the year. Since then, I have attended or taught 10 international relations courses at three Canadian universities in both French and English. In all courses, I noticed a trend of marginalization of non-western and non-masculine approaches to world politics.

To test and explore the inconsistency between this growing public fear of these theories invading our classrooms with my own recent experience, I analyzed the contents of 50 introductory syllabi for international relations courses in North America and Europe.

What I found confirmed a pattern related to my personal experience: race and gender studies are silenced or marginalized in western introduction to international relations courses.

Pink for a week

Over half of international relations instructors in western countries simply do not address gender, feminism or women. Only three per cent of mandatory and optional readings assigned by instructors address gender or feminist aspects of the world.

For example, one syllabus devoted four weeks to globalization, without addressing care work or the international sexual division of labour. Another syllabus had seven weeks on various regional and world wars, without mentioning feminist definitions of security, gendered impacts of militarization, how masculinity influences war, gendered violence or the impact of gender in peacebuilding.

Of the 23 syllabi that do mention gender, 78 per cent of them (18 of 23) adopt the one-week-only philosophy. This compartmentalization condenses gender research to one meagre week, the sacrosanct “women’s week.” In students’ minds, this reduces gender to an easily dismissed sectoral framework. In short, you are either interested in war or you are interested in gender — you cannot be both.

Race and colonialism barely mentioned

International relations has also been criticized for being “blind to racism.” The ethnocentricity of the field of international relations has been called out again and again, and again and again.

My research confirms that race studies are rarely mentioned — in only seven syllabi (14 per cent). As for postcolonial studies, they are only mentioned in 17 syllabi (34 per cent). In comparison, liberalism appears in 38 syllabi (76 per cent).

The lists of historical events we present to our students are also dominated by the western world. For example, the Cold War is listed as an important event in 25 syllabi, but de/colonization processes are only listed in three syllabi and slavery in only one course plan.

Siphamandla Zondi, professor of international relations at the University of Johannesburg, notes that describing the field as international is a “masquerade.” International relations courses pretend to be about everyone, but in fact they are predominantly about western countries and their white citizens (even ignoring racialized or Indigenous populations).

Indeed, scholars from the Global South are marginalized in reading lists, textbooks and research, including in international feminist journals.

22 flags representing mostly western countries fly in front of a blue sky.
Too often, international relations courses only focus on western countries and their white citizens. (Shutterstock)

A more complex — less masculine and western — story

The lack of inclusion of women and Global South authors in reference lists is not only a problem of representation. It also means that masculine and western point of views are perpetuated in our teaching.

For example, the story of the Second World War usually includes the Axis and the Allies, the evolution of armaments, the details of German imperialism in Europe and the military support of the United States and Canada.

A more complex — less masculine and western — story would add that this war changed the face of western societies, as women replaced men combatants on the job market and did not want to leave it upon their return. It would also mention proxy wars and Global South men and women fighting alongside Europeans in foreign battles.

A western tale of international development might start in 1947, with U.S. President Harry Truman speaking for the first time of “underdeveloped” countries. It would speak of the establishment of western aid organizations like the World Bank.

A more international account would throw the net wider and might start with the appropriation of Global South wealth and knowledge by European colonizers, the destruction of living conditions of Indigenous peoples and the brutalization of African populations contributing to the ongoing enriching of capitalists in Britain and the United States. It would tie the concept of development with North/South inequalities, not only with western aid in the Global South.

Change ahead is slow

One hopeful marker of change can be seen in academic conferences and publications. Between 2000 and 2010, presentations addressing gender at the annual International Studies Association (ISA) conference have increased by 400 per cent.

It seems, however, that conference organizers also fall into similar traps as international relations course instructors. They marginalize presenters into the feminist box: on more than 320 feminist, gender and queer papers at the ISA conference in 2021, only 71 were placed in mainstream “non-gender” panels.

My perception is that gender scholars are slotted to go to a gender-specific panel on security but not the more front-and-centre panel on security.

Teaching (or not teaching) race or gender approaches influence how we present the world to scholars-to-be and to the leaders of tomorrow. This, in turn, will affect which policies and research will be prioritized.

Unfortunately, one thing is certain: these concepts are not yet mainstreamed in western classrooms. And they are certainly not taking over universities.

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