Mathematics Doesn’t Get a Pass on Racial Justice Reform


Over what was supposed to be a calm July weekend, elements of the new Ontario Grade 9 destreamed math curriculum suddenly drew the ire of National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, and then, among others, writer James Lindsay, politician Maxime Bernier and Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley. Particularly, one principle underlying the math course sparked considerable outrage:

An equitable mathematics curriculum recognizes that mathematics can be subjective. Mathematics is often positioned as an objective and pure discipline. However, the content and the context in which it is taught, the mathematicians who are celebrated, and the importance that is placed upon mathematics by society are subjective. Mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges, and a decolonial, anti-racist approach to mathematics education makes visible its historical roots and social constructions. The Ontario Grade 9 mathematics curriculum emphasizes the need to recognize and challenge systems of power and privilege, both inside and outside the classroom, in order to eliminate systemic barriers and to serve students belonging to groups that have been historically disadvantaged and underserved in mathematics education.

After Mr. Lilley published an opinion piece calling for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce to “fix this,” the above passage was subsequently removed from the Ministry of Education’s Digital Curriculum Platform.

But it didn’t stop there. As noted by Jamie Mitchell, additional parts of the curriculum were also quietly deleted:

  • A key skill to “recognize the ways in which mathematics can be used as a tool to uncover, explore, analyse, and promote actions to address social and environmental issues such as inequity and discrimination”
  • Addressing “issues of power and social justice in mathematics education”
  • Creating “anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and learning opportunities”
  • Making “visible the colonial contexts of present-day mathematics education”
  • Suggesting that mathematical modelling can be used “to address critical social and environmental issues that are relevant to [students’] lives and communities.”

I hope to outline why these deletions have no real basis, especially in light of the government’s announced commitment to anti-racism, other than to appease those with dissenting views.

Mathematics, in practice, application, and status, is subjective

The mathematics that we teach in schools is decided by government-created curricula and is not absolute. In Ontario, there is no emphasis on proofs or conic sections. Instead, we focus on financial literacy and coding. Michole Enjoli outlines how the mathematics that is taught in schools is based on what society values. As a whole, we have marginalized cultural mathematics to make room for concepts that better serve the aims of capitalism. These are active decisions made by those in power.

How we assess students’ mathematical understanding is also arbitrary. What skills we value, the questions we ask, and the knowledge we recognize are based on decisions made by people and sometimes mediated by statistical analyses. This article from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argues how “all assessments of students’ mathematical understanding are subjective.”

Even mathematics as it is held up on a pedestal and privileged in society is a conscious decision. It seems that being awesome at math automatically makes one smart, but being excellent in other endeavours does not garner the same default clout. Is it because we have made success in math exclusive only for a select few? Do we view math abilities as innate in certain people? I hope not. Perhaps it’s because mathematics has helped to advance humankind in a myriad of ways. Unfortunately, math has also been used to cause significant harm to entire populations (more on that later). In any case, we have made a choice to give mathematics, over many other disciplines, privilege in our world.

Mathematics as a subjective enterprise is not inherently bad nor good – that’s not the point. However, we need to let go of the idea that mathematics is pure and objective, as that worldview erases the reality of how math is positioned in society and taken up as an experience by billions of people around the world.

Mathematics has been used to normalize racism

Karl Pearson (left) and Francis Galton (right). Source: Wikipedia

“Math is racist” is a phrase being circulated to criticize the anti-racist nature of the math curriculum. Boiling down complex ideas into a three-word slogan intentionally obscures the nuances inherent to any social issue. Mathematics, like all languages used to make sense of the world around us, was created by humans for humans. It is a tool with which to do things. Math is no more or less racist than a doorknob. However, it is the way in which mathematics has been used that is worthy of critique.

How has math been used to normalize racism? Here are some examples:

  • Statistics and eugenics: Francis Galton, Ronald Fisher, and Karl Pearson are the “Big Three” mathematicians that laid the foundation for modern statistical analysis. These three used mathematics and its perception of objectivity to further the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and justify white supremacist ideas and policies. Similar ideas using IQ testing continue to persist.
  • Algorithmic bias: Mathematical algorithms are used to automate calculations for risk, identify people’s characteristics, and predict behaviour. Criminal courts in America have used a machine learning program to assist in predicting the likelihood of re-offense by convicted criminals. It turns out that a 2016 study found that the program perpetuated our biases and rated Black people at a higher risk than White people.
  • Educational streaming: Mathematics is a gatekeeper for many post-secondary opportunities. Black and Indigenous students in Ontario are disproportionately placed in lower-streamed math courses, preventing them from accessing STEM programs in college or university and obtaining many high income-earning careers. This disproportionality both creates and perpetuates a subtle narrative that it is normal for Black and Indigenous students to not be good at math, and so rather than trying to remedy the situation, we can accept it and just make the most of it. The creation of a destreamed math course is meant to disrupt this oppressive norm.

Without a critical analysis of how mathematics has and can continue to distort reality, we end up increasing the odds that history will repeat itself in more insidious ways.

Mathematics can be used to address critical social and environmental issues

Mathematics has been used to inform COVID-19 vaccination strategies. Source: Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table

It is curious that explicitly naming issues of social and environmental justice have been deleted from the curriculum. Without the use of mathematics as a tool to uncover social issues, the practice of police carding would continue to further damage Black and Indigenous communities across Canada, climate change would be even more out of control, and COVID-19 responses would not have (eventually) prioritized those in highest-risk neighbourhoods.

Also, perhaps the greatest irony of this deletion is that this government’s destreamed math course, a gem in their crown of anti-racism, is a direct product of mathematics being used to uncover systemic racism in education.

So now what?

Mr. Lilley notes, “Math hasn’t changed, though, and calling mathematics subjective, racist, and Eurocentric does nothing to help students who were left behind by the old curriculum.” If we examine who has been left behind by the old curriculum — disproportionately racialized students and students in special education — we see that how mathematics has been taken up in schools is somehow leaving specific groups of students behind, and we have been doing so for generations. We need to call out what is wrong in order to make things right. Mathematics does not get a pass on racial justice reform simply because it’s helped to make iPhones.

Governments have and should make changes to policies in response to new information. When research was highlighted to show how evaluating social-emotional learning skills would harm students of colour, particularly Black students, the Ministry of Education put a pause on the practice. In the case of these revisions, however, no new information has come forth. Rather, the highlighting of the mathematics discipline as one that is subjective and used as a tool to uphold racist ideas is the new knowledge that has been brought to the forefront. The removal of anti-racist principles in a math curriculum borne out of a desire to address anti-Black racism is blatantly contradictory and seemingly a knee-jerk response to the opinions of a select few. Perhaps more than anything, in a time when we should be centering the voices of those most impacted by anti-Black racism, this is what is most concerning.

10 thoughts on “Mathematics Doesn’t Get a Pass on Racial Justice Reform

  1. Very interesting article. I can see the truth in the article and how some can be left behind.

  2. Wow! Thank you for this article Jason! It really opened my eyes. I never considered how mathematics has been used to normalize racism. An anti-racist lens is useful for all disciplines, not just history.

  3. Well said Jason. I am distressed about the deletions that have occurred. The uninformed few get to change the good intentions of this curriculum because they value the elitism that mathematics education has perpetuated. These are not folks who care about the well being of ALL students. The deletions should be reinstated and highlighted for all educators.

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