Breaking stereotypes: Applied Psychology alum looks at ways to combat anti-Indigenous racism

By Ming Yeung, Marketing and Communications

When Dr. Iloradanon Efimoff first meets someone, she often says, “Haw’aa, Iloradanon hínuu díi kya’áang.” This translates to “Hello, my name is Iloradanon,” and it’s her way to greet people using the Haida language. 

Often, people are surprised that Iloradanon – with her pale skin and wavy red hair – is Indigenous.  

“When people find out I’m Indigenous, they will say ‘Oh, you don’t look Indigenous.’ It highlights the stereotypes that people hold in their minds about what an Indigenous person looks like,” says Iloradanon.

Different skin tones, different treatments

The Bachelor of Applied Psychology alum spent her early years on the northwest coast of B.C. with her Haida father, European settler mother and siblings, including a younger sister. Her younger sister – who has a darker complexion and long, straight black hair – was often the target of racism. For instance, when the family went shopping, their mother noticed more store staff following them around when the younger sister was with them. 

As an adolescent, Iloradanon began to suspect why she and her sister were treated so differently. 

“We have the same facial structure, the same nose, our features are very similar. It’s just that we have different skin tones and different hair colours,” she says. “I didn’t realize until I was older that we were treated differently because of our different skin tones.” 

Through her recent PhD dissertation, Iloradanon probed a daunting question crucial to Canada’s reconciliation efforts: How can we teach people to be less racist towards Indigenous people in Canada?

How the research journey began

Before she embarked on her graduate studies, Iloradanon took a gap year and worked as a research assistant with the DUDES Club, an Indigenous men’s health organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She helped with all aspects of the club’s research projects, from data analysis to strengthening relationships with elders and club members. 

“I got a really well-rounded research experience from that, and together with the research training I gained from my bachelor’s degree at Douglas, is what I brought with me into grad studies,” she says.  

Iloradanon later earned her Master’s in Applied Social Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, focusing on perceptions and attitudes towards White-presenting Indigenous people. 

Finding effective education to address anti-Indigenous racism

She continued her PhD in Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Manitoba as a Vanier Scholar, the tri-council’s most prestigious PhD scholarship in Canada. “A big part of why I’m interested in studying anti-Indigenous racism is not just because I experience racism, but also because I’m Indigenous. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I want to be able to correct that, so people stop expressing racism based on misinformation,” she says. 

Although studies show that there are multiple education-based training programs designed to address racism toward Indigenous people, there is limited evidence that education can reduce prejudice. So, Iloradanon wanted to find out whether educational interventions work, and if they do, how they should be facilitated. 

Iloradanon spent four years conducting research. She started with a small study where she interviewed eight Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba to understand their experiences with racism.  

Using the findings from that study, she surveyed more than 3,000 undergraduate students, including nearly 400 Indigenous students, to learn about Indigenous students’ experiences with racism on a broader scale and non-Indigenous students’ attitudes around learning about Indigenous issues.   

Her findings suggested that non-Indigenous students were most interested in learning about Indigenous issues through short videos in class. “This is potentially a call for educators to embed this learning material into their existing courses,” Iloradanon suggests. 

Learning historical and current injustices together

Finally, through two further studies, she wanted to find out if non-Indigenous participants’ Indigenous-related thoughts, feelings, knowledge, behavioural intentions and behaviours would change after an educational intervention. Participants watched a brief video about historical and current injustices that Indigenous people experience, as well as individual and systemic forms of anti-Indigenous racism. 

When participants watched the video, their attitudes toward Indigenous people improved. Learning about these topics also increased their knowledge about anti-Indigenous racism in Canada. As well, participants who viewed the video felt more empathy toward Indigenous people than participants who didn’t view the video.  

“We can tell educators to talk about current injustices such as race-based hate crimes instead of just historical atrocities like residential schools. It’s also important to understand how past injustices and intergenerational harms continue to have a negative effect on the Indigenous populations currently,” she says.  

Besides incorporating an educational video into classes, it is also important to Indigenize curriculum for students to have a solid understanding of Canada’s colonial history as well as the present and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous culture and people, Iloradanon suggests. She believes hiring Indigenous people in roles that support Indigenous students and staff on post-secondary campuses is fundamental. 

“If an institution is serious about reconciling and Indigenizing, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” she says. 

Commitment to Indigenization

When Iloradanon was at Douglas College, some of these supports were yet to exist. But she found Indigenous community on campus and is particularly grateful for Dave Seaweed’s guidance throughout her undergraduate career. Dave is one of the Aboriginal Coordinators at Douglas, who provides personalized support and advocates for new and current students through funding opportunities, policy advocacy, community referrals and access to spiritual supports. 

“He was absolutely foundational in my life at that time, and still today. He’s so welcoming and supportive of Indigenous students. I truly wouldn’t be where I am today without his support and guidance,” she says. “Never underestimate the power of community and relationship to carry students through.” 

Over the past year, Iloradanon was a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Canada’s most prestigious postdoctoral award, at the Research for Indigenous Social Action and Equity Center at the University of Michigan. Her latest research focused on the identity experiences of multiracial Indigenous people, a growing and under-studied group in Canada. Starting in July, she will be working as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University.  

Though she acknowledges education is only one of many ways to reduce anti-Indigenous racism, she thinks that as research continues, there is hope for a more equitable future.  

“I plan to continue doing similar research to find out what we need to teach people for them to express less anti-Indigenous racism,” she says.

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