Oppression and Privilege in Math

  1. At the beginning of the reading, Leroy Little Bear (2000) states that colonialism “tries to maintain a singular social order by means of force and law, suppressing the diversity of human worldviews. … Typically, this proposition creates oppression and discrimination” (p. 77). Think back on your experiences of the teaching and learning of mathematics — were there aspects of it that were oppressive and/or discriminating for you or other students?
  2. After reading Poirier’s article: Teaching mathematics and the Inuit Community, identify at least three ways in which Inuit mathematics challenge Eurocentric ideas about the purposes mathematics and the way we learn it.


Racism, discrimination, and oppression in math? Seems absurd, even impossible- at least that was my mindset. How could mathematics, something that is “linear and singular, static, and objective” (82), be oppressive? Mathematics is a “universal language…no matter where we are two plus two equals four” (54). I viewed the subject as something that isn’t personal or subjective; it is very black and white. After reading the articles “Jagged worldviews colliding” by Leroy Little Bear and “Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community” by Louise Poirier it seems that maybe this dichotomy of mathematics is where oppression stems from.

Looking back at my own experiences of the teaching and learning of mathematics it’s hard to specifically identify any aspects that were oppressive and/or discriminating. Belonging to the “majority” has allowed me the privilege of being taught all subjects in a Eurocentric way. This “way” of teaching ultimately “makes sense” to me. As a white person, I had to take myself out of my own shoes and try to view my math classes from a different perspective. I attended high school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, which is surrounded by four reserves. In turn, the racial/economic makeup of my school was predominantly Indigenous and from a lower socioeconomic standing. The Manitoba curriculum divides the math program into three different streams: Pre-calculus, Applied and Essentials. I took Pre-calculus and all students within that class were white kids who came from “good” families. The teacher was passionate about the subject, had high expectations for each student in the class and was committed to making us successful. She was willing to work with us at lunch, during her breaks and would even help via email or text on nights before an exam. In comparison, the majority of the Indigenous students took Essentials, with a few in Applied. Although I believe teachers strive to connect the students with the subject, my outside observation of these classes left me with a different impression. Often the teachers assigned to the class were not “math majors” and were “teaching from the text”. Going through school I never considered that to be oppressive. But now looking back, I can see that the education system sets up individuals who do not learn via the Eurocentric way to fail. Having a teacher who is less knowledgeable on the subject matter means that they continue to teach and assess in the linear, Eurocentric manner as this is both “easier” for them and familiar to them since this is how they were taught. It was difficult for them to adapt to their “audience” and develop a method of teaching that took into account the culture and oral history of Aboriginals.  This disparity is made more concrete when you look at the Provincial averages for standardized testing in the three different math streams. Recently, Manitoba released the Provincial Math marks on a divisional basis. Looking at these marks, highlight the achievement gap that exists. In 2015, the year I graduated, the Government of Manitoba Provincial test marks were as follows;

  • Pre-Calculus: Provincial Average – 68.7% and Division Average – 70.6%
  • Applied: Provincial Average – 57.5% and Division Average – 58.7%
  • Essentials: Provincial Average – 58% and Divisional Average – 56.6%

Additionally, the Provincial and Division average have continued to decline in the years since I have graduated. Typically Indigenous students are getting lower grades than white people – this is known as the achievement gap. Instead we should be talking about the “…opportunity gap, educational debt, and the investments in Whiteness. Because these gaps are the result of how we fail to support all children, not failures of the children themselves” (Felton-Koestler, 2017). If we consider that everyone has a “jagged worldview” that is not “…100 percent Indigenous or Eurocentric” (85) we need to revise our outcomes and expectations to better reflect the worldview of our students.

In Poirer’s article “Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community” she discusses a number of ways to challenge the Eurocentric ideas about the purposes of math.  The three that resonated with me are:

  1. The idea that mathematics is a universal language. It is now being recognized that, “different cultures have developed different mathematical tools according to their needs and their environment, and the Inuit community is no exception” (54).
  2. Sense of space is another area where Inuit ideas are in conflict with the Eurocentric teachings. Reference points for location and distance is often described using landmarks and senses rather than measurable distances.
  3. The adaptation to their calendar to reflect naturally occurring events rather than constricted time frames. For example, September in “Inuktitut means ‘when the caribou’s antlers lose their velvet’” (60). This can be longer or shorter than the lunar calendar that is often used, depending on when the antlers lose their velvet.

In summary, the Inuit teachings with respect to math, presses the Eurocentric view to be more “free-flowing” and less constricted. Recognizing and addressing this is essential as a teacher to help students achieve their best results.




Bear, L. L. (2000). Jagged worldviews colliding. In M. Batiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision (pp. 77-85). UBC Press.

Poirier, L. (2007). Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community, Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 7(1), p. 53-67.





3 thoughts on “Oppression and Privilege in Math

  1. Aryssa, I love how you went the extra mile and actually found stats about what math looks like in Manitoba. As well as that you acknowledged that you had to remove yourself from your own experience to see the problem that is hidden within math.
    Question: How might knowing these ideals impact the ways that you will teach in the future?


  2. Hi Aryssa,

    I loved your input about the opportunity and education gap, and that it is often us failing the students rather the students failing themselves. I had a similar background in school learning mathematics, even though we were surrounded by reserves as well. I also have always seen mathematics as universal, but it clearly isn’t as universal as it is universally ethnocentric.


  3. Hi Aryssa!
    I experienced similar to you in the sense that I took “higher” maths (calculus) which had passionate teachers, who were willing to put in extra time. Contrastingly, the “lower” or more practical maths that had teachers were not as comfortable teaching the subject and would shy away from direcr teaching or one-on-one assistance.
    My question for you is, how can we incorporate Inuit ways of knowing into all of our subjects?



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