What is Math?

Growing up, I did not see how my education was not entirely inclusive. As someone with white privilege from a privileged background, I didn’t always notice when my classmates weren’t represented in the curriculum or if some of the course material was discriminatory, since it didn’t seem to affect me. I now know I was wrong, and I work not only to notice oppression (and to work against it), but to bring awareness to other people about this discrimination. One thing I did notice, especially in high school, was that math was really designed to be done in English and when translated to another language, there were always some difficulties. My high school offered a French immersion program, and my friends who opted for that program had to take math classes in French. They always complained about how confusing their terms were and how hard it was to understand concepts that I had easily grasped in an English classroom.

When first thinking about whether my experience with mathematics was discriminatory, I couldn’t see how it was, my first thought was ‘math is math, how can that be discriminatory’? However, upon reflection, I realize that this is a result of a Eurocentric worldview that is privileged over Indigenous worldviews. As well, my math lessons promoted the idea that there was only one right way of thinking. I often interpreted things a little bit differently in my head than what was explained in class (but I would still get the right answers, just by my own process). Whenever I would try to explain my thinking to the teacher, they would say I was wrong and couldn’t wrap their way around another way of thinking. 

Poirier’s article challenges the Eurocentric idea that mathematics is its own “universal language”, there are many different cultural interpretations of math that use their own tools “according to their needs and their environment” (Poirier 54). Another Eurocentric idea that Inuit mathematics challenges is the idea that math is something that needs to be represented by numerical symbols, “the Inuit have developed a system for expressing numbers orally. They do not have other means of representing numbers” but “each number has different forms according to the context” (Poirier 57). As well, the idea that math is something we must use in our everyday life is also challenged by Inuit mathematics, they don’t use numbers to describe distance or months, instead they use natural landmarks and occurrences (such as inukshuks or the amount of time it takes for a caribou’s antlers to lose their velvet).

This post references the following works:



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