I have had more than a thousand recorded conversations as a journalist, but artist Naomi Gracechild was the first Black person I have interviewed.
Gracechild sat down to speak with me, from a safe social distance, to discuss how to get through the difficult conversations needed in Canada. I reached out to her after her June 2 appearance on CBC Radio One’s On the Coast, where a live conversation about anti-Black racism went off the rails, resulting in a solemn apology from host Gloria Macarenko a day later.
“Racism is structural. I don’t think that taking individuals’ morals into question is really effective. I think we need to look at things from a systemic perspective, but we need to be okay with calling it what it is,” Gracechild told me. “Although it is uncomfortable for white folks, they need to move through that discomfort in order to make progress and solve the problem.”
As an Indigenous person, I have always held a kinship with Black people, since Indigenous and Black cultures are reduced and homogenized in North America and I could see the similarities to our own oppression in the art created by Black people. There’s another grave similarity as well: Canada is not a safe place for Black people and never has been.
Societal misconceptions, intentional erasure of history, and appropriation of Black art are rampant and have created a culture that allows the deaths of Black people at the hands of police across the country. The recent displays of solidarity for the Black community around the world would not have been needed if Black lives mattered to the countries that continue to benefit from slavery and economic discrimination.
One of the keys to avoiding rampant injustice is listening to those that experience discrimination and racism daily. And when the person you’re speaking with and listening to is in the throes of grief and pain, it is wise to avoid asking for labour from them.
When Gracechild, who goes by the artist name Naomi Grace, agreed to be interviewed by Macarenko for On the Coast about the contribution of Black artists to the music industry, she knew she would shake things up a bit.
What neither guest nor host was likely prepared for was an increasingly terse exchange.
Early in the interview, when Macarenko asked Gracechild to elaborate on a point, the candid answer was as follows:
“Yeah. We live in a racist country. Whiteness means power,” said Grachild. “Whiteness is also ‘safe’ … and quote-unquote ‘clean.’ We have been maligned by this current regime for a long time and painted by the media as criminals, as bad people, as people who are less intelligent and less creative. And we give so much to this culture. I’m not talking about the States, I’m talking about Canada right now.”
That’s where the heated back-and-forth began to go off the rails.
Macarenko asked for specific examples of Black culture, art, or people being erased or appropriated.
Gracechild replied: “There’ll be bands of all white people playing African-American music because it’s more comfortable for corporate audiences to see a pretty, blonde girl on stage than to see Black people. That’s the history of the recording industry.”
After a musical interlude — from Vancity Black, a Spotify playlist curated by Gracechild for Black History Month — the conversation between Macarenko and Gracechild resumed. That’s when the conversation became really strained, says Gracechild, as Macarenko asked for solutions, something which had not been on the list of pre-interview questions.
Gracechild was not about to provide answers to how Black people can solve white supremacy.
“Honestly, these questions are really tiring. Since last Thursday I’ve barely slept. I’ve been calling this the great white exhaustion because every white person that I know is coming to me to explain racism,” she said on air.
“After we have been talking about it literally for hundreds of years. You can go to the library and get books. YouTube. Smartphones [are] in your pocket. So to ask me as somebody who has been subjugated … how should I fix your attitude [of] subjugating me? I don’t think that I should have to answer that question.”
“What are some of the useful things that allies can do? Money. I know it sounds trite, but money. Racism is economic. Racism is purely economic,” added Gracechild. “It’s about extracting resources both from human beings and the land. Part of keeping that machine going is keeping Black people in servitude … I believe [that] everybody’s human right on this planet is to thrive.”
History of dehumanization
In addition to being an artist, Gracechild is a professional consultant and founder of Euphony Works, which aims to “help clients gain a deeper understanding of socio-political dynamics in order to effectively address issues of inequity.”
Gracechild is not alone in the work she does. Dr. Yvonne Brown, author of Dead Woman Pickney: A Memoir of Childhood in Jamaica, pointed to one root of the problem during a June 8 webinar called Resistance and Resurgence: Confronting Anti-Black Racism in Canada, which showcased seven prominent Black women.
“Just the label ‘Black’ that we are all using is so problematic. The word is available in all Western European colonizers’ language,” said Dr. Brown, who is also a historian and former university lecturer and public school teacher. “At the time of enslavement the Portuguese said ‘negra,’ then comes the Spanish … the French … and you can go down the line, the Germans — all of them have a name in their language for black-skinned people.”
“With that one word alone they’ve erased ethnic identities, clans, political geographies, [and] cultures,” she said. “That word gave them licence to demonize and dehumanize people with Black skin.”
“We’re living the heritage of that.”
What Macarenko went through on air was what Dr. Brown and Gracechild point to, and in the moment she failed to respond appropriately.
“I think that she wanted me to say some kind of easy answer, like putting a pink ribbon on it. We’re not talking about an isolated incident. We’re talking about 400 years of brutal, brutal, brutal violence,” Gracechild shared with me.
“I’ve been thinking about racism as a disease,” said Natasha Tony, who does consultation work similar to Gracechild’s, during the webinar. “The pandemic of racism and of white supremacy as the addiction. I’m curious to know if we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Policing a white supremacist system
At least 17 Black people in Canada have been killed by police in the last seven years.
The youngest was 5-year-old Nicholas Thorne-Belance, who in 2014 was in a vehicle hit by an unmarked police car going more than 100 kilometres per hour in a 50-kilometre zone. The eight-month sentence given to Quebec provincial police officer Patrick Ouellet for dangerous driving is a symptom of the disease. Initially cleared of wrongdoing, Ouellet would not have been charged had the small community of Saint-Hubert not demanded an independent investigation.
Hold that up to the tragic 2018 incident that took the lives of 16 Humboldt Bronco hockey players. I don’t know anybody who wasn’t horrified by the sheer number of young people who died, but the wave of outrage from white people in Canada calling to bring back the death penalty for a South Asian man driving a truck who made a mistake is, to me, a symptom of the addiction to white supremacy.
Eleven of the 17 Black people who were killed by police in the past seven years are said to have had mental health issues, which is part of the reality of having to face racism, discrimination, and injustice every day in a white supremacist system.
Police officers do not have the tools to deal with the situations they encounter daily, an issue under a microscope right now and rightly so.
Are police trained to escalate situations? If so, why? Would a four-year criminal justice degree or social work degree be helpful for every officer? Should police travel in pairs, with at least one officer having deep education on the roots of mental health and economic problems in Canada? Why are police so geared toward instant punishment prior to court proceedings?
The militarization of our police forces from coast to coast does not help them deal with the people they encounter, nor does it address negative attitudes towards people in poverty, who are disproportionately people of colour.
Police capacity is lacking, and people die because of it. In fact, even when someone survives police violence, justice is slow in coming or never arrives.
Godfried Addai was beaten and tasered by one Calgary police officer after calling 911 for help because he had been dropped off in -30 C weather by another police officer in 2013. Addai, acquitted of assault charges, awaits a decision on a $1-million lawsuit he filed in 2016.
Do the work
Apologies acknowledge wrongdoing and are an attempt to repair harm, which Macarenko did and deserves recognition for. However, far too many fail to acknowledge the harm they cause or worse are performative in dangerous ways.
Difficult conversations where people face their own internalized, subconscious bias and racist ideas are what Canada needs right now. Most of these conversations need to be internal, I believe.
Pretending there is no problem in Canada is another matter altogether, but what I see in our country is people willing to make space and take the time to find out where they can help address racism and stop it in its tracks.
The Canadian economy was founded and grown through ports that would not have existed or prospered without slave labour and trade in sugar, molasses, and rum. This reality is hard to grapple with, but people like Naomi Gracechild, Dr. Brown, and Natasha Tony need us to know such things for our country to move forward together in a good way.
None of us can know everything about other cultures and history—I learned only recently about the Underground Railroad’s existence in Canada—but we need to do the work. This requires a collective drive to learn more.
The CBC interview was an important public interaction due to the simple fact that Macarenko didn’t shy away from atoning for her mistake.
One of the key things Gracechild wants Canadians to do is seek information about issues that are not new and should never be packaged as new, the latter is something she points out is often done by media of all stripes.
“I wasn’t going on there to attack the CBC, but rather to hold them accountable so they can change,” she says. “Because sometimes people do things that they’re completely unconscious of, especially if it’s a majority of white folks talking about racial issues that have no lived experience. People can only use the tools they have. So daylighting this stuff is an opportunity for growth and change.”
White supremacy is not a new phenomenon. Gracechild uses the term “people of culture” to capture all peoples that have been systematically oppressed by colonial powers — this includes groups like the Sammi and the Celts, which have been decimated but still survive.
Black slavery was a key component to building what we all enjoy right now, and Gracechild’s point in her On the Coast interview was that the parts of Black culture that are stolen and the labour Black people do to keep this world going is rarely acknowledged in Canada.
We need to stop police murders of Black people, subsidized by tax dollars, says Gracechild. If we avoid the problem, the necessary change will likely never come.
That’s what matters in this moment.