Perhaps the greatest expression of anti-Black racism in Canada is believing Black people and communities across the country are one and the same.
For most of my life, white people and other racialized people have not been able to tell me apart from other Black women in the workplace, on my private time shopping for groceries or through pictures on the all pervasive social media.. Years ago, I attended a leadership development training on a remote island that was focused on power. In an afternoon session on triggers, I shared with the group that someone, not part of our cohort, had called me by another Black woman’s name in the dining room. I asked the white male instructor if my reaction was indicative of an existing trigger. I was aware that it was more likely that the trigger was because of the white woman’s discomfort of my presence. A trigger she likely did not register cognitively but one so deeply embedded in the way non-Black communities are taught to imagine Black communities. Does the trigger of racism belong to the person who is experiencing it or to the person who has enacted it? One of these things comes up in discussion all of the time, the other is an evasive way anti-Black racism is allowed to simmer continuously beneath the surface.
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Since the murder of George Floyd last spring and the onset of a global pandemic, I have entered into personal and professional virtual environments mesmerized by the collective breath white and non-Black people seem to be holding whenever anyone mentions anti-Black racism. I have seen the deluge of self-proclaimed allies buy anti-racism books (they still haven’t read) only to regurgitate back language like they are studying for an exam. I have listened to well-intentioned white people in leadership positions tell me that they just didn’t know that what they were doing had such an impact on Black and racialized people. I have also listened to racialized leaders tell me they just couldn’t understand what was upsetting their Black colleagues.
The last 10 months have been excruciating to live as a Black person in Canada. The last 10 months have been the extreme sport edition of patience and endurance. Everyone tells you that #BlackLivesMatter but the taking of a knee, lack of action plan on systemic racism and flowery statements of solidarity have taken their toll. We don’t need platitudes, Black communities need action.
We teach young children to listen and hear, to treat their friends and others at school with compassion, empathy and grace. In fact, many people pride themselves on raising children that are thoughtful and empathetic. When those we love come to us and tell us they’ve hurt us because they just did not know, we carefully tease out what it is they are unwilling to see. We push back, set clear boundaries and remind others that care requires giving up ego and pride. These lessons do not appear to go beyond the school environment. They certainly do not find their way to the care extended to Black individuals and Black communities. Care and kindness require a willingness to understand, contextualize and make sense of unique experiences. Care requires a willingness to see the humanity of one another. Black people do not have their humanity seen.
Many are unaware that Black communities in Canada come from at least 170 different birthplaces. We have many different faith communities, beliefs as well as ideas of who and what we need to be. Though we may share a systemic experience of anti-Black racism we do not always share the same contextual experience of anti-Black racism. We do not look alike, and we are not alike in our experience of anti-Black racism in Canada. We also do not agree. Expecting Black people to be a monolith is a dangerous exercise in homogenizing Black communities — it has the same function as mistaking Black people for one another. Agency requires autonomy in order to be exercised. Black people deserve both autonomy and agency, not to be pigeonholed into ideas about who and what they are and how they experience this country.
In late 2020, Justin Trudeau announced money for Black entrepreneurs across Canada. He told us that after speaking with and listening to, he had heard small businesses needed money to survive. It’s clear for those working in the trenches with Black communities struggling under the weight of systemic racism and COVID-19 that Trudeau only spoke to corporate Canada and the Black communities and individuals that are represented there. This tells us something too about the mechanism of power. Some Black communities have access to power to influence and impact change while others do not. This also shows us which Black communities are believed to have power and which are not to be consulted at all. And perhaps more importantly, this tells us how Black communities can be picked, chosen and skipped over to serve the purposes of the people in positions of power.
Institutions pick and choose when they want to listen to us — cherry-picking those that match with their quietly insidious ideas of what Black people and communities are entitled to. Trudeau heard corporate Black Canada but not protesting Black Canada because corporate Canada matches up with his idea of the middle class. One is mistaken for the other, because for Canada one simply looks like the other. Substitutions happen instantly, without hesitation because that is what has always been done.
ESDC recently sent out a series of letters declining Black organizations for Black funding citing that organizations were not able to sufficiently demonstrate whether or not they had Black leadership. How Black is Black enough? What is Blackness to those who can substitute one Black person for another? What is Blackness to those who cannot even see the humanity in Black people? It is not an act of care to deny funding to those most impacted by both a global pandemic as well as systemic racism. It certainly isn’t a commitment on systemic racism or anti Black racism.
Although Black people may share a systemic experience of anti-Black racism, we do not always share the same contextual experience of anti-Black racism. We should not be mistaken for one another. Many have shared, they simply did not know any better. Now that you’ve benefited from months of learning and awareness building you do know better. So what happens next?