Black Lives Matter and Allyship

Twenty-twenty has been a challenging year. In March, we in North America had to contend with the emergence of a global pandemic. Then, one after another, racist incidents involving the police were revealed to the public. For many Black people, hearing about Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and others, made it feel as though the air was being siphoned out of a room that was already suffocating.

And then came George Floyd. His murder at the hands of police is an example of how insignificant the lives of Black people are to some.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, the world has entered a new era of awakening related to racism – the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. More and more Black people have felt emboldened to share their experiences. Yet, in Canada, our nation often embodies a culture of denial. Whether in the death of Andrew Loku or the verdict in the case involving the brutalization of Dafonte Miller, the truth is evident: Our country’s law enforcement officers and justice system do not treat members of the Black community fairly.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Black Lives Matter has a strong Canadian presence. 

Founded in the United States in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter is an organization created in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Today, it remains dedicated to the eradication of systemic Anti-Black violence and oppression. In 2014, Black Lives Matter Canada was created, operating under the same mandate.

We spoke to some young activists pursuing change in Canada and beyond.

Cicely Belle Blain is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver. We talked to Blain, who doesn’t shy away from addressing the impact of systemic racism. As they said, “it’s often harder to spot because it’s the water we swim in.”

Suppose you encountered someone who believes that “Canada’s an amazing country and racism isn’t a problem here.” What would you tell them?

Racism and oppression exist everywhere. Yes, parts of Canada may be safer or more progressive, but that does not negate the more nuanced ways that racism shows up in our daily lives. I also think these things can exist simultaneously — Canada has changed, a lot and things do improve, but that does not negate people’s experiences of racism.

Why do we need Black Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter is a reminder of the inequality that exists in our society. First, we must examine “Black lives matter” as a statement — is it really that controversial? It’s simply a sentence that affirms the life and existence of a community that has experienced oppression, violence, and trauma throughout history and in our current society. Then we can come to understand Black Lives Matter as an organization and a movement. I think it appears radical and even militant to some because Black people have been silenced and marginalized for so long, so us speaking out and taking to the streets comes as a shock to the (oppressive) system.

How do you feel about this new, mainstream interest in racism and Black Lives Matter? What are your concerns? What are your hopes?

On one hand it’s incredible and affirming — as an activist sometimes you feel like you are shouting into the void, so to see these conversations in mainstream media is new and exciting. On the other hand, there is a clear oversimplification and trivialization of the complexities and nuances of the movement. There are many people posting a black square or vague “solidarity” statements but without any action to follow or a deeper understanding of the movement.

I hope this lasts longer than a moment and I do have hope that it will. Many people and organizations are being held accountable for racist actions and are changing for the better, so I see sustainability in this movement.

World-renowned chef Roger Mooking is a Canadian of Trinidadian descent. He’s also a father of four and the host of shows such as Man Fire Flood and Everyday Exotic. 

In recent weeks, Mooking has seen signs of potential change. He notices that “We are currently in the midst of a reckoning and I am suddenly having conversations both personally and professionally that I have never had with people that I never thought would entertain these types of conversations.”

We spoke to Mooking about the change he hopes to see in Canada.

How would you compare racism in other parts of the globe to racism in Canada?

There is a strong white supremacist contingency in Canada with several of those groups having main branches throughout the country. Generally speaking, Canada has the type of institutional racism that marginalizes certain groups from access to the people, financial tools, resources, and mindset to engender empowering outcomes. For instance, I just received a resource from a wealth management institution and every single person on the Executive group of that particular support team was a middle-aged white person.

I find it interesting that while I have beat my statistical odds for achieving a certain level of perceived “success,” it is noteworthy that these tools are centralized, disseminated, and executed by a disproportionately homogeneous demographic.

What do you think can be done about our country’s culture of denial related to racism? How can Canadians best turn the tide on racism in their country, communities, or themselves?

It’s important that we understand Canada’s history beyond the European colonization of Canada. This is an intentional indoctrination and time tested method of colonizers globally that does a disservice to those who are exploited. It is time we teach a broader educational platform if we truly embrace the cultural diversity that Canadians are so proud of, because that can’t truly become a reality unless we understand the breadth of history that has been very Eurocentric to date.

Can you share an anecdote about an instance of racism in your life or career that caught you by surprise? how did you feel? How did you respond? What did you learn?

[While on the road for work] I’ve been told that “I should swing from that tree by a rope,” “we got guns out here BOY,” and been flashed guns, swastikas, and confederate flags in threatening gestures. In every instance mentioned I was simultaneously shocked, alarmed, afraid, angry, and yet totally not surprised. 

I responded differently in every situation, but was very aware that I was in “their town” and calling the police would likely not work in my best interest. 

In spite of these incidents, Roger remains determined. “I’ve learned that my life work is to reinforce the spreading of positivity and public imagery of people of colour. Success is the greatest revenge.”

Daniel Afolabi, 20, is a student at the University of British Columbia. Raised in Alberta, his experiences with racism at school prompted him to launch a petition asking their Ministry of Education to include Black history in its curriculum. Education-based anti-racism work is crucial as today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders.

Why is the lack of diversity in Canada’s curriculum an issue?

My concern, and a concern shared with many of my Black friends living in Calgary, is that the lack of Black history in the curriculum, Black figures in the classroom, clear allies in the classroom, instigates ignorance. This ignorance leads to racism. I really do believe that the step of adding Black history into the curriculum — which should be the first step, not the only step — can work to dismantle the ignorant mindsets that some kids may have coming into the classroom.

Why do you think people misunderstand the need to include Black history in the curriculum? 

It might be that some white people see adding Black history and anti-racism to the curriculum as an erasure of their history, or some kind of pandering, or “liberal” fragility initiative. But the fact is, Black Canadian history is Canadian history. It’s not a political issue. Liberal or Conservative, you should care that a significant portion of your country’s population and their contributions to your country have not been recognized or effectively taught in the classroom.

How would you respond to someone who tells you that they don’t see the point of your petition? 

It wasn’t until a month ago I learned about Amber Valley, an early 20th-century settlement in Alberta mainly populated by Black immigrants. It wasn’t until a month ago that I learned that Canada also had enslaved Black people, not just the United States. It’s important not just that Black students are able to learn how they fit into Canadian history, but that all students learn about Black people’s contributions to Canada. It’s important that we learn about John Ware, Black soldiers in the War of 1812, Viola Desmond and more. We exist. I can’t put it any more simply than that.

How to Be an Effective Ally

Toronto-based educator Dr. Joseph Smith, the Executive Director of Generation Chosen, has witnessed firsthand the detrimental effects that insufficient information can have on Black youth. “The Black students I have been privileged to educate find themselves at the brunt of a system in which exclusion is endemic. The lack of representation, culturally relevant pedagogical approaches and curricular biases coalesce to truly hamper the emotional and intellectual lives of Black students across our nation,” he says.

Dr. Smith believes that “Canada is novel insofar as we are incredibly diverse. However, what functions well at the level of imagery often cloaks the fact that we live in silos — divided due to our lack of empathy and understanding. While we have championed diversity, we have neglected inclusion.” He explains, that in order to make Canada a true example of progress, it would need to “bravely and authentically make amends with our colonial history and create the institutional mechanisms necessary to ensure that we do not regress to the polarities of that social context in times of strain, opposition, and challenge. If our standard curriculums do not mirror these aims, we will continue to produce a society that is anything but anti-oppressive.”

Dr. Ismaël Traoré, a leader at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning, is a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist. He says there are many indicators of an aspiring ally, including deep and nuanced awareness of the manifestations of racism and privilege, being committed to creating “the beloved community,” a term coined by Martin Luther King and amplified by bell hooks, engaging in diversity, inclusion, and racial equity work, listening to BIPOCs, and practicing self-awareness and emotional development.

Dr. Shelly Tochluk is a professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University. She is also an experienced author. Her book, Witnessing Whiteness, encourages white people to confront race-related biases in their own lives. 

Tochluk states that authentic ally-ship, “takes time and effort. Too many of us white people believe that ally-ship is a state of mind, easily achieved by watching a few documentaries or reading a book or two. Real ally-ship is a life-long process of self-inquiry, growth, and taking action in the service of creating a more equitable society.”

Dr. Tochluk shares the following ideas for becoming a better ally:

  • Dedicate yourself to life-long learning. Developing one’s anti-racist practice takes daily dedication and is not only about conversation for the sake of personal growth. Developing an anti-racist practice is like building a muscle. White folks have a lot of strengthening to do, and that means we need to work those muscles every day, making attention focused on racial justice a habit.
  • Use your voice to spread the word. Consider your spheres of influence. Practice talking about race with other white people. Plant seeds.
  • Join in community, accountability, and take action. Join a community of action/practice that supports ongoing political education and action. 
  • And lastly, confront fears and build on strengths. Explore a variety of ways to participate actively in spreading anti-racism messages and working on justice initiatives. Try to balance the need to consistently confront fears, in order to stretch and grow, with the need to find where one’s strengths match well with the needs of the movement. Finding the right lane on the racial justice freeway supports long-term dedication.

Photo(s) courtesy of Jessey Pacho (graffiti)