Five Black leaders who are artists, activists, entrepreneurs, academics, writers, and educators sat in front of a packed Ada Slaight Hall, and shared their experiences with and perspectives on anti-blackness in Canada.
The event was part of the How to Be an Ally series, co-created by the Centre for Social Innovation and members El Mugammar and Bear Standing Tall in summer of 2016.
“What does anti-blackness mean to you?” moderator and CSI Manager of Stakeholder Engagement, Elisa Smith, asked the panel.
“Speaking from my own personal experience it’s having to be hyperly surveillanced and always watched,” answered Just John.
Just John, formerly the Owner of Blank Canvas Gallery, was tasered by police in his own gallery on New Year’s Eve 2016, following a liquor license infraction. Blank Canvas was a gallery and event space which showcased marginalized and low-income artists and performers.
“With any other space you would not be tackled by five police and tasered three times,” he said. Plain clothes officers would frequent the gallery, says Just John, or police would show up to poetry readings in bullet proof vests.
“The whole situation really opened my eyes to systematic racism,” he said.
For Just John, being subjected to police violence in Toronto is proof in itself that anti-blackness is not solely U.S. phenomenon.
Rooted in the Atlantic Slave Trade, anti-blackness is a 500-year-old project that transcends borders, said Hassan.
“I don’t do the comparison of the U.S. and Canada,” she said. “It’s the same history, it’s the same legacy, it’s the same shit.”
Minimizing or denying anti-blackness in this country erases our own legacy of slavery, said El Mugammar. It also makes erases the resistance work happening here at home, added Hassan.
“Anti-blackness is the devaluing of Black people,” said Kamau. “Not only on an individual level but also on a systemic level.”
It’s important to talk about anti-blackness in terms of very practical things, such as how it leads to subpar health care for Black folks, said Kamau. Hassan pointed to the School Resource Officer Program, which put police in TDSB schools; a program which came to and end this year after 10 years of community push-back.
Being Black can mean you don’t get the job, or you don’t get invited to table where decisions are made, panelists told the crowd.
“I wonder if there are people who aren’t Black who wonder when they get a job if they think that there’s probably someone who is Black who didn’t get this thing,” Ninkuru said. Ninkuru added that anti-blackness is disproportionate for folks with darker skin, eliciting nods and snaps from fellow panelists and audience members.
“There is so much brilliance that could be at this table, but that brilliance is working a double shift, that brilliance is taking care of kids,” said El Mugammar.
What does it mean to #BeAnAlly?
Though there was no consensus on what it means to be an ally, El Mugammar told the crowd that whatever it is, it needs to go beyond a Facebook status or Tweet.
“People are so willing to do this performative allyship thing,” she said. “I don’t want your allyship at a protest if you’re letting racism slide at the dinner table.”
Ninkuru told the audience that it was also important to “make the decision that no Black person is going to go through violence or suffer without you acting directly.”
The goal, said Mugammar, needs to be freedom for those who live on the margins of the margins.
“Nobody’s free until Black trans women and Black trans femmes are free,” said Ninkuru.
“How do we get to that? Give us Money, resources, space and then get out.”
Ninkuru was one of the artists featured in Flowers While We’re Living; a showcase created by and featuring Indigenous, Black and other racialized trans and queer artists at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre earlier this year.
Just John, who has been curating events with the Omit Limitation Collective for the past five years, encouraged the audience to support Black businesses and Black spaces with cold hard cash. Beyond money Just John said white people needed to do the work with other white people.
“It’s already deadly to be dehumanized,” Hassan added. “But then having to do the work to humanize yourself on top of that, that’s doubly deadly. ”
Rebecca Rose is a queer, feminist Toronto-based freelance writer who focuses on underreported stories and marginalized communities. She is an active member of the Canadian Freelance Union (CFU). Read her work on https://rebeccarosewrites.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Twitter @rrosewrites.