What is it like to be a Black person in Canada? The question, posed to York University Faculty of Education Professor Carl E. James, was intended as a starting point for a frank discussion about anti-Black racism.
James didn’t bat an eye. “We’re asked that all the time. It’s a good place to start. But the fact that one would ask the question is interesting. Would a Black person ask a white person what it’s like to be white? Do we assume that a Black person would understand what it means to be a white person? If so, why does the Black person understand, but not vice versa, despite the fact that the two grew up in the same place, read the same material, watched the same TV shows, attended the same university?”.
He paused, then answered his own question. “Something’s wrong with the system. Something’s wrong given that the information we all end up with is so different. We have to know what the other person’s understanding if we’re going to survive in this world.”
However, gaining an understanding of Black people today is not necessarily achieved by taking a workshop on anti-Black racism. “I’m deeply skeptical of that training,” says Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Andrea Davis. “It tends to position Blackness as a problem that needs to be solved. Although the discourse appears to be coming from a liberal perspective of ‘How can we help?´, it’s really asking ‘How can we intervene so that these problems don’t overwhelm the fabric of our society?’”
Both academics have explored Blackness throughout their careers. James holds the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in addition to cross-appointments in graduate programs in Sociology, Social and Political Thought, and Social Work. Davis specializes in literatures and cultures of the Black Americas and holds cross-appointments in graduate programs in English, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies.
Both James and Davis have recently been appointed to leadership positions at York to assist the University to build a more equitable and inclusive community. In August 2020, James was appointed senior advisor on equity and representation to the University, as part of the Division of Equity, People and Culture. In September 2020, Davis began her term as special advisor on an Anti-Black Racism Strategy, a position developed within the dean’s office in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
In order to move forward, both scholars believe we must go back – back to the roots of anti-Black racism and the slavery that began in the Americas in the 1500s.
“We need to think of the world as we’ve come to accept and understand it,” James explains. “We need to reflect on the colonial system, which was developed and supported by capitalism. We need to consider capitalism’s relationship to the enslavement of Africans, displacement of Indigenous peoples, the indentureship of Asians, and the immigration programs by which racialized people, even with governments’ reservations, were allowed to enter Canada.”
While Black slavery was abolished in Canada (in 1838) and in the United States (in 1865), Davis notes that the racism that was born of slavery became deeply entrenched in society. “We’re talking about an institution that was embedded in the foundations of what we now understand as democratic societies. [Racism] was formed out of the framework of social relationships established over centuries of enslavement.”
She adds that while Black people became ‘free,’ the social systems created by slavery ensured they “would not be able to enter into full participatory citizenship, or economic, social and cultural freedom. Society shifted to a different kind of relationship with Black people, but that society still assumed their inferiority. And this is what we’re still seeing in the 21st century.”
The case of George Floyd, a Black man killed in May 2020 during an arrest in Minneapolis after a store clerk alleged Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill, is a case in point.
“Young Black people have been taught by their parents that they should carry themselves in a certain way, and be polite and demonstrate to society that they have value,” Davis explains. “But they’re increasingly saying, ‘That’s untrue. We’re still disproportionately killed by the police.’ George Floyd was polite. He begged for his life. He said ‘please.’ He called the police officers ‘sir.’ And he still died. So now you’re seeing, on the streets, a pushback against this idea that if Black people try hard enough, they’ll be able to participate equally with others.”
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