The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) hosted a panel discussion called “Blackness in White Institutions” on March 14, part of the union’s eXpression Against Oppression series.

Chimwemwe Alao, Vice-President Equity of the UTSU, probed panelists about topics ranging from what was referred to as an anti-Black structure inherent in the university to experiences of anti-Black racism at U of T. The venue, the JJR Macleod Auditorium, was filled with students, community members, professionals, and activists. Students from other Ontario universities were also in attendance.

Organized by the UTSU’s Social Justice & Equity Commission, the panel included Lauriann Wade, registrar and sessional lecturer for U of T’s Transitional Year Programme; LeRoi Newbold, a member of the steering committee for BlackLivesMatter-Toronto (BLM-TO); and Justice Huyer, an activist and the Vice-President of the Black Students’ Association.

“There are no safe spaces for being Black on campus,” said Huyer in her opening remarks. Huyer discussed how Black students face specific challenges entering a “space that wasn’t made for you, that doesn’t work for you, that works to destroy you.” The discussion led to personal anecdotes about inequitable experiences at U of T regarding the treatment of sexual assault victims, and instances of anti-Black racism, which is also ingrained in the university structure. Huyer emphasized the lack of support offered to victims of abuse.

Wade spoke about her experience as one of the only Black registrars on campus. “I’m a bridge. People have to walk across me to get where they are going,” she said, referring to the services she provides to her students. Although she identifies her work as “emotionally labour intensive,” she emphasized that “the only thing keeping me in is seeing faces like this that would much rather see faces like mine on the other side of the table.”

Newbold has been an educator for 14 years and spoke about his experiences as a teacher candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He worked on the BLM-TO campaign to remove police officers from public schools, recalling an incident where “a six-year-old girl ended up being handcuffed by the wrists and ankles” in a Toronto classroom.

During the Q&A period, attendees asked for academic and career advice. Wade closed the panel with some guidance, telling attendees, “I want you to believe in your dreams… imagine what it’s like to live everyday without having to ask these questions.” Huyer pressed the importance of finding resources and like-minded peers on campus, as well as caring for mental wellness.

This was the final event of the annual eXpression Against Oppression series, an initiative that’s one of the priorities of Alao’s portfolio. “I am really glad that throughout my term I was able to make sure that Blackness wasn’t censored, hosting events specifically focused on anti-Blackness like this [one,]” he said. The event was initially scheduled to take place on February 2, but Alao said the organizers “moved [the event] partly out of the idea that Black history is more than just the month of February.”