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Finding Blackness — in each other, in ourselves

Being on campus reminds us of our existence and resistance
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TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY
TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

The journey through university is supposedly defined by self-discovery — the process of becoming the person you were always meant to be. For some, this might seem comforting. But for me, a Black Canadian, I find it daunting.

Forming a Black Canadian identity

The conversation of what it means to be a Black Canadian is a confusing road. For one, it is very different from that of African-Americans, whose experiences are separate from our own. African-Americans have a unified racial identity — one that is deeply rooted in an ancestral experience of slavery and post-emancipation oppression.

African-Americans are attached to the US — nothing more and nothing less. The constant need to remind their fellow Americans that their country is theirs is the fire that fuels their revolution. In Canada, the Black population is not defined by a common ancestral link, but rather by its diverse immigrant background.

I have yet to meet a Black Canadian who refers to themselves as “Canadian” before they refer to themselves as either Nigerian, Jamaican, Brazilian, and so on. The commitment to multiculturalism and diversity, especially in Toronto, inhibits the identification of a singular, unified Black Canadian racial identity. If we are Somali or West Indian first, it is difficult to arrive at a conversation about common Black Canadian struggles, namely anti-Black racism, that affect all of us regardless of our ethnic or national background.

The University of Toronto, however, operates as a site of resistance to the multicultural narrative. Here, we are more aware of our Blackness because of the smaller presence of Black bodies on campus, where we should be able to organize as Black students. For example, I interviewed a first-year engineering student who expressed her difficulties in finding peers of the same race as her. A first-year social sciences student noted that there exists a feeling of alienation coupled with “the rare occurrence of running into another Black person.”

The lack of Black representation on campus is problematic. It reduces Black students’ comfort of inclusion and their capacity to organize on campus, which, in turn, allows anti-Blackness to fester and become institutionalized. We saw this when a Massey College professor and a Dalla Lana School of Public Health lecturer both made racist remarks last academic year in two separate cases of anti-Black racism.

This is the kind of behaviour from figures of authority that makes Black students feel unwelcome. It’s also the kind of environment that pushed the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) to demand the collection of race-based data for students that would allow students to identify as Black.

In turn, U of T, along with various other Canadian universities, pledged in October 2017 to provide a demographic report on its students. Such a report has yet to be provided. This prolonged silence shows that the university does not intend to take the drive for Black liberation seriously. U of T likely believes that the situation is not as bad in multicultural Canada as it is south of the border.

We saw this dismissive attitude in an anti-Black incident last year, when engineering students used racial slurs and distributed pictures depicting blackface in a group chat. In response, the Black Students’ Association (BSA), BLC, and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) hosted a town hall and made demands to the administration, such as funding for an anti-Black racism campaign on campus, which have yet to be realized. In fact, at the time of the incident, they were told that it would take over a year for the demands to be put into action.

This echoes the current wait for the demographic report. The important steps that need to be taken in order to further heal the wounds of anti-Blackness are put on the proverbial back burner. This leaves many like me frustrated, lost, and waiting for change.

We are already talking

But Black students continue to organize. Groups like the BSA, the NSBE, the Black Public Health Students’ Collective provide a microphone for weary Black voices across campuses and create spaces for Black individuals to express ourselves. The BSA town hall, for example, was an instance of organized activism that received widespread campus attention.

Other groups explore the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. A Dialogue for Black Women was started by fifth-year student Chiderah Sunny last October. The group is described as “a space for Black women primarily… where we aim to debunk or re-imagine notions and ideologies that surround our identity and our existence.”

The idea came about when Sunny was having a conversation with a Black female friend and they realized how many of their experiences were connected yet they were disheartened by the lack of organized spaces to continuously express these experiences. So A Dialogue for Black Women was born, and now, the group has meetings moderated by and between Black women.

The space has just recently grown into a non-profit organization of a similar name, With Black Women, which is meant to provide a more inclusive environment that bridges the lack of communication between Black and non-Black individuals, while still centring around Black women. “We’ll be inviting other women of colour, white women, into the conversation but that are participants, they are allies,” Sunny explained.

Such student-led forums are not the only ones of their kind on campus. The BSA is planning for its 20th annual high school conference this year. This is an event where they invite high school students to UTSG to be mentored “by black professionals and current university and college students to help them realize that post-secondary education… is an attainable goal,” according to its website.

The high school conference works to promote a larger Black population on the university campus. This is something U of T only recently started to focus on with programs such as the Black Student Application Program for Black medical school applicants.

The NSBE also had its own high school conference just last October, which is part of an initiative known as either the NSBE Junior program or NSBE Pre-College Initiative program. The program was designed to stimulate interest in STEM programs with objectives like taking “NSBE into classrooms around the GTA.”

Student-led organizations have existed and continue to exist to lead conversations within the Black community and beyond. They actively work to create the change I have waited for.

Given the multicultural narrative, being a Black Canadian does not come naturally or with a clear-cut definition. But being on campus reinforces how small we are and compels us to demand change from our institution. We cannot wait for existing power structures to give us change; it has to start with us forming communities and engaging in conversations ourselves. Black Canadians are already talking.

What is crucial is that we support these groups and the voices and platforms they have to enact change. It can be done with basic forms of participation like attending a few meetings or promoting their events. We are making an active effort to unify ourselves. In doing so, we can succeed in finding each other and ourselves.

Nadine Waiganjo is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.