Monday, August 22, 2016

Black Diversity in Canada and The Importance of a Global #BlackLivesMatter Movement

By D. Mathieu Cassendo

The growth of BlackLivesMatter protests beyond U.S. borders highlights the urgency of dealing with anti-black racism and systemic inequality globally. For me, this movement really inspires hope and change. Here in Canada, anti-black racism is usually denied, ignored, played down as well as the racism and colonization that has played a part in the creation of what we know today as Canada. As a black Canadian of Ethiopian origin, raised in Quebec by anglophone white parents in a completely white and rural environment, I was disconnected from black people for three quarters of my life, but that changed when I moved to Montreal. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a diversity of black people, from the French and English-speaking Caribbean and also from Francophone West Africa. I was happy for the diversity but I could not relate: I didn't feel like I belonged to a culture, most likely because I didn't know anything about Ethiopian culture at the time. I felt closer to black Americans because they were the only black people I saw, but only on TV and in movies. I also admired them for having survived years of oppression and coming out victorious, by carving out a space for themselves as an essential fabric of American society. I used to wonder why I didn’t see the same type of progress and advancement in Quebec and in the rest of Canada; after all we have a history of slavery and institutionalized anti-black racism here too. 

I often have conversations with my black American friends about the black Canadian identity. I self-identify as Ethiopian and black. For me, identifying as black is a way of honoring my connection and commitment to other people of African descent and our shared experiences of racism, discredit, marginalization, resistance, amazing resiliency and brilliance that spans five continents and thousands of years. At the same time, it's not accurate for me to call myself a black Canadian: I am Afro-Canadian or Ethiopian-Canadian. Sadly, many people are unaware of the original black Canadian communities (Africville, Nova Scotia and Priceville, Ontario for example) were very small and have been hidden or largely destroyed. The other reason is that most black Canadians tend to identify more with their ethnicity or their family's country of origin. It’s not that we want to deny our blackness, it’s that we don’t really have a shared cultural black Canadian identity or one that can be easily identified. Also, in places like Quebec, linguistic and cultural differences separate English and French-speaking black communities--some may even consider themselves Quebecers and not Canadian. This speaks to the diversity of black communities in Canada and the issues affecting us, depending on where we live. Nonetheless, we do have a lot in common; we face the same systemic racism, whether it is racial profilinghigh rates of unemployment, under-representation in private and public sectors and over-representation in prisons. One difference is that English-speaking black people are more disadvantaged and marginalized because of provincial legislation on language, making it difficult to access employment and various health and social services in English, especially if they live outside of Montreal.  Still, the biggest challenge that we face is pushing back against nationalist discourses in Quebec which tend to avoid honest and frank discussions about race, instead there is usually focus on "learning and celebrating the cultural diversity of Quebec" and on integrating immigrants (i.e. making sure they learn French), but very few on racism.

Luckily, in the last couple of years, Montreal has seen a surge of black, indigeneous and people of color organizing. There’s been quite a bit of direct action bringing issues of racism and islamophobia into the foray, just recently Quebec Inclusif has started a petition asking for a public commission on systemic racism. There’s also many conferences and events (I cannot keep up anymore) on a myriad of issues such as black Afro-feminism in Quebec and France, mental health, birth justice, afro-futurism, black wealth, transracial adoption and more. Perhaps we were having these discussions before but I obviously didn’t know about them. In any case, I feel a great sense of relief: after all these years, I’m seeing more people who look like me take political action, organize festivals and sit on academic panels talking about issues that relate directly to me and to my experience.

The #BLM movement has definitely helped shine a light on the conditions of black communities here, however I would argue that it has helped empower us more to speak up than it has given visibility to injustices we face, specifically because the classic response is “well, there is more racism in the U.S. than there is here”. This response irks me to my core because it not only dismisses our experiences (as if they weren't a result of systemic racism), but it's also a convenient way to shut down a conversation that needs to be had. I'm tired of educating my peers about systemic racism, but at the same time, I recognize that I need to cease these opportunities to set the record straight.

I think the huge outpouring of support for #BLM has unsettled some people because they did not realize or chose not to realize (because they had the luxury) that deep-seated inequalities are intertwined with their personal privilege and the onus is on them to act positively and not to look away. As one of my favorite writers Brené Brown says, "we can't have real conversations about race without talking about privilege and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame". I truly believe that adopting anti-racism as a practice requires serious introspection, honesty, a commitment to un-learning, learning and listening to what people of color have to say, without judgment. It's not an easy feat, but it is do-able.

My support for #BLM is not just about resisting white supremacist modes of existing in the world, but more about love - for myself and for others. I also think it is important to remember communities of African descent who experience the most severe oppression are communities that we barely hear of, who live in places like India, Iran, Mauritania, Palestine, and the Pacific coast of Colombia to name a few. My hope is that #BLM, which was founded by Queer Black Women will continue to be globalized and that it will incite people to work in solidarity with communities who lack access to getting their voices heard in hopes that they too, can get the human rights and dignity that they deserve. After all, Black Lives Matter because all lives should be treated with the same value.

Kassaye is an Ethiopian adoptee who lives in Montréal, Québec. She is the co-founder of Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora and is currently working on an anthology entitled, Lions Roaring Far From Home featuring the voices of Ethiopian adoptees from North America, Europe and Australia.

Black Lives Matter image (used with permission): by D. Mathieu Cassendo, who is a comic artist, illustrator and painter based in Montreal. You can follow her on facebook at D.Mathieu Cassendo:: BD or visit her website.