Being Black, at any given time, in any given country, on any given day, is usually in and of itself a trying experience for most (but not all) Black people. Whether it’s the constant microaggressions we face on a daily and continuous basis, the sometimes blatant racist attacks and remarks that are levied at us with complete disregard for our humanity or feelings, or the total lack of regard for our lives when encountering law enforcement and medical professionals, we live our lives knowing that in most cases we will be treated differently. We see it in the ways we are treated in other non-black POC’s grocery stores, taxi cabs and restaurants. We see it in our education systems and the ways Black children and communities in particular are not or poorly invested in. These disparities are not new or unique to the Black experience, no matter what country you live in. But there IS a difference in how they are displayed and the corresponding effects they have on our community as a whole.
When George Floyd was brutally, viciously and inhumanely murdered by 4 police officers in Minneapolis, MS on Memorial Day during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was something in me that figuratively broke. I was still trying to process the recent murder deaths of Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. As a Black woman and particularly as a dual citizen of the US and Canada currently residing in Canada, I typically stayed up to date with current events and more importantly, those within the Black community. I had seen more videos than I could count of Black men, women, children and people being murdered and killed at the hands of law enforcement or racists over the years. Like many in my community, I was horrified, enraged, anxious, and in utter disbelief. But there was also a numbness that set in. Because in that moment as I watched in absolute horror as a Black man’s life was choked out of him by another human being who clearly didn’t have a care in the world, I realized that this was never going to change as long as I sat on the sidelines. Because the fight against racism and for equality for all requires ALL to participate. Shortly thereafter on June 2nd, the current Premier of Ontario, Conservative Leader Doug Ford was asked at a daily COVID-19 press conference if he had seen what had happened in the US to George Floyd and what his thoughts were. Little did I know that the comments the Premier would utter with a seeming lack of regard or care for who it might impact would change me and be my clarion call to action just as much as witnessing the death of George Floyd.
The Premier initially started off his comments by stating that he didn’t really have time to watch the news because “I’m on the phone until 11, 12 o’clock at night, going 100 miles an hour…and I’m worried about Ontario. That’s what I’m concerned about.” He then proceeded to say, “They have their issues, there’s no doubt they have their issues in the US and they have to fix their issues, but it’s like night and day compared to Canada and the US. I’m proud to be Canadian; I’m proud to be the Premier of Ontario. And I know Canadians just won’t tolerate it. I won’t tolerate it and I’m sure every leader in this province won’t tolerate it. So you know again, good luck to ’em and hopefully they can straighten out their problems. And thank God, thank God that we’re different from the United States and we don’t have the systemic deep roots they’ve had for years.” He finished off his comments by relating a story about when he used to travel back and forth between the US and Canada for 20 years while building a company in the US and that the difference he saw between the two countries is that Canadians “for the most part, we get along. We all live beside each other, we work together. We share communities, we go shopping…so, believe me. It’s night and day when it comes to Canada and the US.”
Watching this press conference in real time and having to process the reality that I had a Premier who was completely out of touch with what happens in Black communities across Canada (particularly his province of Ontario which has the highest concentration of BIPOC) was in and of itself extremely disheartening, exhausting…and not surprising. It also wasn’t surprising to me what happened subsequently: the backlash from many within the Black community and some outside of it, the follow up speech in the House of Commons where the Premier decided to alter his comments by saying “of course there is systemic racism in Ontario; there’s systemic racism across this country. I know it exists Mr. Speaker. What I don’t know is the hardships faced by those communities. And a lot of us in this chamber do not know the hardships within those communities, Mr. Speaker. I don’t have those lived experiences, and I can empathize with them, but again Mr. Speaker, a lot of us have never lived that; we’ve never walked a mile in someone’s shoes that has faced racism…and not only just in the black community; a lot of minority communities throughout the history of Ontario and Canada have faced racism. And our government won’t stand for it. I won’t stand for it as Premier, and we will do everything we can in our powers and work collectively with other parties to stamp this out.” Huh?
Observing the Premier openly say this in the House of Commons, I recognized that these comments, while seeming earnest and sincere, are exactly the kind of micro aggressive behaviors that black people face on a daily basis that contribute to the current state of distress we are living in. It is this kind of willful blindness to the genuine heartaches and challenges within Black communities that contribute to this problem. And quite frankly, if we do not call this behaviour (not people) out, then things will never truly change. I’m using the example of Premier Ford’s comments because I think it highlights so many troublesome viewpoints and subconscious biases that some white Canadians have and just how problematic and dangerous this kind of thinking truly is for the Black community. Also, as he is a public figure and is the elected Premier of Ontario, his comments are a matter of public record and were made in the public domain. And as our tax dollars pay his salary, we as Ontarians have the right to speak to problematic behaviours by our elected officials that have a detrimental effect on our daily lives and communities.
Premier Ford’s initial comments were not unlike comments I had heard made by some white Canadians. I had had people come up to me (no joke) and say similar things like “it’s not like that up here” or “we don’t have those problems in Canada.” Believe it or not, some white people (uninvited) come up to me frequently and initiate conversations about race. I kid you not. Several examples are standing in lines at grocery stores, standing in line for food, in my building, going about my daily life doing anything really. It is intended to come across as being friendly but for me, mostly ends up being mentally and emotionally exhausting. Because everytime someone starts up one of those conversations with me as a Black woman, I know that what they really want is my so called “Black-woman validation” that they’re not secretly living in some sort of uber racist world that they’re just not aware of so as long as I play along and say things are not as bad in Canada as they are in the US, they can feel better about themselves and go back to their willful ignorance. But I cannot do this any longer. To be honest, I really couldn’t before but we as black people (particularly those of us living in suburban areas) have learned to adapt and assimilate and present ourselves in a certain way to ensure we keep people out of our business. So we behave the ways we need to but this is just another layer of bullshit that we have to deal with and wear with a smile on our faces.
What struck me personally about what Premier Ford initially said also was the idea of the privilege he had to choose to not pay attention to the news and what was happening in the US. I was struck by how he mentioned he was focused on Ontario…as if Ontario does not have Black people who are killed while in police custody? As if Black Lives Matter Toronto, which is located and headquartered in the very city he lives in, has not been a presence with marches and demonstrations on Queen’s Park, were he works every day? And finally, I was struck by his casual send off of “good luck to ‘em,” as if a knee on a man’s neck and black women being shot and killed in their own homes is something to casually respond to? This behaviour is the definition of white privilege. It is the ability to choose what affects your reality and what doesn’t. As a Black person, I don’t have the luxury of not paying attention to things that affect my community because what happens to one of us happens to all of us. I cannot come home and take off the colour of my skin (nor would I ever want to, to be clear) and be seen as anything other than a Black person. And because that is my reality, I have been forced to learn how to multitask. I can focus on issues within my Black community, issues within my community of women, issues within other non-Black POC’ s communities where my help is wanted and needed, issues within the LGBTIQA+ community. You get the point. I can multitask. And I can do that because I CHOOSE to. Some white people act as if they cannot focus on two problems at the same time. The reality is, if you are not seeing a problem that everyone else can see, then you are making a choice not to see it and to turn a blind eye to it. When a leader of a province who lives and works in one of the most diverse cities in the world reduces the deep-seated racism, prejudice and bigotry that happens on a daily basis in Black communities to poorly equated summations of people just not living and working and shopping together, it reveals the layers of systemic racism, even by those who call it out and cannot see it in their own behaviours and rhetoric. There are some white people, both in the US and Canada who speak about systemic racism as if it is a policy that was created by older generations that needs to be addressed. To be clear, as defined by the Government of Ontario’s website, “Systemic racism consists of organizational culture, policies, directives, practices or procedures that exclude, displace or marginalize some racialized groups or create unfair barriers for them to access valuable benefits and opportunities. This is often the result of institutional biases in organizational culture, policies, directives, practices, and procedures that may appear neutral but have the effect of privileging some groups and disadvantaging others.”
Premier Ford’s comments made in the House of Commons was, in my opinion, the definition of systemic racism. To acknowledge that systemic racism exists, but to say you don’t know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes and clearly make no attempt to understand the various struggles of the black community around you is exactly what white privilege and systemic racism are examples of. It’s knowing there is a problem within a community that is not yours, but choosing not to do anything about it, even though it falls under your responsibilities as a leader. It is allowing harmful behaviours and practices towards Black communities to flourish and go unchecked because it does not personally affect you as a non-Black person. These behaviours as demonstrated by our current Premier are behaviours that are demonstrated by some white people every single day. And this is why without change from within our Black community to use our voices collectively without ceasing and hold these leaders and people accountable, things will never change.
Which brings me to the title of my very first article. The Running Faucet vs. The Leaky Faucet (The Slow Drip). Whenever I’ve been asked about my experiences with racism in the US versus racism in Canada, I’ve often struggled to find the words to describe what the differences are. Since my current Premier has provided his very uninformed opinion about the differences between the two countries, let me very succinctly provide my informed opinion, both as a citizen of both countries and also as a Black woman in both countries. Racism in the US is like a broken running faucet: no matter how many times you try to turn off the tap, it just won’t turn off. There’s something deeply flawed that needs a major intervention to temporarily or permanently fix the problem. But usually the major intervention comes because everyone knows the water needs to be shut off. We are seeing this currently with companies, businesses and organizations worldwide who have pledge money to Black organizations and have posted Black squares in solidarity with the Black community. We’ve even seen some cities commit to defunding or completely getting rid of their police departments. Radical change is happening because the faucet is majorly broken. However, the leaky faucet with the slow drip is more representative of the racism in Canada. It is subtle, slow, constant and like slow drips, can cause rot, mold and structural damage to the Black community in Canada. It can (literally) cause us not to breathe. In my opinion, this form of covert racism is worse and more damaging to Black people as a whole as it forces us to accept unacceptable behaviours because they are coated in nationalism, “kindness” and politeness. In America, racism primarily hides behind law enforcement and the judicial system, healthcare and the financial system. In Canada, it hides behind all of that AND politeness.
Premier Ford is like so many white people black people know and come in contact with: people who grew up in environments were certain comments go unchecked, where there is little to no accountability for problematic jokes or behaviours particularly when everyone around you is doing the same, and where hiding behind nationalism and kindness as if they are weapons against racism is the blueprint. To be clear, it is not. Nationalism does not stop you from being a racist or consciously or unconsciously participating in racist behaviour and/or rhetoric. Being an active anti-racist does. Kindness does not stop you from being a racist or consciously or unconsciously participating in racist behaviour and/or rhetoric. Being an active anti-racist does. What does that mean and look like? It means actively educating yourself on what being an anti-racist even is, educating yourself on what white privilege is instead of taking offence and refusing to engage in healthy dialogue; surrounding yourself (genuinely) with people who are different from you in gender, age and ethnicity so you become a well rounded person and not asking others to absolve you of any guilt you may be experiencing when you realize some of the problematic behaviours you may have had. It is being a responsible adult and holding yourself accountable for your actions. It is apologizing when you are wrong. It is giving yourself grace, mercy and compassion for times when you’ve messed up and gotten it wrong because when you can show that to yourself, you can then give it out to others.
This is the start of many pieces I will be writing about on race/ethnicity in both Canada and the US from my perspective as a dual citizen and black woman. I sincerely hope that you join me on this journey as I continue to explore this topic throughout my life. To the accomplices (not allies) out there doing the real work behind closed doors, even though the black squares have gone and no one is looking, I see you and I salute. Thank you for having the emotional maturity to put this article in context and hold space for black people telling their stories and sharing their perspectives without getting offended. You’re the real MVPs!