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Survivors and Advocates: Anti-Black Racism, Advocacy, and Academics

[Editors' note: This blog post was drafted prior to an increasing number of recent incidents of overt anti-Black racism, and several other deplorable discriminatory conduct, at the University of Windsor. Although they are not explicitly included in this article, they are inextricably relevant to the topic at hand, and have caused further harm to the co-authors and other Black students.]

We are in the fifth year of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), which was established to recognize, promote, and protect the human rights of people of African descent [1]. In 2018, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, officially recognized this decade as the International Decade for People of African Descent [2]. Despite this declaration and the program proposals put in place, as seen in the Government of Canada’s Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022 [3], Black folx are still faced with challenges that threaten their protection and well-being. Black folx are still victims of endemic systemic and institutional anti-Black racism. Colonialism and slavery structured the initial relationships of Black Canadians with the Western state and its institutions [4]. “Slavery was a form of biological discrimination that resulted in ‘pervasive and myriad social forms of anti-Black racism’”[5]. The negative treatment of Black folx by these institutions, and the disparate outcomes Black folx experience within them, are cyclical and compounding, due to the intergenerational impact of systemic racism [6].

As second year law students, we pause to reflect. We started law school at the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law in August 2019. A number of incidents of anti-Black racism occurred. In our view, the most striking incident occurred just four months into the first semester, when a non-Black guest lecturer repeatedly uttered derogatory racist remarks about Black people. There were four Black students in the classroom that were subjected to discrimination and discomfort [7]. This moment, and the events that followed, were hard to grapple with. This incident, and a few others, were brought to the attention of the administration. As Black students subjected to anti-Black racism, we advocated for dignified treatment and respect within the academic space.

A few months later, we watched the video of the violent killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, which shocked the world, and we learned of the tragic death of Breonna Taylor and the lack of state accountability in her murder. While these American incidents rose to the attention of mainstream media, we were privy to several similar Canadian incidents as well. As executives of the Black Law Students’ Association, while balancing full-time summer jobs, in conjunction with the mental and emotional shock of the senseless killing of Black bodies being ever so present before us, we assisted with drafting and finalizing open Statements on these incidents for BLSA Windsor and BLSA Canada. All of the circumstances outlined above impacted our mental and physical wellbeing. We are confident that our experiences as Black law students in this regard are not unique. Several of our peers within Windsor Law, and across the nation, have had similar experiences. So, the question then becomes: Given the impact on Black law students when we advocate against anti-Black racism while being ongoing survivors of it, why do we bear this burden instead of the institutions formulated to serve us?

We are actors within a system that once legalized slavery. Canadian institutions, and many law schools in particular, have failed to actively and effectively combat anti-Black racism and dismantle white supremacy. In the face of this reality, we are reminded of this horrid truth: it was once legal to lynch. The same anti-Black racism that upheld lynching, is the same anti-Black racism that underlies our experiences as outlined above. The history of anti-Black racism can become hardwired into our institutional practices [8]. While the act of lynching is no longer legal, the principle behind it lives on through institutions that allow for the perpetuation of anti-Black racism to harm Black bodies. Undoubtedly, racism exists within the interstices of Canadian institutions [9]. The burden of addressing anti-Black racism has been placed on the backs of Black bodies for too long. As a result of the current climate of the global reckoning of systemic anti-Black racism, and ongoing and recent instances of anti-Black racism at our respective universities, Black law students have become both survivors and advocates. Halfway through this, the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024)–a  decade for Black life, anti-Black racism is still alive and well. 

As evidenced by literature and statistics, pervasive, systemic anti-Black racism permeates our institutions and social structures [10]. It became entrenched in our systems by way of the hundreds of years through which slavery thrived in Canada, and continues to be entrenched in our institutions to this day [11]. These instances need to be noticed and actively addressed. As law students, we are members of an institution that is entrenched with anti-Black racism. As members of the institution, we are victimized on a daily basis through policies and procedures, and even during lectures, including the use of the “N word” by educators that is then shielded by terms such as “academic freedom.” 

We are also training to be advocates, engaging in community work through the Black Law Students’ Association and other initiatives. We advocate for change while being survivors of the status quo. We are fighting an upward battle to fulfil our career aspirations. However, unaddressed institutionalized racism makes it difficult for us to succeed as a result of the traumatizing anti-Black experiences we face, and the constant need to defend Black dignity. We posit that institutionalized anti-Black racism has yet to be addressed and combated in a substantial way. This is likely because overt and intentional racism are generally treated as the behaviour of a few individuals, rather than the product of [current] systemic and institutionalized racism [12]. 

To add to that, “‘[d]iscussions of racism and racial discrimination often evoke a different type of response than when other types of human rights concerns are raised’”, and many responses often include the common set of myths that deny the pervasive nature of racism [13]. In some cases, covert racism is prevalent and when its impact is addressed, it is often defended by perpetrators saying, “it wasn’t my intention.” This defense erroneously presupposes that the lack of intent should somehow negate the impact. “We need to ask ourselves whether we are satisfied that the remnants of overt racism are no longer present”[14].  Are we to settle for covert racism within our institutions because it’s somehow “not as bad”? We submit the answer is no. Realistically, like all forms of racism, covert anti-Black racism still undermines the dignity of the Black community. We believe this is a cause for concern, above all due to the lack of educators within academic institutions, especially law schools, who understand the Black experience. It has been noted that the “...underrepresentation of Black educators, and institutional racism, all contribute to negative schooling experiences...”[15]. The existence of anti-Black racism in academic institutions, coupled with the underrepresentation of Black students and educators, negatively impacts our experiences as Black students.

On a larger scale, as discussions about racism begin to consider the systemic and institutional structures that enable its perpetuation [16], something needs to be done about it. Dialogue is insufficient on its own. Governments and academic institutions need to address the systemic anti-Black racism within their own walls. The continued failure to do so only perpetuates anti-Black racism on the  individual and community level which remain evident in our collective experience. Oddly enough, the realities of systemic racism and discrimination in our country have been repeatedly recognized by international and regional human rights mechanisms, by domestic human rights institutions, by civil society, and by the government [17]. There is a lot of recognition happening, but a striking lack of action and accountability on the part of those responsible. 

We reiterate that the burden and the labour of addressing anti-Black racism has been falling on the backs of Black bodies for far too long. It is time for governments and institutional administrations to do the work in a meaningful way to create long lasting transformative change in consultation with Black folx. We also think it is important for these consultations to be recognized by financial honorariums. As proclaimed by the General Assembly, the theme for the International Decade (2015-2024) is “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development.” We are five years in, and there has been no justice and no development, only global recognition of a problem we long knew existed.

Given this overwhelming burden that has been placed on Black bodies, institutions throughout the nation should take extra care in addressing the mental health and wellbeing of Black people, because achieving balance without being impacted is a myth. Frankly, as law students, surviving anti-Black racism, advocating against it, and striving to excel academically, is a lot to balance. On a larger scale, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ought to re-think and re-imagine what fulfilling the mandate of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) adequately entails.

We are survivors and advocates. In the case of anti-Black racism, the majority seem to be okay with the status quo. However, we dissent. 

We dissent against the atrocious incidents of anti-Black racism that continue to exist within academic institutions.

We dissent against the mechanisms that enable anti-Black racism to thrive in society at large. 

We dissent against the willful disregard of our human rights and inherent dignity. 

Together we Strive, Together we Thrive - BLSA30

Signed,  Kendra Wilson @kendrawilsonca & Natasha Daley @NatashaDaley_ 

Work Cited: 

[1] United Nations, “International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024” (last visited 28 November 2020), online: United Nations <https://www.un.org/en/observances/decade-people-african-descent>

[2] Government of Canada, “Recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent” (last modified 25 June 2019), online: Government of Canada <https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/anti-racism-engagement/anti-racism-strategy/international-decade-african-descent.html>

[3] Government of Canada, “Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019-2022” (last modified 17 July 2019), online: Government of Canada <https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/anti-racism-engagement/anti-racism-strategy.html>

[4] R v Morris, 2018 ONSC 5186 at Appendix A [Morris].

[5] Maria C. Dugas, “Committing to Justice: The Case for Impact of Race and Culture Assessments in Sentencing African Canadian Offenders” (2020) 43:1, Dal LJ 103 at 149 (CanLII). 

[6] Morris, supra note 4 at para 22.  

[[7] Chris Thompson, “U of W law school probing incidents of anti-black racism”, Windsor Star (15 February 2020), online: <https://windsorstar.com/news/local-news/u-of-w-law-school-probing-incidents-of-anti-black-racism>

[8] Morris, supra note 4 at para 56. 

[9] Campbell v Jones, 2001 CanLII 4162 (NS SC) at para 35.  

[10] Supra note 5 at 107. 

[11] Supra note 5 at 149. 

[12] Katie Duke, "Calling a Racist a Racist: A Case for Reforming the Tort of Defamation" (2016) 37, Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues 70 at 71.  

[13] Ibid at 72.  

[14] David M Tanovich, “Moving Beyond 'Driving While Black in Canada': Race, Suspect Description and Selection” (2005) 36:2 Ottawa Law Review at 320, online: <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=671361>. 

[15] R v Anderson, 2020 NSPC 10 at para 53, citing the Black Learners Advisory Committee, (BLAC Report 1994).  

[16] Supra note 12 at 79. 

[17] The Canadian Human Rights Commission, “Private Members’ Motion M-103, Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination” (November 20 2017) Canadian Human Rights Commission at 6. 

#Institution #Racism #Black #Academics #AntiBlack #AntiBlackRacism

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