Throughout the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) social movement has once again drawn attention to anti-Blackness within communities and institutions across Canada, including schools and workplaces. As the BLM movement has highlighted, dismantling systemic racism starts in our educational institutions, and that has led to many conversations about the need for universities to create spaces for Black members of their institutions.
These discussions have focused on topics such as the safety of Black students, staff, and faculty on campus; the lack of Black faculty and staff; the need for senior administrators to include, listen to, and act on the recommendations from the Black community; and suggestions for revised curricula that provide education on anti-Blackness and the ways in which universities continue to enable and embody anti-Black racism.
Recent developments at Ryerson University
One example of anti-Blackness is embodied in how heavily university campuses are policed by security. Ryerson University has been criticized for its intent to fund “special constables” on campus. Following an initial announcement of the about the new constables this past March, the university reversed its position in June and stated that it would not be proceeding with the program. However, that has done little to reassure the Black community on campus.
With police brutality reigniting the Black Lives Matter movement this year, fear that the special constables would abuse their power has been a concern repeatedly raised by students. “Why should we feel secure with [special constables]?” asks Paige Galette, former Campaigns Coordinator for the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson. “We know that they kill people, they kill Black people, they kill Indigenous people, so, regardless of what they’re called. I think universities know that, and they’re the ones who fund them.”
Galette is an activist and currently works as a consultant, helping organizations to improve their approaches to equity and diversity. She points to incidents of professors mocking the accents and names of Black students as yet another entrenchment of anti-Black racism within Canada’s universities. She adds that it’s not only students and faculty affected by anti-Blackness and racism on campus. “When you’re looking at cafeteria workers, why is it always racialized people?” Galette asks.
Anti-Black experiences on campus
Both university graduates and current students have been speaking out about their experiences facing anti-Blackness on their campuses. Richelle Kay was part of a student group at the University of Toronto Mississauga and says that there is a clear misogynoir targeted at Black women on campus. Misogynoir is misogyny directed towards black women specifically based on race and gender. Kay has personally experienced of being constantly antagonized by her student group peers when it came to decision-making or collaborating. Kay felt discriminated against as she tried to contribute in her role as an executive. “This reality on campus makes it really hard for Black people to be able to prosper and grow,” Kay says.
Not being taken seriously is an issue that Black men and women face throughout their lives—as children in school, in their professional careers, and when interacting with society more broadly. For example, Black women have been pressured to straighten their hair, while Black men have been pressured to cut their hair to appear less menacing, all to blend in with a Eurocentric beauty standard that has been normalized in our society. When it comes to healthcare, Black women are 12 times as likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women and, in our schools, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended when compared to their White colleagues.
Kay found that she faced the same type of mistreatment within the student group she contributed to. “I was often fighting for my voice to be heard,” said Kay as she recounts her experiences. “I was seen as being irrational because I believed in holding people accountable for them not believing in…basic requests like saying that black students need certain accommodations.”
What universities can do
Universities can contribute to combating anti-Blackness by investing in courses that would empower and support Black communities on their campuses. Offering courses that educate students on the racist history of Canada and its universities, as well as the numerous contributions Black people have made to our society in the face of adversity, will help Black students better understand the challenges they’re facing, It will also bring awareness and accountability to those who are not part of the Black community, and help these individuals become better allies and advocates.
Such initiatives, however, often require public pressure to advance. For example, the Ryerson School of Journalism introduced a new course called “The Black Community in the Media” taught by Eternity Martis, a Toronto-based journalist and Ryerson University alumni. But, this only happened following a petition started by students that garnered public attention. Tiffany Mongu, one of the students who started the petition, says they gained five-thousand signatures within a day.
Representation is a priority when combating anti-Blackness on campus. Creating space for Black voices throughout university structures allows the community to have representation that can influence policies, including important funding and hiring decisions.
“Ask the Black community where they would like to see that funding, they can hire more professors with tenure positions, more leaders, like people in management and director positions,” says Galette as she discusses the need for Black representation in many different programs, including journalism, engineering, and science. “Those people in higher positions or in support positions are really important.”
This would also help create structures with individuals in leadership positions who Black students and staff feel more comfortable approaching. This could also improve supports for the mental health and academic challenges Black students face.
As universities have confronted and attempted to adapt to the demands being made by Black members of the academic community, there is an opportunity for real change. Universities can lift up Black faculty, staff, and students by unlearning the ways that they, as Eurocentric institutions, have contributed to anti-Blackness and by giving Black members of the academic community influence and power in the decision-making process.
Chantelle Cruzat-Whervin is an associate editor and journalist at Academic Matters.