What is it like to be a Black person in Canada? The question, posed to Faculty of Education Professor Carl E. James, was intended as a starting point for a frank discussion about anti-Black racism.
James didn’t bat an eye. “We’re asked that all the time. It’s a good place to start. But the fact that one would ask the question is interesting. Would a Black person ask a white person what it’s like to be white? Do we assume that a Black person would understand what it means to be a white person? If so, why does the Black person understand, but not vice versa, despite the fact that the two grew up in the same place, read the same material, watched the same TV shows, attended the same university?
He paused, then answered his own question. “Something’s wrong with the system. Something’s wrong given that the information we all end up with is so different. We have to know what the other person’s understanding if we’re going to survive in this world.”
However, gaining an understanding of Black people today is not necessarily achieved by taking a workshop on anti-Black racism. “I’m deeply skeptical of that training,” says Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Andrea Davis. “It tends to position Blackness as a problem that needs to be solved. Although the discourse appears to be coming from a liberal perspective of ‘How can we help?,’ it’s really asking ‘How can we intervene so that these problems don’t overwhelm the fabric of our society?’”
Both academics have explored Blackness throughout their careers. James holds the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in addition to cross-appointments in graduate programs in Sociology, Social and Political Thought, and Social Work. Davis specializes in literatures and cultures of the Black Americas and holds cross-appointments in graduate programs in English, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies.
Both James and Davis have recently been appointed to leadership positions at York to assist the University to build a more equitable and inclusive community. In August 2020, James was appointed senior advisor on equity and representation to the University, as part of the Division of Equity, People and Culture. In September 2020, Davis began her term as special advisor on an Anti-Black Racism Strategy, a position developed within the dean’s office in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
In order to move forward, both scholars believe we must go back – back to the roots of anti-Black racism and the slavery that began in the Americas in the 1500s.
“We need to think of the world as we’ve come to accept and understand it,” James explains. “We need to reflect on the colonial system, which was developed and supported by capitalism. We need to consider capitalism’s relationship to the enslavement of Africans, displacement of Indigenous peoples, the indentureship of Asians, and the immigration programs by which racialized people, even with governments’ reservations, were allowed to enter Canada."
While Black slavery was abolished in Canada (in 1838) and in the United States (in 1865), Davis notes that the racism that was born of slavery became deeply entrenched in society. “We’re talking about an institution that was embedded in the foundations of what we now understand as democratic societies. [Racism] was formed out of the framework of social relationships established over centuries of enslavement.”
She adds that while Black people became ‘free,’ the social systems created by slavery ensured they “would not be able to enter into full participatory citizenship, or economic, social and cultural freedom. Society shifted to a different kind of relationship with Black people, but that society still assumed their inferiority. And this is what we’re still seeing in the 21st century.”
“We pride ourselves on social justice at York, but we have to remember we’re not exempt from racism. Our leadership and our entire community need to realize that our role is not just to educate, but to reflect on what we can do better.” – Andrea Davis
The case of George Floyd, a Black man killed in May 2020 during an arrest in Minneapolis after a store clerk alleged Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill, is a case in point.
“Young Black people have been taught by their parents that they should carry themselves in a certain way, and be polite and demonstrate to society that they have value,” Davis explains. “But they’re increasingly saying, ‘That’s untrue. We’re still disproportionately killed by the police.’ George Floyd was polite. He begged for his life. He said ‘please.’ He called the police officers ‘sir.’ And he still died. So now you’re seeing, on the streets, a pushback against this idea that if Black people try hard enough, they’ll be able to participate equally with others.”
But James, Davis and Sheila Cote-Meek, York’s vice-president, equity, people and culture, see an opportunity for positive change – and they believe York University has a special role to play.
James believes York has welcomed Black people and has made progress in increasing academic programs focused on Black issues. “For years, a significant number of Black students have attended York, specially many who are first generation in their families to attend university. One of the attractions to the University had to do with the fact that Black students were able to find other Black students to collaborate with and to gain support.”
He believes more work is needed, however. “While York has had in place some academic programs that appeal to Black students – like Latin American and Caribbean Studies and now the Black Studies Program initiated by Dr. Davis – more can be done, which I think York recognizes.”
James and Davis welcome York’s commitment to increasing the number of Black faculty members. It is expected that this will help to launch courses that focus on the experiences of Black people. James, an esteemed author, has a new book on this topic: Colour Matters (University of Toronto Press, 2021), a collection of his essays that examine various aspects of Blackness.
“York was built on values of social justice and equity. When an institution sets out core values like that, then we need to live them. We need to hear more from Black faculty, students and staff around anti-Black racism that exists on our campus… and we have a responsibility to respond.” – Sheila Cote-Meek
Cote-Meek, a sociologist who is Anishinaabe from the Teme-Augama Anishnabai, feels universities hold the keys to change. “No other kind of organization has what universities have in academic freedom: the ability to explore issues – often difficult ones – and to create space to have open dialogues about issues like anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
“York was built on values of social justice and equity. When an institution sets out core values like that, then we need to live them. We’ve heard and need to hear more from Black faculty, students and staff around anti-Black racism that exists on our campus… and we have a responsibility to respond.”
Davis urges action: “Moments come and go. We have to seize this moment. We need to move ahead on increasing the representation of full-time Black faculty, providing more diverse curricular offerings for our students that centre on the study of Black cultures, knowledge and Black ideas beyond just anti-racism courses.
“We pride ourselves on social justice at York, but we have to remember we’re not exempt from racism. Our leadership and our entire community need to realize that our role is not just to educate, but to reflect on what we can do better.”
The Office of Vice-President Research & Innovation continues to contribute to the intensification efforts to York University to improve and expand initiatives that aim to address anti-Black racism, and further the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion across the entire University, especially in the research, innovation, and knowledge mobilization domains. To support this work, the University has undertaken a series of consultations with students, faculty, instructors, staff and other community leaders at York on anti-Black racism and to identify ways to address systemic barriers within the institution.
For more information on James, visit his Faculty profile page and the Jean Augustine Chair website. To learn more about Davis, visit her Faculty profile page and the YFile article about her special advisor role. To read more about Cote-Meek, see the announcement, in YFile, of her appointment.
York’s Organized Research Units are stellar resources as well: The Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean; and The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and Its Diasporas.
To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.
Paul Fraumeni is an award-winning freelance writer, who has specialized in covering university research for more than 20 years. To learn more, visit his website.
Article originally published in the November 5, 2020 issue of "Brainstorm," a special edition of YFile publishing on the first Friday of every month, showcasing research and innovation at York University.