The pursuit of racial justice for Black communities in North America has been a centuries long struggle. Established in 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born as a modern-day fight against the continued state violence that harms and violates Black lives. Despite being around for several years now, this movement had significant global momentum in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, one year ago this week. Conversations about systemic barriers that impede the progression of Black livelihood were rampant, and many organizations from different sectors that typically would not have issued statements, came out with various commitments to reducing and eliminating these barriers. Post-secondary institutions were among the many that released calls to action, citing different short- and long-term actions that would be undertaken to improve the post-secondary experience for Black students, staff, and faculty.
So, where are we with these promises a year later?
While some institutions announced new commitments in dismantling systemic racism on campus, others amplified previous goals set out by their respective human rights, equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) offices. The months leading up to the 2020-2021 academic year were filled with post-secondary institutions unequivocally denouncing anti-Black racism, investing in EDI, and committing to creating safer spaces for Black and other racialized students. It should be noted and remembered that the pressure placed on these institutions to commit to tangible action pieces was spearheaded by students, particularly Black students.
At a high-level, similar themes across these commitments include:
- Enhanced employee training in anti-racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion
- Increased funding for scholarships and renewed pathways to accessing education
- Hiring and retaining more diverse staff
- Fostering and encouraging collaboration with student groups to host conversations and events
- Creating specialized positions and/or committees dedicated to EDI work
- Reviews and revisions of pre-existing policies and/or procedures related to employment equity, student conduct, workplace and learning environments, and campus security
While the efforts to engage in this work is welcome, the effectiveness of institutions to complete this remains questionable.
When the year officially started, it became evident that students were once again being left to fend for themselves. Speaking with Western University’s outgoing President for the Black Students’ Association (BSA), Angie Antonio, we drew upon three important observations. The first is that, while society mobilized in an unprecedented fashion in the summer of 2020, not much has changed within the culture of academic spaces. In October of 2020, the University of Ottawa made headlines after a professor used the N-word in class, and again when the President of the school called for “calm and reflection” amidst the “firestorm.” Only a year earlier, in 2019, Western University found themselves in a similar situation when a professor decided to use the N-word to invoke reaction from their English class. In both events, the professors’ public apologies seemed to miss the mark with growing discontent over their disingenuous and performative responses. While the incident at Western University led to the creation of the school’s Anti-Racism Working Group, which has spent the past year working on reports and recommendations, Angie importantly pointed out, “why are we taking years to come up with policies, why are we taking so much time for you [the institutions and their counterparts] to not be racist?”
The second observation is that while post-secondary institutions have made strides to confront racism on their campuses through reports and working groups, the inability to confront their privilege as an institution is a gap that harms many students. For example, in June of 2020, Brock University issued a statement and open letter in response to a published paper written by one of their professor’s that was called-out for its racist and prejudicial undertones. In this statement, the University outlined “its deep concerns and strong opposition to the views expressed in the article.” While they shared concern and opposition to what was conveyed in the article, Brock, along with the University of Ottawa, did not take their remediation efforts further, which is arguably the most important step: to acknowledge the systemic cultures within post-secondary education that makes anti-Black racism and prejudice seemingly acceptable in the academic sphere. Tying this back to the racial slur incidents at the University of Ottawa and Western University, all three professors mentioned remained employed by their institutions, painting a larger picture of privilege that institutions tend to gloss over. On this point, Angie explained how oppressive systems are gate-kept by post-secondary institutions, especially when these institutions shy away from calling out and acknowledging these systems. For example, helping Black students is often conflated with anti-racism messaging, support for the #BlackLivesMatters movement, and written recommendations – all of which are necessary and important. However, Angie emphasized that if these recommendations do not translate to tangible policy changes, the lived experiences of Black students will not change.
She did commend Western’s Associate Vice-President of Student Experience for inviting her to the table and amplifying her voice: “she invited me to these talks, she invited me to speak...that is what real advocacy looks like using your position to actually help those Black students have their voices heard by those in positions to actually make changes.” However, the dependence on student voices to create and guide change can be problematic. This brings us to our third observation, that institutions cannot move forward in creating safer spaces and dismantling systemic racist barriers if they continue to rely on their students to shed light on the recurring injustices, explaining what is racist and wrong. Rather, post-secondary institutions need to take responsibility in protecting their students through proactive mechanisms rather than reactionary ones. While commitments to EDI outlined above do demonstrate a shift, the burden felt by Black and racialized students to be flag-bearers in advocating for their own dignity and safety on campuses remained felt throughout this year. Not only is this work emotionally exhausting, but it also leaves students susceptible to academic penalization and disregards the many other responsibilities students have within their role as students. As a Black woman, Angie had to watch people who looked like her lose their lives to police brutality, however in her role as BSA President, Angie was looked at by her peers, and upper-level administration as an automatic resource and advocate. With her peers, she explained, “I was basically a consultant to literally everyone, even people who you think are woke.” While Angie engaged in a lot of important work with the administration this past year, the impacts of doing this unpaid labour while managing her own emotional and mental wellbeing was seldom acknowledged.
Outside of the realm of active advocacy, students remained vulnerable to blatant racist attacks, especially as the academic year continued online. For example, in September 2020 at Western University, cultural clubs were targets of “Zoom Trolls'' who entered meetings and attacked those present with racial slurs and derogatory comments. The intentional targeting of cultural clubs like the Black Students’ Association and the African Students Association, demonstrate that this was not solely a security issue but a racial issue as well. While this did not persist throughout the year, the University’s response, which focused on heightening security and encouraging clubs to ensure their Zoom links are only sent to club members, once again placed the responsibility of protection on students and displaced the institution’s responsibility in reshaping their campus culture. Post-secondary institutions need to work harder to attack these issues at the root so that this burden does not fall on students.
The first and most crucial step is acknowledging anti-Black racism and recognizing that Black students experience systemic racism in a very specific way. Black students at institutions across Canada recognize this and have created instagram accounts, such as @blackatwestern, to share stories of racism and discrimination at their institutions. One Western alumna shared this account of her experience of anti-Black racism on campus:
My experience at Western meant being hyper-aware of my blackness. There were few students who looked like me, and I did not see professors who looked like me...I felt as though I had to hold my tongue on many occasions when white students made hurtful racist remarks, for fear of being the angry black woman if I spoke up. I never fully felt comfortable on campus, which meant a lot of time spent in my place of residence, rather than experiencing campus as a safe, inclusive, multicultural space. [@blackatwestern]
In October of 2020, a review of McMaster University’s Athletics Department found that a clear culture of anti-Black racism existed in the department and that “there seems to have been very little done to change the culture, and many missed opportunities and refusals to address it as this culture still exists today.” These instances illustrate the pervasive nature of anti-Black racism on campuses. Initiatives to combat anti-Black racism cannot be ‘business as usual,’ and institutions cannot take a diversity approach to racism. Institutions need to address the specific experiences of Black students and provide clear action points for change.
As institutions seek to implement EDI initiatives on campus, it’s essential that there is a robust analysis of the ways in which they perpetuate and foster a culture of anti-Black racism. Looking at the EDI statements from Laurier, Laurentian, Brock, and Queen's, it seems as though the Black student experience is lumped in with the collective BIPOC experience. This conflation is something that myself, Chisanga, as a Black woman, finds frustrating given the fact that the renewed attention on racial justice was a direct result of Black people mobilizing and speaking out against anti-Black racism after the murder of George Floyd. A crisis as specific as anti-Black racism requires a specific response to ensure we can move through and beyond it. One example of such an initiative is the University of Toronto’s Anti-Black Racism Task Force, which reviews the university's policies, process, and practices to address anti-Black racism.
As we mark a year since the global, massive outcries denouncing anti-Black racism in all facets of our society, we must also be extremely critical of the results we have (or rather, have not) seen. The aforementioned incidents on post-secondary campuses clearly demonstrate that these institutions have a long way to go in cultivating internal change. The work is being done by the tireless and dedicated efforts of many student activists, advocates, and organizations, and OUSA has also published a list of recommendations that can be adopted to create safer, more inclusive spaces. But ultimately it is up to post-secondary institutions to do the work. Without commitments to structural, transformative change, the cycle of ineffective and performative change will continue to perpetuate harm.
About the Authors
Malika Dhanani is a Research & Policy Analyst at OUSA.
Ashyana-Jasmine Kachra is a Research & Policy Intern at OUSA
Chisanga Mwamba is a Communications & Operations Coordinator at OUSA