Col­lec­tive Rage Re­quires Col­lec­tive Ac­tion

Policy - - In This Issue - Wanda Thomas Bernard

White Cana­di­ans, no less than white Amer­i­cans, have spent cen­turies con­di­tioned by racist mythol­ogy prop­a­gated to pro­tect an eco­nomic hi­er­ar­chy that never got over the trauma of the abol­ish­ment of slav­ery and has been mak­ing Black peo­ple pay for it—in­clud­ing through shame and guilt pro­jected as fear and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion— overtly and in­sid­i­ously, ever since. African Cana­dian Se­na­tor Wanda Thomas Bernard de­liv­ers a com­pen­dium of the causes and ef­fects of Black anger, and a call for trans­for­ma­tive change.

Many Cana­di­ans seem to find a sense of com­fort and safety in dis­cussing anti-Black racism at arm’s length. When I hear me­dia and peo­ple in con­ver­sa­tion make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween cur­rent events in the United States and race re­la­tions in Canada, I cringe. In our coun­try, I see a pref­er­ence to dis­cuss the strengths of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and di­ver­sity in con­trast with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and bla­tant acts of vi­o­lent racism. Colo­nial­ism, anti-Black racism and white supremacy do not re­spect bor­ders. I am re­minded of the daily racism that I ex­pe­ri­ence in Canada, rang­ing

from pas­sive-ag­gres­sive com­ments to out­right denial of ser­vice.

When I re­count my ex­pe­ri­ences as a Black woman, I am of­ten met with shock and dis­be­lief, which re­sults in a feel­ing of in­vis­i­bil­ity and a denial of my re­al­ity. I heard this same tone of shock as peo­ple re­acted to the video of Ge­orge Floyd be­ing killed by po­lice in Min­neapo­lis on May 25. I know his cries for help were not un­heard, they were just ig­nored. I see the clear par­al­lel as the cries from African Cana­di­ans are also not un­heard, just ig­nored.

Colo­nial­ism, anti-Black racism and white supremacy do not re­spect bor­ders. I am re­minded of the daily racism that I ex­pe­ri­ence in Canada, rang­ing from pas­siveag­gres­sive com­ments to out­right denial of ser­vice.

Many African Cana­di­ans have fam­ily and friends who live in the cities where protests are hap­pen­ing in the United States. Whether the con­nec­tion is by blood or by com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence, the affin­ity we have with each other comes from our shared an­ces­try. They are our broth­ers and sis­ters. The strength of peo­ple of African de­scent is enor­mous. We have sur­vived un­til this point, but we are tired. Wit­ness­ing racism in me­dia cre­ates a rip­ple of col­lec­tive pain through all peo­ple of African de­scent. Col­lec­tive pain re­quires col­lec­tive ac­tion.

Canada seems to be stuck in a state of non-ac­tion or in­suf­fi­cient ac­tions. This cy­cle of non-ac­tion is en­abled by con­tin­u­ally oc­cu­py­ing a state of shock and dis­be­lief de­spite the con­tin­u­ous stream of new deaths, vi­o­lence and in­jus­tices. As An­gela Davis said, “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”. That is also true for re­main­ing in a state of non-ac­tion. Re­main­ing in a state of non-racism and non-ac­tion, at this point, is as harm­ful as racism it­self.

This is known as the by­stander ef­fect. In 2018, Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau ac­knowl­edged the United Na­tions Decade for Peo­ple of African De­scent. The gov­ern­ment sub­se­quently al­lo­cated funds for Black com­mu­ni­ties in the 2018 and 2019 bud­gets, but change con­tin­ues to be very slow. De­spite these al­lo­ca­tions, I hear from many grass­roots com­mu­nity groups that they face bar­ri­ers ac­cess­ing funds. Black Cana­di­ans need sup­port and re­sources to ad­dress years of ne­glect and in­dif­fer­ence. De­spite hear­ing from sev­eral se­na­tors on the many forms of anti-Black racism im­pact­ing Cana­di­ans dur­ing the anti-Black Racism In­quiry in the last Par­lia­ment, other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers con­tinue deny­ing that Canada has a his­tory of sys­temic racism.

Un­til we see re­ac­tions of non­vi­o­lence from po­lice to­wards Black peo­ple, we will con­tinue to see vi­o­lence erupt, mir­ror­ing sys­temic vi­o­lence.

Denial and ig­no­rance en­able the vi­o­lence that re­sults in our deaths.

Ge­orge Floyd was mur­dered by po­lice of­fi­cer Derek Chau­vin and three of his col­leagues as wit­nesses stood by watch­ing and film­ing it for eight min­utes and 46 sec­onds. This video has fu­eled an in­ter­na­tional rage. Peo­ple of African de­scent have been ex­press­ing this same rage for hun­dreds of years in many dif­fer­ent forms, and yet it of­ten goes ig­nored. Not only do we ex­pe­ri­ence vi­o­lence in ways as tan­gi­ble as seen in the video of Ge­orge Floyd’s mur­der, we ex­pe­ri­ence vi­o­lence through more sub­tle forms of racism. Both types of racism are killing us.

From 2002 to 2010, I led a team of re­searchers who ex­am­ined the im­pact of racism and vi­o­lence on the health of Black men, their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties in three Cana­dian cities. We heard from Black Cana­di­ans about the detri­men­tal toll racism-re­lated stress has on their lives. This racism-re­lated stress is caused by the cu­mu­la­tive im­pact of bla­tant acts of racism, con­sis­tently be­ing un­der­es­ti­mated and un­der­val­ued, and over-crim­i­nal­iza­tion. This bur­den has se­ri­ous health con­se­quences for our com­mu­ni­ties. There is a deep anger felt by Black peo­ple in re­sponse to racism. That anger is of­ten in­ter­nal­ized and can erupt to a state of ab­so­lute rage. I of­ten feel rage and have turned it into ac­tion. Over the years, I have strate­gi­cally used my rage to fuel my ac­tivism work.

The rage of pro­test­ers is the same rage. It is real, and it is war­ranted. Un­til we see ac­count­abil­ity from po­lice, peo­ple will con­tinue to feel forced to take the law into their own hands. Un­til we see re­ac­tions of non-vi­o­lence from po­lice to­wards Black peo­ple, we will con­tinue to see vi­o­lence erupt, mir­ror­ing sys­temic vi­o­lence.

As an African Cana­dian, mother, wife, and grand­mother of two young Black boys, I bear the bur­den of stress and worry of “liv­ing while Black”. This stress is for my­self, for my com­mu­nity, for my fam­ily, es­pe­cially for these two boys who are quickly grow­ing into Black men. Too of­ten, when I see Black men de­picted in the news; they are be­ing killed, or they are por­trayed as a threat for sim­ply ex­ist­ing. Many African Cana­di­ans con­sis­tently share sim­i­lar sto­ries with me about their daily ex­pe­ri­ences. This is why the mes­sage is ur­gent: Black Lives Mat­ter.

On May 28 in Toronto, a young Afro-Indige­nous woman named Regis Korchin­ski-Pa­quet was killed when she fell from her apart­ment bal­cony on the 24th floor. Her fam­ily had called the po­lice be­cause she was in men­tal health distress. How does a woman in distress call­ing for help end up dead? Her death trag­i­cally unites the in­jus­tice of Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women with Misog­y­noir, a phrase coined by Moya Bailey rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­sec­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of Black women; misog­yny com­pounded with racism. Regis’ fam­ily is look­ing for an an­swer for what hap­pened to their daugh­ter, and African Cana­di­ans are filled with rage and sor­row at the loss of our sis­ter.

As I lie awake at night wor­ry­ing about the pro­longed vi­o­lence en­dured by peo­ple of African de­scent, I re­flect on when I have had this feel­ing be­fore. Was it ear­lier this year when Bre­onna Taylor was killed in her own apart­ment? Or was it in 1968, hear­ing the ac­counts of the ri­ots af­ter Martin Luther King Jr. was killed? Was it 10 years later, in 1978, when Buddy Evans, a young man with roots in East Pre­ston was killed by Toronto po­lice who were later ex­on­er­ated? Was it 14 years af­ter that, in 1992, dur­ing the ri­ots in­cited by the ac­quit­tal of the po­lice of­fi­cers who as­saulted Rod­ney King? Was it 22 years af­ter that, in 2014 af­ter the death of Michael Brown? I ask my­self what has changed since these events, what have we learned, and what needs to hap­pen now. I re­peat­edly hear lead­ers say that “we must do bet­ter” but at this point, those words feel empty as we find our­selves back in this place of col­lec­tive grief be­cause more of our broth­ers and sis­ters have been taken from us so vi­o­lently. “We must do bet­ter” is not a com­mit­ment to change. What we need to hear is who will take ac­tion, and how will they do it? Black com­mu­ni­ties, Black youth and Black lead­ers are ready for change. We have been ready, and we need part­ners in ac­tion, not just in words. We need col­lec­tive ac­tion.

Since the mid­dle of March, my mind and work have been oc­cu­pied with the knowl­edge that African Cana­di­ans are more sus­cep­ti­ble to COVID-19. This is due to higher rates of pre-ex­ist­ing health is­sues, as we know racism-re­lated stress takes a toll on health. This vul­ner­a­bil­ity is also due to an in­creased ex­po­sure to the pub­lic, as there are a higher num­ber of African Cana­di­ans who are em­ployed in es­sen­tial ser­vices.

I have been ad­vo­cat­ing for the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to col­lect ac­cu­rate data dis­ag­gre­gated by race in or­der to fully grasp this racial in­equity and equip Black com­mu­ni­ties with sup­ports. As I watch videos and news cov­er­age of the protests erupt­ing in Amer­i­can and Cana­dian cities in re­sponse to Ge­orge Floyd’s death, I worry about the im­pact gath­er­ing in crowds will put on our al­ready vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­nity. We do not yet know the full ex­tent of the im­pact this pan­demic is hav­ing on Black lives in Canada, but we do know the “pan­demic of racism” is prov­ing to be more deadly than COVID-19.

African Cana­di­ans are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cu­mu­la­tive ex­haus­tion and rage that is a con­se­quence of the col­lec­tive per­spec­tive that Black lives are ex­pend­able in Canada and the United States. The ex­haus­tion and rage are an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional re­ac­tion to hun­dreds of years of his­toric and cur­rent op­pres­sion, and mes­sages that Black lives do not mat­ter. Our an­ces­tors were ig­nored, and we have been ig­nored, which is why our rage is real, and war­ranted. Black Lives Mat­ter.

Wanda Thomas Bernard is an In­de­pen­dent Se­na­tor, the first Black Nova Sco­tian woman to be ap­pointed to the Se­nate.

Black youth and Black lead­ers are ready for change. We have been ready, and we need part­ners in ac­tion, not just in words. We need col­lec­tive ac­tion.

Adam Scotti photo

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau (cen­tre) and Min­is­ter of So­cial De­vel­op­ment Ahmed Hussen (left) at­tend a racial jus­tice protest on Par­lia­ment Hill on June 5, 2020.

Photo courtesy Se­na­tor Wanda Thomas Bernard

Se­na­tor Wanda Thomas Bernard with her grand­sons and her hus­band, Ge­orge Bernard, at the Owen Sound Eman­ci­pa­tion Fes­ti­val.

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