This blog post was originally published on The Peak on February 22, 2021.
What About Black Students?
“What about Blackness? What about Blackness? What about Blackness?” repeats Bilan Arte, a Black-Muslim feminist and Canadian Labour Congress’ representative for human rights. She was one of three empowering and incredibly decorated panelists to start off the Black Student Experience in Canada panel on February 4.
Hosted by the National Black Students’ Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students, The Black Student Experience in Canada consisted of four main events touching on topics from solidarity between movements to organizing and taking action as Black students. The day-long virtual event aimed to celebrate Black excellence, amplify Black narratives, and cultivate a sense of community between students across the country.
It interlinked our experiences of navigating the Canadian education system and offered perspective to those who may not undergo those same experiences. The beauty, authenticity, and brilliance that flowed through these conversations bestowed equal room for revealing the insecurities, trauma, and underlying chaos of being a Black student in Canada.
The event evoked memories of my experiences navigating education systems as a young Black girl, and brought to light some common challenges that I am now able to digest from a more constructive perspective.
Opening up my laptop and seeing four Black women on my screen, I already knew this was going to be an endearing and meaningful panel, especially for me. As a Black-Filipina-Canadian who has undergone all my schooling thus far in British Columbia, I’ve yet to see this much Black women representation regarding Canadian education. Like many young Black students in Canada, particularly where I grew up in Burnaby, I was often the only Black kid in my classes, and my siblings and I were among the only Black kids in our school from K-12.
Growing up biracial has been a constant identity crisis for me. I’m not in touch with my African family, and was raised in the Filipino community for the most part. It was only when I came to school that I was defined as a Black girl, solely for how I looked. Before that, I had never defined myself based on looks, nor did I question my skin tone or categorize my worth because of it.
At school, I was constantly reminded, through subtle microaggressions, that I was Black, almost as if I were forced to play a role that others had chosen for me. The problem of othering Black students in Canadian school systems is so prominent that it becomes necessary to adapt to microaggressions because the issue is too large to combat alone.
Looking back on my primary and secondary school experiences, I always wonder how much more supported and protected I would’ve felt having someone to help me navigate the underlying alienation and confusion I was feeling – someone who would’ve understood my experiences.” I also think about how no child should even be feeling such things.
Representation is a great start towards combatting this. Having people that look like you in positions of power within your community, having Black teachers to look up to and share experiences with (or even to simply feel protected) can positively impact and empower so many youth.
My childhood dream was to become a teacher and ironically, I’ve yet to be taught by a Black teacher in my whole academic career. Instead of being empowered by a teacher, my motivation has come from the lack of representation throughout my life and a desire to change that in another child’s life. Feeling empowered is what fuels passion and nurtures curiosity in learning. The way I felt coming to this panel, seeing women like myself — that excitement, passion, and empowerment — is the way each of us deserve to feel when we are learning.
Increasing Black representation in the Canadian educational system was strongly emphasized throughout the panel, along with addressing the lack of knowledge surrounding Black and Black-Indigenous history in Canada.
“How can we do better if we don’t know our history? If we don’t know what the past had looked like?” questioned another panelist, Eternity Martis, award-winning journalist and university professor.
Martis pointed out that in her experience as a teacher, she’s encountered students who weren’t even aware that there was Black slavery in Canada. I was never introduced to Black History Month until high school, reinforcing the idea that younger students are too sensitive and unconcerned about Black history in Canada — a past they deserve to understand and create historical connections with. This leads us to question when Canadians will be taught Canada’s true history: that this country is not innocent, and reconciliation is still lacking in many areas of our nation.
We, as students, deserve the right to a transparent education, to understand our history and the secrets that were swept under the rug in favour of the lie of equality. Doing so can help us cultivate the proper tools to navigate life outside the classroom, and mold ourselves into the future leaders we know we need. There is a lack of a celebration and education for Black Canadian history, as well as a lack of anti-racism intitiatives and actions for recognizing and preventing racial discrimination. It’s not only the curriculum that requires anti-racism efforts, but all aspects of the education system need to be reevaluated, from the ministry, hiring, training, and down to the classroom.
Finding Solidarity in Community
As the dust from 2020 settles, it’s safe to say we’ve all learned a thing or two about what solidarity means for Black justice movements. With the entire world going remote, social justice advocacy has shifted into a new state — one where we are able to participate in change, fight for human rights, and show solidarity, all from our phones. Solidarity is a powerful tool not only used in change, but in healing, and is achieved in unity and diversity.
With the Black Lives Matter events last summer, and the misrepresentation of the protests, Black people either didn’t know what to feel, or could not feel at all. Emotions ran rampant, like a contagion of fear, rage, and anxiety, leading some to feel numb to the pressure of it all. Once again, we were thrown into an experience that was all too familiar: mourning people who could have been our parents and siblings. We are living in a time where children are fighting for their lives to matter and they don’t even know why; a time where we are becoming desensitized to racism and police brutality, and schools boards are as performative as a reposted Instagram story. If you said “Black Lives Matter” in 2020, you have some work to do.
Black people lead the battles that we have the capacity to lead, but it’s not up to us to finish the fight every time. For once we need to uphold Black mental health in our schools. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of Black students to fight against a system that they didn’t create.
In one of her essays, A Burst Of Light, revolutionary Black feminist poet, Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Self-preservation is something that I never knew was an option until I had to practice it for my own well-being. I am proud of myself for being so much more unapologetic than I was before since I first began university. I’ve developed an unwillingness to apologize for myself and my place in society, and learned how to be fair to myself and respect my self-worth.
My advice to other Black students is to find strength through community, whatever that means to you. If you are burnt out, you can take a break. I know this is not easy. In fact, it’s exhausting. Often, we as Black students feel the need to prove our worth to the detriment of our mental health. It doesn’t help that we’re stereotyped to uphold an idea of strength and be tireless. But it’s not worth it to be in a yelling match with Karen; grab your receipts and go a different route. Black mental health is more important.
You Are Possible
It’s important to know that Canadian institutions are inherently racist, anti-Black, as well as rife with misogynoir (misogyny toward Black women). These systems were not built for Black students, therefore, our success is not prioritized. Being supported by these institutions has never been something that we receive unless we not only ask, but demand it.
A Black student’s experience is to tolerate and navigate constant conflict, and negotiate values. Throughout this event, I came to understand that what I’ve experienced throughout my childhood has been a shared experience that many others can relate to: the shared experience of not feeling protected and having the focus be on our features, not on our creativity or our gifted minds.
In school, we are forced to fight against the notion that “people like us” aren’t meant to experience higher education. These negative connotations mean that, whether or not we succeed as Black students, the institutions we’re in may not be spaces where we, as Black people, are valued. This event taught me the importance of divorcing myself from this idea.
As an action item to Canadian schools and institutions, accountability is very important. This looks like listening to student leaders, reflecting the student body, and implementing programs designed to support and protect Black students.
An apology in a mass email that won’t be read by half of the student body is not enough. It’s easy to speak on all sorts of repercussions and promise to make amends, but what we need to have addressed by our institutions is the root: the deep cultivation of injustice and discimination that is inflicted on Black students across the country. It is necessary for institutions to tackle the problem head on, by reflecting on where issues derive systemically, clearly acknowledging how these circumstances are being handled ethically, and offering constructive steps towards change.
To any fellow Black student reading this, don’t be afraid to speak truth to power, because power needs to be forced to change. You are central, you are possible, and you are worthy in all spaces.