Whether we like it or not, race relations have always been present in our lives, at least in mine. Being of Canadian and West African descent, Senegalese to be precise, I am considered mixed, light-skinned, coloured or just a big question mark. My father is white, my mother is black, and I had the chance to grow up in a household that promoted acceptance of both sides of my cultural and genetic background. For this, I will be forever grateful to my parents’ forward thinking. Was I asked to choose which side I felt I belonged to the most? Yes, and I had to learn how to answer this question without being compelled to justify myself, as a person of mixed ethnicity.
I have been following what’s happening at the South of our border, and it took me a while to process how I felt as it affected my white legacy, my black legacy but also my Canadian legacy. When Emzingo offered me a platform to share my perspectives, I thought it would be a beneficial process for me and for others who may feel the same way as I do.
From Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice to Philando Castile, my heart broke a little bit more with every story of these police killings, with recorded evidence but no consequences for the perpetrators. How can we as a society allow these types of injustice to happen? I was also heartbroken by the killings of the five Dallas Police officers (Michael, Michael, Lorne, Patrick and Brent), whose deaths were an undeserved retaliation of what happened a couple of days prior. Not only did I feel strong empathy for the victims and their families, but I could relate on a human level as it could have been my father, my brother, my nephews, my sister or some of my friends, whose only crimes would have been to fit the perceived portrait of danger or whose jobs made them the targets for vengeance killings.
Being currently in South Africa, I can’t help but wonder which country is safer: the country which is perceived as dangerous but where the race dialogue is one of the most open I have experienced, or a country [previously] perceived as safe, such as the US, but where there is a recurrent theme of killings of black people at the hand of police.
I live in Canada, a country viewed as one of the most liberal and safest places in the world. It is true, Canada is a beautiful country which was built upon immigration and where it is easy to live a happy and meaningful life. One would believe the Canadian black experience should be quite different from the American black experience, as the original foundation of the first is the direct legacy of immigration, while the second finds its origins, unfortunately, linked to the history of slavery. However, the challenges both populations are facing are unfortunately quite similar as it appears to be increasingly the case.
When I came back from Burkina Faso to start university in Ottawa, I did not believe that black Canadians encountered similar problems than what I heard in hip hop music or in movies. But as I evolved in my Canadian society, as a girl whose ethnicity cannot be easily pinpointed, it was clear that I was wrong. How many times did I drive alone with no problems but as soon as I would have predominantly black male passengers, the police would be quick to ask me if I knew these young men, whether I was in a French- or English- speaking province? The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement against police discrimination did not start in 2016, it is an echo of what many black Canadians experienced in the past decades. Dr. Barrington Walker’s research, a legal historian at Queen’s University (Ontario, Canada), echoes what has been said by the Canadian black communities for years: black and white citizens are treated drastically differently in policing, charges, court procedures, sentencing, random pull-overs and imprisonment.
This unequal treatment of the black community is not something recognized by the Canadian society as whole because the actions taken by the perpetrators are swift and often times underlooked. It is interesting to observe how surprised Canadians are when they realize racism is present within their societal fabric. The racism endured by the black Canadian community is not necessarily obvious but creates habits and behaviors that teach you to fear the police and that you are a target, no matter if you are right or wrong (this is commonly referred to as “the Talk” in black households).
With the rise of social media and awareness initiatives, we are bettering the understanding of the problem, as it’s easier to put ourselves in the shoes of the targeted community and understand the fear, and uncertainty that they feel. One great example is the press conference where Dr. Brian Williams, a surgeon at one of the treating hospitals the night of the shooting, who happens to be black, mentioned how, while he will treat his patients regardless of their jobs and skin colors, he will always fear the police. If we have a surgeon experience such instilled reaction to the police, how can we expect a 20-year old male to react differently?
It is important to note that, the history of unequal treatment creates a spiral of discrimination and we are made aware that black Communities are not the only ones being treated unfairly in Canada. As a matter of fact, one of Canada’s dirtiest secret is the treatment of First Nations’ citizens, which can be reminiscent of the Apartheid regime in South Africa (more can be learned in What Canada committed against First Nations was genocide. The UN should recognize it)
I do not have the answers to all these issues, but the first step to stop this spiral is to spread information, yes, but to also allow every party involved to communicate and initiate an open and constructive dialogue on their own perspectives and experiences so that we can include more empathy in the treatment of one another. As Dr. Brian Williams said “There really is, in my opinion, no chance of having any kind of true, sustainable change until we are at least willing to acknowledge that black men are targeted in all segments of society. Once you acknowledge that, then we can actually move forward and address why this is happening and come together to make this country a much better place for our children.” (found in Treating the Police, Fearing the Police).
This will allow for a restructuration of the training of the civil servants to break the systemic stereotypes being perpetuated and how to resolve problems without the “shoot first, ask later” modus operandi. And most importantly, in my opinion, if Canada wants to retain its “happiness” and welcoming perception, it needs to address what has been happening in the US for the past couple of years and find a way to better equalize its services on a fundamental and human level, for all its citizens, white, blacks, first nations, Asians.
If my perspective resonates with yours, we would love to hear your voices, thoughts, feelings and stories. I personally look forward to hearing what you all have to say!
In prospect of a better future for the next generations to come,