Black History Month awareness needs to carry over into the rest of the year

Systemic oppression and safety are underlying issues of racism many people face on a daily basis

Art by Mikayla Croucher

Art by Mikayla Croucher

The term “intersectionality” is defined as the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to an individual or group and have overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. It was coined over 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women, and is now widely used to describe systemic oppression of other racialized groups and members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. 

February has been celebrated as Black History Month (BHM) since 1996 in Canada to recognize and honour the contributions of Black Canadians. However, some people in racialized communities say while the month is important to raise awareness, it doesn’t fully address the everyday issues of racism. 

Carolyn Tinglin, chair of the Youth Alliance for Intersectional Justice (YAIJ), co-founded the organization with her son after many attempts to create spaces for Black, neurodivergent youth. 

“So many of the spaces for Black youth are great, but they aren’t necessarily accessible to Black youth who are neurodiverse,” she says. “On the other hand, accessible programs and agencies that serve to create accessibility in that way are not culturally diverse or grounded.” 

YAIJ is a collective of youth between the ages of 15 and 30. It’s a Black, youth-led organization with members who are and aren’t neurodivergent. 

Tinglin is Jamaican born but grew up in different areas of the Caribbean and immigrated to Ontario when she was young. She says when she came to Canada, that was the first time she realized she was Black because it was pointed out to her. 

“That started my journey of self discovery and trying to understand this thing of ‘being different,’ with different being away from whiteness.” 

Tinglin lived in British Columbia for a period of time and says something she found different in B.C. was that communities are isolated compared to Ontario. 

“We kind of have pockets of people, and that can be very isolating and lonely. I think the challenge with Canada is this misconception that multiculturalism is the thing and that everyone is welcoming, and the more diverse the better. It’s a misleading myth that gives people hope, only to find that it’s not quite the case,” she says. 

While teaching nursing at a university in the Lower Mainland, Tinglin was the only Black teacher in the faculty and experienced acts of racism. Her students were not used to having a Black teacher and found herself having to provide evidence to prove what she taught was accurate. 

“What was most jarring was comments made by students and [their] attitudes. I found myself creating the lesson plans and doing hours of work to justify what I was teaching and the resources I had, because I got questioned all the time by my students,” she says. 

“Comments and teacher feedback was very personal. Some students made comments [that] the only reason I had the job is because I’m trying to work my way up the career ladder and that I don’t really care … it was bizarre. It was enough to make me never teach again.” 

She adjusted quickly, but says the extra work Black teachers have to do to prove themselves takes an emotional and mental toll. 

“BHM is a double edged sword. It’s on the side of tokenism to have BHM, once a month in the shortest month of the year, and then there’s the need to build awareness, to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions Black Canadians have made.” 

“Black folks aren’t going to do the work for you. Educate yourself and seek organizations,” Tinglin says. 

“Anti-Black racism is not a Black people problem, but we bear the brunt of that problem. The problem really is embedded in white supremacy and people who benefit from white supremacy.” 

Michael Ma, criminology instructor at KPU, says the term white people is complicated, and some would say problematic, as it’s not racialized. 

“You have a sense of purity that you’re white because you are able to name other people as races, but you yourself are immune from being racialized because you’re just normal because people who are white aren’t even part of a white race,” he says. 

Ma immigrated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as a child in 1968 but moved to Montreal soon after where he grew up in a primarily English-speaking city and Jewish community. Ma himself is Muslim, English-speaking, and Chinese Canadian. 

In the 1990s, Ma got involved with the community advocacy work around racism of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCNC released two reports of their findings on the increase in anti-Asian racism across Canada. 

They found that women submit the majority of incidents, and incidents reported by South Asian and Southeast Asian people increased by 318 per cent and 121 per cent respectively since 2020, and reports by youth under the age of 18 increased by 286 per cent. 

“I actually don’t think there is that much variety [of people] in Richmond or Surrey, I think it is very self selecting, self racializing. And why do people resettle in areas where there’s other people who either speak their language or look like them? I think, in large part, it’s about fear,” he says. 

According to Statistics Canada census of population data from 2021, 37.8 per cent of people in Surrey are South Asian, and 54.3 per cent of people in Richmond are Chinese. 

“You want to be with people who speak your language and [look similar to you] because you feel you won’t be adversely or negatively judged for your appearance. I think that looms behind everything,” Ma says.  

Alex Sangha, founder of Sher Vancouver, was born in England but grew up in Newton in Surrey. He says the area went from a working class Caucasian to South Asian area with a lot of Punjabi Sikh immigrants. 

“I experienced a lot of racism in my school. There was homophobia, transphobia, you wouldn’t dare to come out as a gay person in the 1980s when I was in high school,” he says.

“It was very alienating and isolating. I had internalized racism. I didn’t like myself for being brown because people were calling me ‘Hindu, Punjab, Paki’ … and my self esteem, self identity, self confidence was adversely impacted. There was a layer of oppression in that I didn’t like myself because of my race and sexuality.”

Sangha says it was a long journey for him to feel good about his culture, people, and traditions before embracing his South Asian, Punjabi Sikh heritage and his sexuality. 

When Sangha went on a United Nations and Save the Children Fund of BC tour in Africa, he noticed that it was quite different from what he learned in his school education.

“The people there were nice and friendly, they were working, they have nice roads and buildings. It was a beautiful country. Yes they had some problems, but we also have multiple socio-economic and health problems in the Downtown Eastside.”

“I think the perception of Africa here is really not representative of the perception of Africa there. If you go there, it’s very different than what the West thinks of Africa,” Sangha says. 

“As I got older and I started to become more critical about race, I realized this is all just theory, and it has been made up by colonialist and racist … scientific researchers who felt that white people were superior to other people.” 

Sangha refers to human biology in that evidence suggests we all came from Africa. A study published in 2019 found that about 200,000 years ago the salt flats of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi pans were the “homeland” of modern humans today. 

“We are all one people, one humanity. However, people want to separate us based on our differences,” he says.

Sangha says in India, people who live in the south and have darker skin are discriminated against as well. 

“I’m sad to say there is discrimination within the South Asian community against other South Asian people who are Black, who are darker skinned, or who are from a different caste or belong to a different religion. Nevermind being queer, that is also a major taboo.” 

“I think this is a product of colonialism, and it’s a product of media representation that has for years glamourized Caucasian people,” he says. 

Waheed Taiwo, a student success coach at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Melville School of Business, has organized Black History Month events at KPU in the past and has spoken at forums for Black students and staff to share their experiences, but he felt like it was a checkmark of something done and not talked about the rest of the year. 

“It seems like we try to do something for that one month, we put up an event and we’re happy that we’re progressing, but definitely more could be done,” he says. 

Taiwo was born in Nigeria and moved to Finland for his undergraduate education before immigrating to Surrey. He came to KPU through an exchange program between KPU and Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. 

The official language in Nigeria is English, but the official language in Finland is Swedish and Finnish. Taiwo says that while the majority of Finns speak English, they don’t speak it often. 

“It’s definitely a different environment here,” he says. “The environment was definitely what I felt was more welcoming, the interactions in the classroom were amazing, the teachers were highly supportive, and we made the decision to stay.” 

Taiwo says he likes the idea of having a Black History Month because there is a history of Black people in Canada, from the War of 1812 to the Underground Railroad. He says the problem isn’t necessarily the location of services for people of colour, but rather the safety in numbers. 

“If I need to be with my community to feel safe, that means I’m not safe, and I think that’s the issue we should focus on,” he says. 

“Racism itself is a very complex issue, and the way I look at it is one step at a time in terms of raising awareness but also policy changes, structural changes. It’s one thing for us to educate people and another to be able to take steps and do something procedurally,” says Asma Sayed, Canada Research Chair in South Asian Literary and Cultural Studies in the department of English at KPU.

“I think the purpose of raising awareness at a certain time is to ensure that we carry it forward through the rest of the year as well. If you talk about anti-Black racism in February, things are not necessarily going to change in March. The issues remain the same, but this month allows us to look at things closely,” she says. 

Sayed is leading the creation of the Office of Anti-Racism at KPU, one of the many recommendations the Anti-Racism Task Force proposed in fall and the first that was approved by the university. One of the office’s main tasks will be to implement all the recommendations from the task force’s 96-page report

“It requires us to look at the policies and procedures, structural issues, systemic issues, so it will be an institution wide work that requires a number of people to be involved with different areas of expertise,” she says.

Currently, Sayed is searching for both students and faculty to join several committees which will be in charge of certain recommendations from the report, such as developing an anti-Black racism action plan. She says there will also be educational initiatives and workshops for students and faculty. 

One recommendation in particular Sayed is working on is dedicating a day each year to learn about racism in an effort to raise awareness about issues around racism and how to move forward as an institution to be inclusive. This year the office is holding a symposium on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

“We should be taking this information, carrying it with us, to ensure that we work in solidarity throughout the year. Microaggressions don’t stop, racist behaviour doesn’t stop. For people of colour it is an everyday occurrence, we don’t stop being people of colour. Discrimination is ongoing,” Sayed says. 

“I think it’s good that there’s Black History Month, but of course every month should be Black History Month, every month should be Asian Heritage Month, every day should be the celebration of everyone. But that’s not the case, so you have to try and make a special effort to focus on some people who don’t have as much equality in society,” Ma says. 

“A big part of it is listening, creating that space, and be willing to. Things may not be happening to you personally or to people who look like you, but you can be an activist,” Tinglin says. 

“It’s about the amazing people we had an opportunity to be connected with … I think the race outside of the Black community understanding that these are the [Black community’s] experiences and making the conscious effort to be an ally and to alleviate some of that pressure,” Taiwo says. 

“It’s okay if you don’t understand everything about all people. You just ask, you learn, you grow together. And remember we are one people, we are human beings, and we need to learn to love each other,” Sangha says.