Friday, 18 November 2016

Anti-Black racism campaign touches a nerve in Toronto

Anti-Black racism campaign touches a nerve in Toronto
By Neil Armstrong

Given all the recent incidents and reports of anti-black racism in the Greater Toronto Area, and indeed the province – from those involving school boards, verbal assault onboard public transit to signage promoting white privilege and more -- Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) says they could not have planned the launch of a public education campaign about anti-black racism at a better time.

Launched on November 2, the public education campaign by the City of Toronto and OCASI to raise awareness about the persistence of anti-black racism has touched a nerve in the city.

Douglas says the feedback has been very mixed on social media and on Twitter it has been nasty.
However, she thinks that given the conversation currently around about anti-black racism this is an opportune time.

“Folks have gone as far as to create hashtags saying ‘anti-white racism,’ folks have taken the posters and changed them so that they have Barack Obama and some white police chief, saying ‘hire one.’ Others have accused us of race-baiting and that anti-black racism does not exist.”

Despite this, Douglas says there have been some thoughtful conversations in which people say, “yes, we understand that black people are discriminated against but so are other people of colour.”

“Those folks we engage. It’s like, yes, but this campaign is about anti-black racism and some, I think, legitimate questions – If this is about anti-racism why are you only juxtaposing black people with white people?”

She said they actually also had that conversation as they were creating the campaign and had some images of black and non-black but non-white folks and the message then became too easy to be dismissed by white majority folk, in terms of, oh, that’s just those people of colour beating up on each other.

And so they intentionally use white and black images as a way to starkly talk about anti-black racism.

“Not at all losing the fact that it’s not only white folks who are anti-black, but wanting to pay attention to issues of power and power relations, and white supremacy and those kinds of issues that a poster doesn’t tell you and hence the website,,” she says.

The campaign created by the full service marketing communications firm, Public Inc., centres around bus shelter posters with powerful visual images which address anti-black racism in employment and housing situations. 

The posters direct people to the campaign website which provides information and resources to encourage dialogue, and to question and challenge anti-black racism.

This is a continuation of the city's partnership with OCASI. Phase 1 of the Toronto for All campaign ran in the summer of 2016 and focused on anti-Islamophobia. The campaign successfully encouraged dialogue amongst residents and the media in Toronto, nationally and internationally.

“When we had the anti-Islamophobia campaign the pushback was similar but it wasn’t as personal. So for the first time on Twitter I was called the c-word, so it’s that kind of nasty,” said Douglas.

“We kind of talk about this theoretically all the time, that as black women there is a particular race-based sexism that we experience. It’s really interesting to be on the receiving end of this in just a really visceral way from who I can only assume are white men.”

Douglas said there was a pushback from white men to the anti-Islamophobia campaign that somehow they have become this persecuted group, even more so with the anti-black racism campaign.

“I’m receiving comments like ‘I’m tired of this white men bashing,’ ‘I’m tired of having to apologize for being a white man,’ and the one that made me smile is that ‘Black people are a privileged group in Canada.’”

Doulas said the City of Toronto and OCASI thought the moment was correct to do this campaign now.

She said OCASI did not want to lose the momentum that has been built up by the actions of Black Lives Matter and the way that they have put anti-black racism solidly on the public agenda and in the public’s imagination.

“I think for too long the whole narrative is Canada is a saviour of black folk while we continue to erase the experience of Black Canadians out of our national narratives has been telling. I think that for many of us watching the Trudeau government, who we know many of the Black community supported, strike his first Cabinet, talk about it being the most diverse Cabinet in the history and there wasn’t one black person in that Cabinet. And as well, that the fact that Black Lives Matter, here in Toronto especially, had forced a conversation with the Premier of Ontario and with the mayor of the city. 

“And so felt, let’s not lose this momentum, let’s talk about the everyday experiences that black people have. Because I think that even with the work that Black Lives Matter has been doing, folks began to say, yeah, we really should be looking at police practices that the Toronto Star did around carding and racial profiling, yes that happens but people don’t pay attention to the other ways that anti-black racism expresses itself in the daily lives of black folk. It’s our young people being questioned when they enter a store, whether or not it’s the way black women get followed around in high-end clothing stores, whether or not it’s the way our black African immigrants don’t get call back for interviews because of their last name, whether or not that’s folk who just a few months ago during the summer posted a rental sign that said ‘Black guys don’t bother call.’ 

“We tend to forget that it is these every day microaggressions that weigh down on us that we experience as black people and we don’t talk about it, and so unless the police shoots a black person – a black man or a black woman – or unless there’s a big hoopla about a research project that shows over-policing of our community, folks think that black people are doing all very fine and well because, after all, didn’t the United States elect a black president and so we live in this post-racial age. And after all, isn’t this Canada where enslaved Africans escaped to, without any sort of discussion around Canada’s own history of slavery, without any conversation that there has been a black presence in Canada for over three hundred years and we all didn’t arrive in the 1960s.”

Anthony Morgan, a social justice lawyer and advocate, noted that anti-black racism is at the root of the social and systemic disadvantages facing far too many Black Torontonians.

"This much-needed campaign reminds us that there is no progress without precision. It does so by showing us that multiculturalism, inclusion, equity and diversity can never be truly realized without naming and engaging anti-black racism head on.”

Douglas says these are the conversations that the campaign is trying to spark and some of those conversations have been happening, “even with folks who are the trolls and whose minds we will never change.”

“What it is doing, I think that because the campaign is on, because media has been talking about it, because there’s been lot of back and forth in social media, what happened on the St. Clair West streetcar on Monday night emboldened those two white women who stepped up and said to that white guy ‘not here.’ I think our campaign is credit to that, that folks are paying attention.”

This is in reference to a recent racist incident aboard a St. Clair streetcar in which two white women intervened when a white man was berating a person of colour.

"Racism might not show up as overtly as in previous decades, but it's still present and evident," said Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre) at the launch. 

"Toronto's motto is Diversity Our Strength. The City, as government, has a duty to create a welcoming place for all Torontonians whether they are new or life-long residents, regardless of race, religion or culture, which will allow them to prosper," he said.

Racial profiling persists in many aspects of daily life for Black Torontonians.
Black youth continue to drop out from the educational system at higher rates than their white classmates. 

Black people are over represented among those living in poverty. And, the number of Black youth is alarmingly and disproportionately high in remand, youth detention facilities and jails.

Douglas says the aim of the campaign is not only to have non-black folk pay attention to the black experience but “for us as black people to have a conversation amongst ourselves. What does all this mean? How are we supporting each other and our communities, and the young people who are coming up, in terms of how do we begin to make those kinds of changes?”

“It’s about stopping it when you see it. It’s about speaking out and it’s about naming it, as black people,” she said.
Debbie Douglas, Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)

OCASI is the umbrella organization for immigrant and refugee-serving agencies in Ontario.

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