June 15, 2020 by David Boroto
It is no secret that black people are a minority in Canada – black Canadians account for 3.5% of our country’s population, and 1.4% of the population in Victoria. When I graduated from SMUS in 2014, I was one of two black males and one of seven black students in my graduating class of 145 students.
The truth for many black Canadians is that we are one of a handful of black people, if not the only black person, in our friends’ lives. For some of us, we are the first black person who our friends have ever met. The products of this lack of representation (coupled with the lack of recognition of black Canadians in our education curriculum and mainstream media) are the stereotypes, misconceptions, and preconceived ideas that permeate our society. The idea that black people are athletic and nothing else. That black people are not articulate. That black people are not academically gifted. That black people are thugs and gangsters from the hood.
It would be easy and tempting to dismiss these stereotypes as harmless. One could even argue that 99% percent of the time they are harmless. But in that 1%, a white Canadian woman calls the police on a birdwatching black man for asking her to put her dog on a leash. His name is Christian Cooper. In that 1%, a young black Canadian man with schizophrenia is shot dead in his home by two police officers after he called 911 for help. His name is D’Andre Campbell. In that 1%, a young black Canadian woman falls 24 floors to her death after an encounter with the police in her home. Her name is Regis Korchinski-Paquet.
Yet focusing only on the 1% would ignore the deeper roots and broader societal impact of this issue. If the cases above are not enough evidence of systemic racism, one need only observe how police encounters with black people in Canada are more likely to end in fatality than any other race, or how black people in Canada face higher rates of preventable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease because they are denied care at higher rates than other races.
At SMUS, our daily lives are often disassociated from the people who are represented by these examples. The majority of us, black students included, are privileged enough to not encounter these issues ourselves or know individuals who do. But that does not mean the effects of stereotypes and racial biases do not affect the black people in your lives. While we may not show it, we internalize the stereotypes and biases we encounter and they influence how we go about living our lives day-to-day.
In statistics, the cardinal rule is that you can’t draw conclusions about the population if you have too small a sample size. Humans are inherently terrible at following that rule. In our low numbers, black individuals in Canada are often burdened with the responsibility of representing an entire race. Through our mere existence, we are called upon to dismantle stereotypes and educate those around us. Every action, every conversation, every achievement, and every failure runs the risk of being viewed as a representation of our entire race. We live our lives not worried about expressing our individualism, but how our individual behaviours contribute to stereotypes about our people and how the biases they create affect our opportunities in this country.
“You have to work twice as hard to go half as far.”
Most black, immigrant, and minority kids have likely heard this phrase at the dinner table at least once in their lives; it is a recognition of the opportunities and the liberties that are not afforded to people of colour simply due to the colour of our skin. Eating dinner with a few black students in Brown Hall when I first came to SMUS in 2011, one of them commented how none of us sitting at the table would become Head Prefect at SMUS. Why? “Because we are black.” When I first told my parents that I was running for Head Boy in 2013, their first reaction was to laugh. Why? “Because you are black.” What my friend and my parents meant was, in the world we live in, you as a black man cannot attain positions of power that are reserved for white people.
Unspoken in public, these are the conversations that black people and black families have amongst ourselves because we know that as minorities, the colour of our skin affects the way the world perceives us, more often than not in a negative way.
Canada is a beautiful country with welcoming people. SMUS is a great school with a strong community of diverse students and caring staff. At the same time, everyone in this country and everyone at our school has racial biases that disproportionately affect black people. Just because you don’t see them does not mean they don’t exist. The challenge that non-black people need to address is to identify your own racial biases and recognize how racial biases manifest themselves in your daily lives, amongst your friends and family. And once these biases are seen for what they are, they need to be called out and actively dismantled. It’s as simple as speaking up and having that tough, awkward conversation.
Racism is a systemic issue. In some cases, it can lead to a nonsensical 911 call, a denied health claim or a fatal encounter with the police. In most cases, it is an unseen burden that black people carry with them every day. If you were previously unaware of what life is like living while black in Canada, that is okay. You now have one perspective. And I challenge you to seek out more; there are plenty of articles, local black anti-racism organizations, books, Instagram accounts, TV series, and documentaries where you can start. Though we are a minority in Canada, there are many black voices from whom you can learn. It is by first seeking out our voices that you can then learn to empathize and gain the knowledge to act alongside us in the fight against anti-black racism in our country.
David Boroto (‘14) was a Head Boy at SMUS and currently serves on the Board of Directors at Engineers Without Borders Canada, a non-profit organization that tackles global poverty and inequality.