The need for systemic change

MRU students share how racism has affected their lives


Multiple staged walkouts at Calgary area schools and the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued last summer were a harsh reminder that racism is still alive and very real, and it is everywhere.

“In a settler city like Calgary, immigration is obviously important to the history of its growth and development,” says Dr. Kirk Niergarth, PhD, an associate professor of history with the Department of Humanities. “But racism has a long and ugly history here, too, and persists.”

Niergarth began teaching HIST 3306: Racism and Immigration in Canadian History in 2014. The course explores the history of immigration, racism and anti-racism in Canada between the 17th and mid-20th centuries and is designed to spark fresh inspiration in the fight against racial discrimination, with students connecting the episodes of the past with their experiences in the present.

"The history of the African diaspora in Canada is not separable from Canadian history more generally but an intrinsic part of it. It stretches back to the early days of slavery in New France and forward to the present,” Niergarth says. Within that history, racialized people have often come together to confront injustice.

“We shouldn't need a special month to remember and teach this history, but it does afford an opportunity to publicly acknowledge the accomplishments and resiliency of people who have endured discrimination but have contributed much locally, provincially and nationally,” Niergarth says.

In recognition of Black History Month, two former students of Niergarth’s, plus a former Cougars athlete, have graciously agreed to step forward and share their personal experiences with racism and how they are taking steps to address it in their own way. We thank them for their contributions.

 

Chido Maenzanise.

Chido Maenzanise
Bachelor of Arts — Sociology

When have you experienced racism?

Being a Black woman, I experience racism almost every day, unfortunately. It can be through subtle exchanges or explicit, confrontational ones. Being followed through stores, being suspected of stealing, people locking their cars when I walk by, people clutching their bags when I walk by, having my intelligence constantly questioned, and being called the N-word.

A more troubling instance was when a bus driver refused me access to a city bus when I was in high school. I was standing at the bus stop with a woman, an older white woman, who was waiting for the same express bus. As the bus pulled in front of us, I let her go in front of me as she was older and I’ve always been taught to respect my elders. Once she got on, the bus driver looked at me as he closed the doors in my face and drove away. I watched as others on the bus stared at me in disbelief. I tried to act like it was a misunderstanding, that he didn’t see me, or he somehow thought I wasn’t waiting. I was in denial and I was embarrassed.

For years I’ve thought about that situation, where I was left to wait for the next bus that was going to take me two hours to get home (plus it was winter so it was freezing). My friends and family encouraged me to report the driver, but all I could think was it’s a white man’s word against a Black girl. I think I was just so deeply hurt and confused that I just wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen. I knew that if I was the same race as the older woman, things would have been different. Unfortunately, events like that are not uncommon for Black people and other visible minorities. Even more unfortunately, the fear of speaking out is also very common.

What needs to be done to address racism in society?

To address racism as a society we must work at an individual level through the things that you say, do and/or think. This has been a very important step that I’ve learned through my MRU courses. We cannot just say we want change or post on our social media. As individuals we have to change the conditioning that we have been subjected to and acknowledge the stereotypes and microaggressions that you believe in or have been taught to believe in. It may be difficult and uncomfortable but you cannot be a part of the change until you admit your part in the issue.

Imagine how uncomfortable it is to experience racism on a regular basis. Trying to understand and listen to Black Canadians can broaden your view on the struggles that Black people around you go through on a daily basis and can make you more cautious about the things you say or do. With that being said, do not depend on Black people to be your source of education. I am not a Black People 101 crash course. Read articles, books, watch documentaries, movies, TV shows, listen to podcasts. There are so many sources. Do not make Black people constantly relive their pain and trauma by having to educate non-Black people.

Is there someone you look up to or has made an anti-racism impact in Canada or in Calgary?

Although Black history is celebrated for one month, that doesn’t mean you have to limit your learning to that one month. There are so many Black Canadians that have made an impact on Canadian society.

The Canadian Black power movement addressed the issues concerning systemic racism in Canada and gave a voice to Black Canadians who had been dismissed by society. At the time there was a lot of focus on the civil rights movement in the United States, which helped Canadians address the issues that Black Canadians were facing here at home. An inspirational moment in history would be the “Sir Williams Affair,” or the “Computer Affair,” in which the students of Sir George Williams University used their voices to fight the systemic racism that Black students were subjected to on campus. These students stood up against the racism they were experiencing in a place that was meant to educate them and assist in achieving their desired goals. Their courage and strength inspires me to use my education and my voice to also stand against all forms of racism. They put their futures on the line and united people from many racial backgrounds to fight against racism and discrimination.

As a BIPOC student, what impact did HIST 3306 have on you?

HIST 3306 has given me many answers as to how and why racism continues to thrive in Canadian society. I came to Canada when I was a child and was just starting to really understand the concept of race and what that meant for me as a little Black girl. I had so many questions and felt a bit lost, and as time went on I only felt more confused as to where I fit into society. Through the HIST 3306 course I learned about the struggles that Black Canadians have gone through in order to get where we are today and I learned how many events are reoccurring in our present day society. My questions were answered and opened the door to new knowledge. I think it’s important to know Canada’s history with racism and discrimination because we have to know where it began and why. This class has taught me about the struggles Black people, and other races, have faced in the past and how it has affected their present. The stereotypes that they have been subjected to from birth and how they have travelled down multiple generations, along with the trauma and pain.

 

Rachel Scarlett.

Rachel Scarlett
Bachelor of Science — Health Science

When have you experienced racism?

As a person of mixed heritage, I have found my race and ethnicity to be a frequent question in conversation. The idea that my dad is Jamaican and my Canadian-born mom is of Norwegian and Scottish descent can be puzzling and even deemed misleading to those curious enough to inquire. Whether from judging my complexion as too pale for Caribbean roots, or that my reality does not align with their presumption, people rarely accept my answer as factual. Although I’m racially ambiguous, my paler skin and Caucasian features afford me ongoing racial privilege, shielding me from overt, blatant racism and discrimination.

Moreover, I have now found myself fighting for and striving to protect those who, troublingly, still face such oppression for only the colour of their skin. It seems, because I am often viewed as being white, people feel they are in a “safe space” and freed to casually make racially insensitive, inflammatory comments in my presence. Being biracial, I live as an in-betweener …  I am too “white to be Black” but “too Black to be white.”

What needs to be done to address racism in society?

I remain staunchly opposed to the use of racial slurs, yet am thankful that being perceived as white has given me the opportunity to talk with those who are not like-minded; those same people by extension remain ignorant as to why their biases can be so offensive. Through many civil conversations, I continue to hope to enlighten individuals on the reality of racism in Canada, hoping in the process to encourage more informed choices and positive changes in racial prejudices and behaviors.

Is there someone you look up to or has made an impact in Canada or Calgary on racism?

One of my greatest role models in the fight for racial equality is Viola Desmond. She was a mixed, Black woman born in Halifax who had worked as a well-respected beautician in the mid-20th century. In 1946, Desmond took legal action against the Roseland Theatre after she had been, quite literally, thrown out and arrested for not complying to their segregated seating policy. The Black community quickly rose to Desmond’s defense and worked as a group in raising funds to support Desmond in a legal battle clearly concerned with racial discrimination.

Although Desmond ended up losing her case, her actions in protesting segregation created a ripple effect in the Black community in Canada. She gave people the courage to not accept racism as their reality, but to question and actively fight against it.

As a BIPOC student, why is it important to take HIST 3306?

Taking HIST 3306 has enlightened me to Canada’s tragic and disappointing history of racism and discrimination. It has also given me the knowledge and confidence I require to intelligently engage others on the reality of racism in Canada, especially those who may refuse to acknowledge that Canada is not a haven from racism.

 

Jamal Watson.

Jamal Watson
Bachelor of Business Administration — Accounting

When you have experienced racism?

As a Black male racism has happened in my life at certain times and I'll never forget those times. But I think that it helped me understand and shape my world in the sense that there are people out there who have hate in their heart for no reason other than you being different from them. I think that cases like this are so few and far between that you can't let it bother you and it's been that way since the first time it happened to me as a kid. Obviously, when this happens you're upset, but after my parents explained why those people thought that way and were willing to try to hurt someone for being different you learn to pay them no mind, because when it comes down to it they are in the one per cent of people in this world.

What needs to be done to address racism in society?

I think as a society we’re starting to take steps in the right direction regarding racism. Racism isn't only about Black people, but it encompasses any minority in the country and the experience is the same. The hate another person can give to someone just for being from another place in the world or not looking the same is something that society needs to step in and get rid of. I think the traction with creating awareness is correct, but now it’s the execution piece where the expectation to be an anti-racist is the norm in society. When you hear or see someone in your environment partaking in things with racial undertones it should be the norm to put a stop to it. In the same way someone is taught not to allow bullying it should be the exact same with racism. Once we get to that point I think society will start to see the decline of social injustice for minorities in the world.

Is there someone you look up to or has made an impact on racism?

A person who has affected racism the most for me is Martin Luther King Jr. The toughness and determination to stir up a society where it was not fair to Black people takes courage and mental toughness greater than anything I think we all could know. It's the reason I am trying my best to do whatever I can and part take in conversations and education of people to show them a different perspective and hopefully get them on board the train of being an anti-racist society.

Feb. 1, 2021 ― Jonathan Anderson

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