George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25 has sparked a wave of protests in the United States, in Canada, and around the world.
Over the past two weeks, millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets. Coverage in the U.S. has focused largely on the massive displays of support in major cities, but demonstrations have also been held in smaller towns across the country.
The same has been true in Ontario: thousands have grouped, gathered, and marched in such major centres as Ottawa and Toronto to speak out against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. But events have also been held in Guelph, Thunder Bay, Niagara Falls — and the list goes on.
This week, TVO.org will talk to those involved in the movement in cities, towns, and other communities across the province about what they're fighting for — and where Ontario should go from here.
Today, two members of Making It Awkward: Challenging Anti-Black Racism, a University of Windsor student-run advocacy group: Princess Doe, its president and co-chair, and Natasha Daley, its vice-president of finance and co-chair.
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TVO.org: Why did you decide to name your group Making It Awkward?
Princess Doe: One of the main objectives of the group is to educate and empower not only the Black community, but also Indigenous, racialized, and white allies in terms of acknowledging and addressing and challenging anti-Black racism within their own communities. We recognize — especially in places like Windsor — [people try] to avoid using the word “Black” or [the term] “anti-Black racism.” Talking about racism specific to the Black community can be a very awkward conversation that can make people uncomfortable. So one of our goals is to kind of make people feel awkward and uncomfortable and trying to find ways to address and challenge anti-Black racism, because if progress was comfortable, then it's not really progress.
Making It Awkward was founded in 2016 by two social-work students [Lacy Carty and Samina Singh] during their fourth year. Most of us were social-work students, and we were involved in the community. We were inspired a lot by the Black Lives Matter movement that was happening in the States and Black Lives Matter Toronto. And we were inspired and motivated by the call to address anti-Black racism, of course in the criminal-justice system, but as well in other different contexts. We felt that there was a lack of conversation in addressing not only racism but anti-Black racism, specifically. Anti-Black racism, a term that was coined by professor Akua Benjamin, a social-work professor at Ryerson University, seemed to be such a new concept in terms of how unique anti-Black racism was in a Canadian context. And, especially here in Windsor, where the conversation does not appear to be happening for young people like ourselves, we felt that creating a group like this, we’d have more space to bring in different stakeholders to these conversations.
TVO.org: On June 1, the University of Windsor issued a statement about the death of George Floyd that was criticized for not recognizing the significance of that event — and groups have been calling on the university to do better. What’s the background on this issue?
Doe: Making It Awkward has provided support on the work of ExposeUWindsor, which is an advocacy campaign that was founded as a result of a student, Jordan Afolabi, who was experiencing anti-Black racism at the hands of the University of Windsor administration. [Afolabi was one of two students involved in a fight in 2019; although witnesses said that the other student, who was white, had started the fight, Afolabi was the only one to face discipline.]
Natasha Daley: The statement was drafted and disseminated by ExposeUWindsor, and about 50-plus student groups signed on, Making It Awkward being one of them. A large amount of the writing in that letter, or that statement, was specifically in regard to the university's treatment of Jordan Afolabi. And I think that it speaks to the fact that the University of Windsor has this history of perpetrating anti-Black racism on campus while still having this mandate of being committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion. But we're not actually experiencing that on campus as Black students. And so I think that's the source of the outrage and why we are so passionate about actually having the university address these issues. Before then — and I think even up until now — the University of Windsor has not publicly recognized the treatment of Jordan Afolabi.
TVO.org: Why is it also important for your university to recognize what happened to George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis?
Doe: The George Floyd protest has sparked a global movement with Black Lives Matter and protests all over the world and having people finally come to terms with not only anti-Black racism by the hands of the police or the criminal-justice system, but also by different societal institutions — and having them reflect in terms of how they have upheld anti-Black racism and white supremacy for such a long time. So by the university not addressing not only the George Floyd protests and the conversations that have occurred, but also their own complicity and direct action of anti-Black racism, it was definitely [a priority concern] to the Black student community, which is such a prominent community here in Windsor with a long history.
Daley: I think it's important for the university to have spoken out regarding the murder of George Floyd, because, again, at the root of that murder was anti-Black racism. And, so, if the university is actively perpetuating anti-Black racism on its own campus, it can't effectively and in good faith speak out against the very thing that murdered George Floyd. If you're condemning one, you have to condemn the other. I think that's, again, where the push comes from for us.
TVO.org: On June 12, the university responded with a revised statement and a pledge to establish an anti-Black racism task force. Does this go far enough?
Daley: They talk about wanting to address anti-Black racism on campus, and they acknowledge the fact that they hadn't done so in a meaningful way in the past, particularly as it pertains to anti-Black racism. And so I think a huge part of what we can do is actually begin to consult with students, staff, and faculty who are Black and who have experienced harm on campus due to anti-Black racism — and then take it from there. Without really addressing the lived experiences of the people affected, any actions that the university decides to take are not going to be as substantial or as helpful.
Doe: Those consultations have to be public. There is a history of lost institutional knowledge when it comes to situations of anti-Black racism. In 2008, a Black Caribbean party on campus, a Pasa Pasa party, ended up having the university use the police as a way of engaging in further anti-Black racism. That situation has been lost over time. So when there are new student groups that want to come up and address anti-Black racism, it is very easy for institutions like the university to pretend like this is a new concern, when it's something that has been ongoing and systemic.
TVO.org: What else can your school do better?
Doe: There are many things that they can do better. We don't have that many Black professors, so it is hard for Black students to find that mentorship. We do have great Black professors, but they are dispersed all across campus. I've never had a Black professor, and I've been at the university for six years. That is just one example of the ways that the university can fully commit to addressing the needs of Black students.
TVO.org: There have been many incidents of anti-Black racism in southwestern Ontario that have received national attention, and the region has one of the highest rates of hate-crime incidents in the country. Why do you think that’s the case?
Doe: It's easy to ignore, so it was allowed to fester. I grew up in Windsor, across from Detroit, so it's really easy to compare ourselves to Detroit — easy to compare ourselves to America — and say it's not as bad here. Ignorance then allows for anti-Black racism to fester and grow and not have it be acknowledged or called into question. And so then it reaches a point where you do have so much hate crimes. But, then, if we're not reflecting within our own communities, we just are allowed to dismiss it and ignore it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.