How Black Torontonians are Creating Their Own Spaces in the City

Torontoist

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How Black Torontonians are Creating Their Own Spaces in the City

The Black Futures Now Conference is the start of a conversation we need to have about forging our place in Toronto.

Living in Toronto means hearing the word “multiculturalism” a lot in the context of progress. It is often touted as the most diverse, most friendly, and most livable city in the world. In 2017, Toronto will be made up of at least 50 per cent “visible minorities.” “Diversity is our strength,” reads Toronto’s Coat of Arms. Cultural events and months—such as Caribana and Asian Heritage Month—feature boutiques of colourful ethnic food and music that media outlets capture year round in coverage and advertisements.

But through this appearance of harmony lies barriers, hardships, and the disappearance of people of colour—especially Black Canadians.

Growing up as a first-generation Black Canadian girl, I didn’t have a lot of spaces that told me I belonged. In elementary school, my white teacher told me that Ghana, my family’s country of origin, didn’t exist. In junior high, I was reminded that my Blackness is seen as a threat when an employee at a gas station (who was Brown) accused me of stealing because I bent down to grab a granola bar to pay for. In high school, I didn’t learn about indigenous Black Canadians and their 300-year history in Canada. Instead, I was told that we didn’t exist until the 80s wave of African and Caribbean immigrants entering Canada.

By “we,” I mean all of us: all Black people. We are not, never have, and never will be a monolith that is easily digestible and consumable for everyone else. We are queer, disabled, African, Caribbean, Asian, European, trans, Muslim, women, and many more identities all at once. Existing in multiple intersections means that our experiences are layered and complex. But somehow, Black Canadians are often told to leave parts of us behind at the door.

This was my experience while attending university. When I wanted to enter progressive spaces to grow my understanding of social justice, I was expected not to make anything “about race.” When I hosted an event about food justice, I was told that if I kept talking about race, nothing would get done. In Black student spaces, gender was considered a distraction. In feminist spaces, race was considered a distraction. While I studied Criminal Justice at Ryerson University, I deliberately skipped classes about race and the criminal justice system because I knew I would be erased. For four years, I was repeatedly given an ultimatum: either advocate for issues about my race and lose, or advocate for issues about my gender and lose.

For many Black women, erasure and being made invisible are normal experiences. Neither our experiences nor our voices are present. It’s partially why Toronto city data about many issues—ranging from police carding to the 69 per cent increase in Black Canadians in prison to the number of Black children in foster care—do not fully capture Black girls and women’s experiences but rather conceals them, often under terms like “racialized.”

It’s why the founding members of the global Black Lives Matter movement—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi—are not often described as queer Black women by major media outlets. It’s why scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Forum Policy created the Twitter hashtag #SayHerName in response to the invisiblizing of Black women’s experiences of police brutality. And it’s why Black women like me find it so hard to be in spaces that don’t specifically name us.

When the opportunity to facilitate a media literacy workshop at the Black Futures Now Conference came about, I immediately submitted a proposal request. Taking place this Saturday at York University, the conference aims to “create a space in which Black gender nonconforming folks, youth, and women can come together [to] discuss and workshop ideas around social and political issues they care about most.” Often, Black women and girls find themselves with no one to speak to about their experiences. Facilitating this workshop is my way of starting a conversation.

My workshop will focus on media literacy. Having the critical thinking skills to “read” media is necessary, especially with the increase in coverage on race, police brutality, and protesting. For example, Black Lives Matter Toronto has been on the receiving end of much vitriol because in addition to several demands, they challenged the police presence at Pride this year. They have been accused of “bullying,” taking “hostage” of, and “hijacking” Pride. All of these words suggest violence and danger, despite BLM peacefully protesting by sitting. As co-founder Janaya Khan points out in an interview with Maclean’s magazine, “would this have been different if we were six white men? Would they be using that language then? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen that language used when white people have demonstrations.”

Building this kind of analysis that includes consulting different vantage points in context allows for people, especially youth, to understand difference in a concrete way and to ask critical questions.

The Black Futures Now Conference is an opportunity for Black women and girls to hold space with each other. In these times of hurt, anger, confusion, and grief at the loss of our Black community members both at home and abroad, we need to see each other with our own eyes. My hope is that my media literacy workshop sparks what the mission statement of the conference calls for: “ideas and visions needed to help create a more anti-racist and Black feminist Toronto.” We need more space in this city—and this is just the start.

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