Guest blog by Dr. Bathseba Opini, Assistant Professor of Teaching, The University of British Columbia
The exploitation, control and violence against Black people in the Americas is not a new phenomenon. We have seen the world of Black people worsen each day, month, year, decade, and century. The events of May 25, 2020 were another breaking point in the long history of Black oppression by systems and structures controlled predominantly by white people. George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was murdered in cold blood by Derek Chauvin – a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Black people have been punching bags of racist white police officers and white systems for centuries. Black people have been pinned down for ages by white systems which empower white people like Chauvin to use a knee to neck tactic to restrain Floyd. Anti-Black racism must be understood as different from racism, which is a systemic reality; killing, institutionalized abuse and maltreatment of Black people by police is normalized. I recognize and acknowledge that racism exists and is experienced by Indigenous and racialized people. However, in this piece, my focus is specifically on the lived experiences of Black embodied people of African descent within North America and globally. I talk about North America where Blacks have experienced over 400 years of chattel enslavement through colonial policies and laws, such as the Jim Crow laws, designed to keep Black people subordinate and oppressed. These legacies remain. Contemporary events affecting Black people in the USA and Canada are a sign that, in spite the United Nations’ declaration of the International Decade of People of African Descent, 2015-2024, not much has changed. It is now visible to the world’s consciousness how racist systems are embedded in our societies.
I join Black people from my immediate surroundings and around the globe to condemn these deep-seated traumatizing and racist events. White privilege and entitlement enabled Derek Chauvin to exercise racist and lethal power on George Floyd even when he repeatedly called out “I can’t breathe”. As a Black mother, it has been painful trying to answer two important questions which my children constantly raised. First, “mommy why was that white guy suffocating a Black man when he was under arrest and handcuffed?” Second, “why do white people dislike Black and Brown people, I thought the police were there to protect us?” These are difficult questions coming from young elementary age children witnessing the reality of racial injustices against Black people, beginning to understand who we are as Black people and how our experiences are shaped by oppressive societal structures.
Discontented with the justice system, which has repeatedly set white police who have committed murder free, Black people and their allies in the USA, Canada and other parts of the world took to the streets to demand justice for Floyd. Only then was Derek Chauvin arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. After continued activism, the charges were elevated to second-degree murder on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. The other three police officers who witnessed the murder and did nothing were charged with aiding and abetting murder. To show how systemic racism continues to privilege and reward white people, the Hennepin County medical examiner’s autopsy report indicated that Floyd’s cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest. Henry and Tator (2010) define systemic racism as broadly encompassing the laws, rules and norms woven into the social system that result in an unequal distribution of economic, political and social resources and rewards among various racial groups. White-controlled institutions such as education, health, media, criminal justice/law, and the labour market, among others, work together to create and maintain racial inequities. Clearly white people have formulated institutions, structures, rules, laws and procedures to produce outcomes that benefit them while harming Black people. In this case, autopsy results from the healthcare institution and expert were framed in a manner that would possibly lead to lesser charges for Derek Chauvin! The systems and structures in place are designed to protect white people and to reproduce racism. Floyd’s family sought an independent autopsy, which revealed that he died of asphyxiation from sustained pressure. Will Derek Chauvin be eventually charged with first-degree murder? Only time will tell.
Every time I have conversations with white people in my surroundings about anti-Black racism and police brutality, they say we are all human beings and we should treat all people with dignity and justice. While the above cliché sounds good, at least in theory, racist ideologies of white supremacy continue to reinforce the idea that white equals better, superior, more worthy, more credible, more deserving of humane treatment and more valuable and therefore more fully human (Saad, 2020). You may be a wonderful white person who says “I am not racist”, or who has Black friends, or is married to a Black partner, or has adopted Black children, or fundraises for Black causes, or is an ally of Black people and does anti-racism work. But these instances of white exceptionalism do not take away privileges and rewards white people enjoy from a white supremacist system that privileges and rewards them as a group.
What happened to George Floyd is an example of how white supremacy operates. Some white people may argue that Derek Chauvin is one of the few bad apples in the policing system, I disagree. Chauvin is a perfect example of the persistent blatant and the not so blatant discrimination, marginalization, abuse and killing of Black people in a white-dominated society (Saad, 2020) that has continued for centuries. Let’s get real: slavery was not about a few bad whites; the Tulsa massacre was not about a few bad white people; the lynching of Black people across southern USA with no federal anti-lynching law interventions, and this happens today, was not about the bad racist southern whites; the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELRO) which targeted Black, Latino, and Native American working class peoples was not about a few bad white police officers; the “Zero Tolerance” policies implemented in public schools in the late ‘90s, both in the USA and Canada, and which saw Black students suspended three to five times more than whites were not about a few bad white teachers in the education system; in previous occurrences, the killing of Matthew Ajibade, William Chapman, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, Dion Johnson, Steven Demarco Taylor, Amadou Diallo, Samuel DuBose, Terence Crutcher, to name but a few, by white police officers were not a case of a few bad apples. It is systematically sanctioned and many perpetrators of these brutal and inhumane human rights violations against Black people were never convicted.
Meanwhile, a number of Canadians are saying Black people are better off being in Canada. This is not just a USA problem; racism and police brutality against Black people are alive in Canada. Black people including Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Andrew Loku, D’Andre Campbell, Deng Kuol, Eric Osawe, Henry Musaka, Adeyeri Robinson, Junior Manon, Rohan Wilson, Machuar Madut, Nicholas Gibbs, Olando Brown, Pierre Coriolan, Abdirahim Abdi, Bony Jean-Pierre, Kwasi Skene-Peters, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, Rene Gallant. Marc Ekamaba-Boekwa, Jermaine Carby, Alan Magloire, Ian Pryce, Jerry Knight, Zunga Bashir, and many more, were all killed by police or as result of interactions with police. This should not be normal in 2020, in a country where we pride ourselves as a ‘model of diversity.’ We should not forget about the disproportionately high numbers of police carding for Black people across the country. The education system, healthcare, child welfare, media, housing market and justice system in Canada are all implicated. We have a long past and contemporary history of systemic racism, state sanctioned violence and police brutality toward Black people in our own backyard. Why are we in denial?
As we continue to reflect on Floyd’s murder in the USA and on systemic racism in Canada, white Americans and Canadians have issued statements to denounce anti-Black racism and police brutality. We appreciate your solidarity. However, what comes after that? It has become a trend far too often. In moments like this, white people as a group act with the emotions of the day, after which they will fall back to their old comforting ways. The idea that systems are malleable with time is problematic. Systems cannot change themselves, they need to be changed by the very people who created them, and that is white people. Start by checking and acknowledging your white privilege and white fragility. Robin D’Angelo (2018) defines white fragility as a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. The forms of activism that we have seen in the past several days have shown that Black people and their allies have power to change these systems of oppression. For instance, the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota agreed to ban chokeholds and neck restraints by police and to require officers to try to stop any other officers they see using improper force. In education, the City of Portland in Oregon has decided to discontinue the use of police in schools. Many Black students are often traumatized by seeing police in their learning environment.
Let me now speak with my white colleagues in the K-12 through post-secondary education systems in Canada. As we see history repeat itself again and again, educational systems and institutions should commit to bringing about lasting changes. Forming antiracism advisory groups, doing antiracism workshops, and posting equity, diversity and inclusion statements on institutional websites are great but also hollow words and actions if the racist structures in place are not changed (see Henry, 2015; Henry et al, 2017). If we are serious about tangible changes, let’s ask ourselves, what does our curricula look like? Who is making decisions in our schools, school districts, departments, faculties, universities? How do we deal with complaints about racism at our institutions? Which students and faculty are in our schools’ or universities’ boards of governance? What do our school districts and university hiring practices look like? And do we hire Black people just to check equity, diversity and inclusion boxes? If you are in post-secondary education spaces, ask yourself: which students get admitted with full scholarships? Which students get to be mentored to successful program completion? Which faculty get to move up the tenure ranks without much to worry about? Who gets course releases and longer sick leaves and absences with well negotiated pay? What research is easily funded and supported? Who, in the staff positions, gets promotion and awards of excellence? In other words, what are you really doing to change the systems in your immediate surroundings, your work place, your community, your city, province, country?
White people should understand that being nice and sorry is important but that alone will not bring justice to Black lives. Things will only change when white people as a group commit one hundred percent to stop asking Black people what they can do. We have explained long enough, just listen and act. How about considering the following as beginning examples:
- Commit to systemic changes by overhauling the laws and policies you created to protect white supremacy and privilege;
- Commit to a total reforming of policing approaches and services; there are many research reports out there with recommendations on how to do it ;
- Commit to equal justice and protection by the law regardless of people’s race, gender, class, sexuality, religion and other characteristics if we are to restore Black people’s trust and confidence with community policing;
- Commit to addressing racist and systemic mental health stigma and dysconscious ableism prevalent in our society, which have been key intersecting factors in majority of police killing Black people cases;
- Commit to stop being a bystander or staying silent when you witness racism;
- Commit to stopping unnecessary random searches, which target Black people;
- Commit to stop using unnecessary excessive force when arresting Black people;
- Stop tone policing, realize it is a form of exercising white privilege and reinforcing white supremacy;
- Commit to making critical race and antiracism subjects mandatory in every law and justice-related training including regular and in-service police training; the same is true of all other forms and levels of education, K to 12 and post-secondary education.
Finally, white people should ask themselves, how is my white fragility preventing me from listening, and taking action to bring about change? Let’s all call anti-Black racism and other forms of racism for what they are; stop renaming them bigotry. White people should reflect within themselves; everyone ought to reflect on themselves and stop blaming Black people. After reflection, decide whether you want to stand together and fight for real systemic changes.
In solidarity with the Floyd family and the many other Black families whose lives have been ripped apart by systemic racism, police brutality and other forms of state sanctioned violence.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.
Henry, A. (2015). "We especially welcome applications from visible minorities": Reflections on race, gender and life at three universities. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 18(5), 589–610.
Henry, F. & Tator, C. (2010). The color of democracy: Racism in Canadian society. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.
Henry, F., Dua, E., James, C. E., Kobayashi, A., Li, P., Ramos, H., & Smith, M. S. (2017). The equity myth: Racialization and indigeneity at Canadian universities. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Saad, F.L. (2020). Me and white supremacy: How to recognize your privilege, combat racism and change the world. London, UK: Quercus.