Looking at systemic injustice and anti-Black racism in the Waterloo region

The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests are leading the way for critical discussions around race and racism and, more specifically, anti-Black racism.

These global protests followed after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by members of the Minnesota police force on May 25. 

While the protests are shedding a light on many injustices that Black and racialized people face, there are still many uncovered facets to consider when discussing anti-Black racism and how to achieve racial justice. 

RéSean Russell, Director of The Basement for Laurier’s Association of Black Students (ABS), said that anti-Black racism should be a cause for concern for everyone in the community. 

“I think the Black Lives Matter movement is important just because it is, as everyone says, a human issue, not really a rights or a race issue. It’s a matter of the fact that people are dying and losing their lives for arbitrary reasons that are beyond their control and that should be a priority to everyone, not just Black people or anyone that’s specifically a victim of that,” Russell said. 

“I think everyone should take it personally that [this] is a problem that we have in our society and that it happens more than just in the US.”

The KW Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter, which happened on June 3, saw an estimated total of 36,000 protestors show up to support and bring attention to the cause, as well as approximately 5,000 total online livestream views.

While these high numbers speak to the way in which the community stands behind and supports Black folk in the Region, there is still a long way to go. 

One cannot discuss racial injustice in KW without also addressing the history of racism and discrimination in the Region. 

In 2018, the Region had 39 police-reported hate crimes, at a rate of 6.7 per 100 000 population, according to Statistics Canada. This number does not account for unreported crimes. 

Wilfrid Laurier University itself has seen several notable cases of racism on campus in recent years, and Russell says that the culture of anonymity on campus works to fuel these incidents of racism. 

“We have this big ‘Spotted at Laurier’ account [on Twitter] that is ominous and [looming] over everyone where you kind of feel anonymously targeted at every step of the way, and it kind of makes students feel as though they don’t have to take accountability for things,” Russell said. 

“That anonymity is kind of perpetuated throughout our entire campus just through the fact that people use Spotted at Laurier.”

“You can see the ways where it actually negatively impacts some students’ university experiences,” he added.

Russell also said that many people will use their private Instagram accounts, sometimes called “finstas”, to make covertly racist posts under the assumption that no one will see it other than their friends. 

“There are people I have specially personally dealt with who would use the n-word behind closed doors or in their own circles,” Russell said. 

“By using those jokes, by still perpetuating those same stereotypes, you’re still perpetuating that same violence … you still have to take accountability for the little things that you do that lead up to these big events [of violence].”

Russell says that if allies want to make a change, they should begin by calling out their own cases of complicity. 

“That’s more beneficial as an ally than it is to just post something, some empty words that weren’t even yours, on your Instagram story for 24 hours,” Russell said.

While many steps are being made towards achieving racial justice, the healthcare system often proves to be a large barrier for Black and racialized populations.

This, of course, has critical effects during a current global health pandemic like the one we are currently facing. 

Dr. Ciann Wilson, an assistant professor at Laurier in the faculty of science, said that healthcare is not always accessible to Black and racialized communities for a number of reasons. 

In a research study conducted in the Waterloo Region, Wilson and her colleagues found that the research participants, all of whom were from African, Caribbean or Black communities, would often express having a difficult time finding a healthcare provider they could trust.  

Many participants expressed the difficulties they had in finding recommendations from other Black community members for good healthcare providers.

“What that’s really about is the fact that we find that healthcare providers exhibit their own forms of racism, and so when one member of the community does find a good healthcare provider, well that’s information that they want to share,” Wilson said. 

“If you can’t find somebody who knows a good healthcare provider, often you’re shying away from visiting the doctor because you don’t want to deal with the racism, and then when it comes to being in the room with a doctor, often what we find and our participants talked about this quite a bit is that health care providers would say very underhanded things.” 

Wilson claims that many participants have reported that healthcare providers were less receptive to their experiences of pain, and often were delivering a lower quality of care. 

“There’s this underlying assumption that they’re not really feeling the pain that they’re expressing that they’re feeling, and that their pain threshold is somehow higher than the average person. So again, hearkening back on tropes that come essentially out of the enslavement era,” Wilson said. 

This has a detrimental effect for Black patients, especially since diseases, illnesses and viruses often follow lines of systemic inequities, explained Wilson.

Toronto Public Health recently released maps which show some communities in Toronto having higher concentrations of COVID-19 cases than others.

“What they found was a very clear mapping of COVID-19 cases on racialized communities. So, Black and racialized communities that are of lower socio-economic status are experiencing higher levels of COVID-19,” Wilson said. 

Wilson noted that many people are misconstruing this data to believe that racialized communities are more susceptible to the disease. 

“If you look at any community whether it be Indigenous, Black, or any community that is under duress, systemically oppressed [or] systemically vulnerablized due to lower socio-economic status, poor housing, having to live with more people because you can’t afford housing … that then makes you more susceptible to diseases, especially diseases as contagious as COVID-19 which relies on fewer people being in proximity to each other,” Wilson said.  

“It’s definitely a disease that is reflective of disparity and that’s why we’re seeing the numbers that we do, both in Canada and then I would say even more alarmingly, in the United States … it’s very reflective of socio-economic racialized poverty.” 

These systemic inequities extend beyond the healthcare system as well. 

Tyson Major, local rapper and business owner, believes that systemic racism is evident in his own industries. 

“In the music industry I see systemic racism exhibited daily. I see my brothers and our people being viewed as the workhorse or the cattle, taking a small, small percentage of what I believe they’re truly owed for the art and the work that they put in,” Major said.

“I see it in my workplaces, I see it amongst my staff members, I see it amongst my guests and I see it in city officials.”

In a statement posted on Erb and Culture’s Instagram page, Major addressed the patrons and supporters of his Uptown nightclub who may “turn their cheek” to racism. 

“It’s an absolute shame if anyone who enjoys, profits or supports my black-owned nightclub or restaurants for our ‘dope vibe’ + ‘cool atmosphere’ has the audacity to turn their cheek and allow themselves to go on without a feeling of disgust towards the systemic elimination of the people who brought them those ‘dope vibes’ and ‘cool atmosphere,’’ the statement read. 

“They listen to our music and mimic our culture then stand behind the cloak and shield of those who most oppress it?” the statement concluded. 

Major explained the metaphor of the cloak and shield, and how people use it to excuse racism. 

“[They] hide behind, as I said, the cloak and shield … that sort of cloak of ‘I’m not racist,’ and the shield of white privilege.” 

Major also noted how most nightclubs, just with the choice of music alone, profit off the artistry and efforts of Black musicians. 

“I don’t think anyone who takes advantage of and enjoys Black culture should be able to stay silent when we’re globally and systemically watching the [attempted] elimination of that very same thing,” Major said. 

While running a business may be difficult for anyone, Major said that the system has even more barriers for Black and racialized business owners. 

“I’ve seen systemic racism or prejudice, whether unconscious or consciously, by the officials and policies and programs in place that make it harder for a Black person to be an entrepreneur, and open their own business properly than it is for someone else,” Major said.

When it comes to making actual, permanent and systemic changes to the systems of inequity, Wilson believes that the source of the problem needs to be addressed more directly.

“The source of the problem is racism, the source of the problem is colonialism, the source of the problem is systemic, and we refuse to address those issues because it is so much easier and less costly to blame the victims of it’s violence than to actually resolve and address the source of that violence,” Wilson said. 

“It’s cheaper to say ‘Black communities need to get it together’ versus, ‘you know what? We, as a society, have a problem with anti-Blackness.’”

“I really do think that it’s important for us to address inequity and disparity, and if we’re not willing to address those systemic challenges that is the core of the problem then we are only ever going to be dealing with the symptoms of the problem,” she said.

RéSean Russell, Director of The Basement for Laurier’s Association of Black Students (ABS), is affiliated with The Cord and Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications (WLUSP), its parent organization. The Basement is an extension of ABS Laurier, which is a service provided by Laurier through the Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (CSEDI), and is facilitated by Radio Laurier, a publication under WLUSP.

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