Reflections from Black members of the uOttawa community

Posted on Friday, June 5, 2020

Compilation image, left to right, Peter Soroye, Toni Francis and Boulou Ebanda De B’Beri.

The recent death of George Floyd, who was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, is yet another violent reminder that anti-Black racism is prevalent in our society.

Here is a candid collection of thoughts and feelings from Black members of the uOttawa community. They have generously shared their experiences with racism, as well as important steps that white and non-black people should take to become better allies to the Black community.

Toni Francis with her son and daughter.

Toni Francis (right) with her son, Noah, and daughter, Sierra.

Toni Francis
Director, Labour & Employee Relations, Human Resources

“…When will people see us?

When will people see the smile on my face, the eyelashes batting, the sweat pooling, the sun changing my skin tone, just like yours.

I am human just like you.

We have dreams of better futures, just like you.

We have children and mothers and fathers and cousins and best friends, who are expecting us home any minute. Just like you.

We want to kiss, and hug, and show love and affection. We want to make the world better. Just like you.

I am tired of being scared to be happy. All I have seen is tragedy coming for me. You have shown me that no matter how hard I work, how educated I am, how soft and sweet and docile I present, how little eye contact I make, violence will be my end. Violence at your hand. I will not be gone, but rather taken. And when you take my life, when you watch the life force leave my body you will think you did the right thing. Or maybe you won’t, but it won’t matter.

I wonder if they were scared. I have always thought that dying in fear is the absolute worst thing I could think of. But what devastates me is that maybe they weren’t scared, maybe they were prepared.”

These are the words of my daughter. Words that form only part of her feelings over the last week. I start with hers because I have been paralyzed and, for the most part, without words. As I watched the video that captured the killing of George Floyd, my reaction was visceral. I sat like a fixture in my seat, tears streaming down my face and the only words that left my lips…. “I have a son…. I have a black son…” I knew without hesitation what I was watching. What we all were watching. A history of how people of colour are treated… a treatment that is informed by a system and deep-rooted beliefs that attempt to stifle the voices and devalue the lives of people of colour.

As a parent I feel ineffective. Of all the things I have fixed over the years, I cannot make THIS better. Hearing a dying man beg for air and call for his Momma, what my son calls me, broke open my soul. This is HEAVY.

“…My Black Privilege is… Learning myself through videos

of Island guides.

My Black Privilege is...

Wikipedia teaching me so I may teach teachers

Squinting through literature courses of professing whitewashings, bleaching my Moors.

We could picnic under this left side and park the bus we rode in on to the right, and we’d never see it.”

These are the words of my son. Words intended to reflect his role as Educator in his academic experience, his experience of otherness, and willed ignorance.

Over the last week I have had conversations with my children that no parent should have to have. Our shared Canadian experience is lined with similar stories, experiences of prejudice and racism charred into our nervous systems.

Our ages have not spared us the shared narrative. It’s not just the memories of almost every experience that came flooding back, even worse, it is all the feelings, the hurt, the questions that accompany each experience. It is all back, layered and filling any empty corner of our minds. THIS is heavy.

Over the last week I have had feelings of panic, anxiety, deep-seeded fear. Over the last week I have been filled with a sadness so profound it stains the lining of my stomach.

Part of what scares me is that it may have taken the video of a black man being murdered for the biggest reaction to racism that we have seen in our time. Racism is a part of our everyday reality; it is a deep part of our shared reality, American, Canadian and other. I hope we all understand that. I am afraid that our human condition, which ails us with fickle memory will forget when things settle… I hope they settle. While I could not imagine our reaction being anything less. It need not take a crisis for us to receive a call to action and to demand change at the highest octave in our voices.

As we raise our heads from watching what others are doing, I hope we each re-engage and re-enter the social contract that informs the workings of our society. As members of the University Community, it is my hope that we each contribute to building a Campus and University experience in which black uO students have less explaining to do about why they ask for the things they do. I hope we will each spend time listening and building our collective understanding of a history that has resulted in people waiting to have their happiness evaporated at the hands of someone who knows nothing about them. I hope we don’t hide in the spaces that readily afford us blinders to the everyday comments, omissions and absence of representation that limit the change I know is possible.

Be an ally and be part of that change:

  • Allyship includes white people being part of the conversation, voicing what they see and understand about racism.
  • Do some fact finding of your own. The people of colour in your life cannot be your only source of information and they shouldn’t be. Read about black history and build your understanding of how layered the impact of racism can be and what informs the black experience.
  • Respectfully tell people in your life when they are saying things that are racist or demonstrate the existence of an unconscious bias. We all have biases, many of which we are not aware exist.
Portrait of Peter Soroye.

Peter Soroye
PhD student in Biology

Recently someone asked me whether it was difficult to be Black right now. My answer was immediate: there’s nothing difficult about being Black. In fact, there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than having a rich heritage and culture. There’s nothing better than the passion, love and support that the Black community shows to its people. The difficult part is being Black in the society we’re in.

Growing up in Northern Ontario, my siblings and I became used to being the only Black children in our school and experiencing the racism, ignorance and stereotyping that came with it. When I came to study at the University of Ottawa, first for an undergrad and then continuing for a PhD in Biology, I was (and remain) stunned by how accepting the Black and POC community was.

But despite this, it became apparent that, like most Canadian institutions, there was still deep systemic racism at uOttawa. For those who doubt this, there have been several very public incidents of racism on our campus in the last two years, and countless testimonials from the Black community at the University’s anti-Black racism town halls, that make the problem abundantly clear.

The problem is clear, but the solutions are not easy. The recent protests in the US, following the murder of Black people by police, highlight how the Black community is fighting to end systemic racism in Canada and the US. In this fight we need allies. We need allies who understand how to listen and amplify, not erase, Black voices. We need allies who do not hide behind “relativisms” and who understand that change will be uncomfortable for them. We need allies who understand their privilege and know that intersectionality cannot be ignored. We need allies who understand that fixing racism doesn’t mean fixing Black people, it means fixing our society. This work should begin with those benefiting from it the most.

Find out more about Peter, his research and his important contributions to conservation science.

Portrait of Boulou Ebanda De B’Beri.

Boulou Ebanda De B’Beri
Full Professor, Department of Communications, Faculty of Arts
Founding Director of the Audiovisual Media Lab for the Study of Cultures and Societies

One of the most important considerations, and likely the most important for me, is to lead by example rather than just talking for the sake of talking. 

Leading by example means that we accept that we now live in a multicultural society that requires that we be open to the “other.” Unfortunately, decision-making circles are still fundamentally dominated by a single group of individuals, whites, who often sing the praises of diversity and change, but do absolutely nothing to put them into practice. Our institution is a good example of this. 

It will require a real, genuine commitment to diversity from our society’s decision makers, since once our children realize they can receive good service from a person different from them, this act in itself  is worth its weight in gold, and will contribute to breaking down racial barriers that undermine our society.

Many parents are wondering how to bring up the issue of racism with their children. We need to understand that our children are ready to talk about it — it is quite often the parents who avoid the discussion.

Let’s start by telling them the truth and addressing things clearly, adapted to our children’s language by age. Generally, we can ask them to tell us what they saw, what they understood from it, how it made them feel and what it means to them. From these words, we can start a real conversation. We definitely should not say that racism does not exist, because it does. Political correctness and denying the gravity of the situation are not good strategies. We must be honest with our children; they need to understand that we are deeply affected by this situation as well. Let’s ask them what they feel should be done to eliminate racism, which is a real pandemic, a disease that has existed for centuries in our society.

We live in a world that is fundamentally based on race, but we put our heads in the sand when we say there is no problem. It is at the heart of the entire economy we have built, the entire identity we have constructed. Ultimately, of all that we are! It is important to initiate the conversation by saying that at times in history, people have erred by categorizing human beings and that this has remained in our relations with one another. We must dare to tell our children that the police officer who kneeled on a man’s neck and killed him did not view him as a man because, historically, he was always considered property.

Children must be taught the historical truth. This is how we will heal.

Back to top