Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
The past two months have been fascinating, to say the least. A civil uprising against systems of racial injustice? A cultural reckoning at Canadian arts institutions? You can put both of those items on my bingo card of things I didn’t think 2020 would bring.
It’s been inspiring to see brave folks step forward with their testimonials. It’s been intriguing (and often disheartening) to witness the response to those stories. And it’s been exciting to see how communities are using this historic momentum to mobilize and organize. Thanks to BLMTO’s savvy media strategies, the idea of abolishing and defunding the police has been pushed into the mainstream. Community groups, unions and new advocacy bodies are making bold calls to action, as are individuals (including those here at CBC). The collective adrenaline that’s pulsing through this moment feels promising in ways that are both hopeful and scary.
I’ve been trying my best not to retreat to a place of cynicism, a typical defence strategy in my arsenal. The truth is, I’ve never lived through a moment like this, so I don’t know what the long-lasting result will be.
With that said, I think it’s critical that we also recognize how similar movements have been derailed in the past. There are important lessons from those experiences that can guide the way forward. It’s important to be vigilant. There are already warning signs of how this moment may be co-opted by those seeking only the appearance of change, rather than actual structural transformation.
What should we be watching for? Systems of oppression are built on a multiplicity of strategies, and it may take just as many to dismantle them. This list is by no means comprehensive, but here are three things to keep in mind.
So you’ve been asked to explain systemic racism. Don’t waste your breath.
To be asked to prove and demonstrate what has long been articulated, documented and disseminated (in this instance, the existence of systemic racism) is not only insulting, it’s a well-worn strategy designed to waste time. It’s frequently deployed to misdirect the focus of a story or present a long-debated issue as though it is something new.
Canada has a legacy of concealing and silencing its history, and this tactic is a powerful weapon of distraction. In the 2017 short film It Takes A Riot, former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis reflects on his 1992 Report to the Premier on Racism in Ontario. Decades after its publication, he received a phone call from a minister in the provincial government, inviting Lewis to sit on an advisory committee that would oversee policies and programs around anti-racism. “I sat there on the phone and I thought to myself, ‘Jesus,'” he says. “25 years ago we made these recommendations and you’re talking to me now about sitting on an advisory group that would make sure they would be implemented a quarter of a century later?”
Perhaps you’ve been asked to share your experiences and contribute your labour and time to committees, consultations, town halls or workshops. These invitations should always be considered with wariness, especially if the record shows that similar initiatives have been attempted before — without results.
Also, these things can slow down active mobilization. Momentum is frequently replaced with bureaucracy. The appearance of action conceals the reality of the situation: the only thing happening is more talking.
It’s true that research and discussion are sometimes necessary for the development of new and creative solutions that are responsive to the current context. Recently, several groups have called out Canada’s screen industry, demanding data on hiring practices and funding, to give two examples. Also, this moment is unprecedented; sometimes context can change what was once true. We are witnessing a global uprising; maybe this time, the consultations will actually deliver tangible results.
Still, don’t be fooled into thinking you need to provide evidence of systemic racism. We don’t need more proof, and we don’t need to wait anymore.
Keep your eye on the target: radical change
Last month in Toronto, community calls for police abolition turned into media debates around police defunding. Ultimately, the city council voted in favour of policy reform (which actually increased the police budget). In creative industries, it’s hard to find an example this overtly egregious, but similar patterns exist.
We live in a country where even the most minimal requests are perceived as a threat to the entire social order. The idea of hiring quotas — required hiring of BIPOC creatives in key positions — is met with reluctance in the film and television industry. And this reluctance persists, in spite of one blatant contradiction. As Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s co-head, noted in a public talk this week, the entire industry is based on a quota system, one that’s designed to push Canadian content.
For some people, quotas are radical. Those are the folks who have too much to lose when the status quo is challenged. Because in truth, these hiring practices aren’t radical at all — they are merely reforms.
But when we are stuck debating their merits, it leaves little room to consider the transformative possibilities — ideas such as narrative sovereignty, a concept discussed by Jesse Wente at the Indigenous Screen Office. Considering narrative sovereignty for Indigenous creators is something that challenges the very structures of ownership, decision-making and creative control throughout the entire industry. It forces us to re-imagine the concept of funding as a right rather than a privilege. It’s a strategy of advocacy that could be fascinating to consider for Black creators, too. But alas, we’re too distracted pushing for quotas.
As Robyn Maynard notes in her book Policing Black Lives: “Reforms that do not also challenge the underlying systemic racism that creates disparities in the distribution of wealth and power in the first place are unlikely to effect meaningful change.”
Can you change an institution that’s fundamentally anti-Black?
In the late ’80s and ’90s, many institutions finally began to make space for Black, Indigenous and POC artists who had long been excluded. The work of BIPOC activists made these changes happen. And as Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi write in their 2019 book Black Life, activists from the era shared a collective understanding of their situation: the issues behind their exclusion were structural, “and therefore fixable.”
As such, many equity offices and equity policies were created around this time. These actions seemed promising, but Walcott and Abdillahi argue that the strategies proved ineffective over the years. They write: “Many artists found themselves in the aftermath of such committee work drawn into institutions to implement and run such offices. However, in the aftermath of 1980s/90s art activism, it is pretty clear that equity offices and the most fantastic equity policies do not and cannot change structures that are fundamentally anti-Black.”
Right now, numerous organizations are adopting similar policies to the ones Walcott and Abdillahi wrote about. And in this contemporary moment, it’s important to consider how activism is managed, and ultimately limited, when it’s practiced inside an institution. Are these initiatives the best strategy? Do they ever transform institutions and corporations? Or are they an out for those in power — an opportunity to check off a box and present proof of action when a new issue rears its head?
In the ’80s, Black activist groups like the Black Action Defence Committee fought to have a police watchdog system created, and it was through that work that Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit was born. However, over the years, numerous incidents have called the SIU’s effectiveness into question. This example seems to mirror the warning from Walcott and Abdillahi: the structures of racism change, only to remain the same.
In 2008, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin released a report on the SIU’s bias in favour of the police. A follow-up report in 2011 revealed a continuation of that problem and others. And in 2017, Justice Michael Tulloch released his report on police oversight in the province following Black Lives Matter Toronto protests that called for an overhaul of the SIU. His report contained 129 recommendations to make police watchdogs, including the SIU, more transparent and accountable. In 2018, the CBC News project Deadly Force showed that over 17 years and 52 incidents, only seven Toronto police officers have faced charges after being involved in the death of a civilian, and only one was found guilty. (An updated version of the investigation’s database was published this week.)
Whether it’s the SIU or a diversity office in a cultural institution, these bodies rarely effect their desired results. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that this time around, it’s imperative that we pause before institutionalizing our activism. Consider what is truly the most effective strategy for fundamental transformation.