More Than Just a Month

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As we sat in the bleachers overlooking the men’s basketball game and discussed plans for upcoming Black History Month celebrations for the Black Awareness Students’ Initiative Network, an older white gentleman came over to our seating area and politely asked us to watch his bag.

With a smile, we motioned him to leave his belongings with us.  We proceeded to converse but he quickly posed the awkward question of whether we were sisters of his black friend Tonya.

Pardon our French but, “the fuck we look like?”

We stared at each other in disbelief, wondering whether we were back in 1968, where every black person apparently knew each other. It was the second time that week that we were “Mauried” — yes, “Mauried.” You know, “are you the sister/daughter/cousin of my black friend?”

The Struggle

Being the only black student in the class isn’t a rare experience. Tokenism is pervasive in the classroom, as well as in social encounters and at the workplace.

Being tokenized may instantly transform you into an expert on all things black, but it does not make you the voice of all black people. However, when it comes to distasteful comments, there are a plethora of examples to draw from.

My braids, my cornrows, my Afro or my kinky curls are not yours to touch. The texture and quality of black hair hold a magical and endless fascination for some people, and this seems to make them instinctively want to touch it.

Our hair is not on display for strangers to simply touch. Personal space is learned and respected at a young age, and this is a clear invasion of it.

I remember another preposterous moment when a fellow student, who may listen to hip-hop more than I do, declared themselves “blacker” than me.

Breath… they know not of what they speak.

As Saul Williams powerfully states, “We cannot continually barricade ourselves under some falsified idea of race, because our idea of blackness and race is simply reactionary. Africans didn’t walk around Africa being black and proud, they walked around proud.” Defining ourselves as, opposed to being defined by others, is always a challenge; there is no single definition of blackness. Our blackness is not defined by the music we listen to, how we dress or how we speak. If the latter were true nearly anyone could be “black!”

You see, we can’t just choose to be black for one month out of the year. It’s an ongoing, lived experience.  And we can only go through so many of these situations before being driven up the wall. It is crucial to respond to instances of prejudice with intelligence, and even to be witty!

But asserting oneself in the face of casual racism is conflicting, as we run the risk of being misinterpreted. Responding with aggression will only serve to shut down communication. You’ve got to play fool to catch the wise, as they say; observe situations in order to become aware of the environment and the individuals within it.

When you are the only black student in your class and a question related to civil rights surfaces, you are well-prepared for the eager 40-plus eyeballs staring and waiting on your response.

The Nod

The nod is a symbol of unity and form of acknowledgement in the black community. It’s a metaphorical ethnic solidarity, a handshake. Use the nod.

As you walk through the halls, the nod says, “I see you,” and “more power to you,” when you’re in an overwhelmingly white space. Our roots and lineage are diverse, and through our ties and heritage the nod maintains our sense of community. This speaks volumes when you’re outnumbered.

In the same way a smile from a stranger can pick you up when you’re down, the nod manifests as a source of community connection.

Pardon Me For Being ____

The phrase “more than just a month” refers to the importance of continuing to celebrate Black History beyond the confines of the February alone. Knowing and understanding our past builds a foundation for our future. The practice must not begin and end in the month of February.

In contemporary western society, many make the claim of being “colourblind” or that they “don’t see colour.” But this narrow mentality only denies racial experiences, and invalidates racial inequalities, by wrongly asserting that race does not matter.

Social inclusion cannot be reached if these stories are not acknowledged. Equality does not mean justice. Canada cannot sit idly by in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement taking shape in the United States.

Our communities, our streets, our schools, our homes, and our prisons in the “true north strong and free” are not free of anti-black racism.

There is a need for collective accountability. Events like “Pardon me for being ____.”, organized by the Black Awareness Students’ Initiative Network, are efforts to unite black, biracial, Caribbean and African diaspora students, as well our allies within the SFU community, to create space, dialogue and networks that illuminate our lived experiences here at Simon Fraser University.

Black History Month celebrates a rich, grand, and vast cultural tradition, and it does not simply belong to blacks — it has universal significance, which embraces the concept of equality.

We are a part of a diverse community of staff, scholars, and learners; however, there is a huge underrepresentation of our experiences at SFU. Thus, Black History Month and “Pardon me for being ____.” is a movement of resistance against the one-dimensional image of our experiences, and an opportunity to create a discourse among the student body.

It is a creation of space that offers a competing view that more accurately reflects the reality, where individuals of different origins see themselves represented, feel respected and empowered.