Dr. Debra Thompson lectures on Black belonging in North America

Thompson dives deep into Canadian and American forms of racism

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Two people standing next to each other, Dr. Thompson is on the right. Dr. Jeremy Brown of the history department is on the left.
Dr. Thompson (right) describes Canadian racism and political tactics used to diminish Black people’s accomplishment in Canada. PHOTO: SFU department of history

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

On February 17, Dr. Debra Thompson presented, “Homegoing: Blackness and Belonging Across the Canada/US Border,” at the Harbour Event Centre. She is the second guest speaker in SFU department of history’s annual public lecture series

Her lecture focused on Black belonging and comparative race politics between US and Canada.

“I’ve spent the past 15 years thinking about the comparative politics of race, especially between Canada and the United States, but I’ve spent the past 40 years living in this body,” said Thompson. “Black History Month for me is Black past, present, and future, every day of the week and I think that I have some things to say.”

She described double consciousness — the tension and conflict of being both African American and American — as “constantly viewing one’s Black identity, experiences, behaviours, and potential through the eyes of white people who probably hate and fear you.

“It is a conflict not of loyalty or allegiance, but one characterized by the hard truth that the core ideas of the American national identity — life, liberty, pursuit of happiness — they are made possible to white Americans because of the deadly and violent subjugation of Black people,” she said.

“It is an exhausting tactic of Black survival defined by the necessity of being neither here nor there, yet everywhere at the same time.” 

She said racial politics in America are frequently used as a means to excuse and deny racism in Canada. Compared to US racism, Canadian racism is either believed to not exist or be far less entrenched and harmful. Thompson said, the “cognitive dissonance required to be righteously indignant about anti-Black racism in America but defensive when the perpetrators are the ‘us’ and not the ‘them’ is itself a particularly Canadian form of racism.”

Thompson put forward the rhetorical question of who had been asked, “Where are you really from?” She shared memories of her 20-year-old self and her response to use time and generational roots in Canada to claim her rightful place as a Canadian. 

“Generational status is frequently used as a proxy for assimilation into dominant culture. We often assume and a lot of data demonstrate that over time the characteristics that define immigrant groups and host societies become more and more similar,” explained Thompson, “We assume that the longer your family has been in this country, the more Canadian you become.” 

Despite this data, Thompson said even second-generation Black Canadians still struggle to experience belonging because of systemic racism that they disproportionately experience. She explained the question “where are you really from?” is a response of astonishment, as people assume Blackness is from elsewhere. 

Thompson said although Blackness is erased and absent from Canadian history and society, Black people are still needed for the profitable myth of Canadian multiculturalism. She gave the example of identities such as the Canadian “safe haven” from American racism. The myth places Canada as the “promised land” for people escaping slavery. 

“Our invisibility in national mythologies is neither a coincidence nor a mistake but rather a purposeful crafting of a vision of Canada that renders Black people invisible.”

Thompson said her experiences living and teaching in both Canada and the US have taught her “abolition is the only way forward.” She added, “I didn’t used to think this way. Young Deb never dreamed of this. My students made this radical term possible. You cannot be a decent teacher without a reservoir for hope, what the future holds, and who will bring it into being.    

“Police and prison abolition is just a single star in a constellation of Black radical politics that asks us to imagine a different kind of reality. We rage for the calamity of the present because we know, we dream, we believe that the world can be better than it is now.”

Thompson is an associate professor of political science at McGill University and Canada research chair on racial inequality in democratic societies. The third and final lecture in the Highlighting Black Histories public lecture series will host Caroline Shenaz Hossein and will be held on April 14, 2022. Registration is open on Eventbrite.