Students find safe haven in Black Lives Matter

Eighteen-year-old Eden and her two friends hopped the SkyTrain, excited about the concert they were about to attend. Several young men started taunting them: “You fucking Black people. Why are you here? You guys built our country and now you’re done, so you can leave NOW.” Bystanders looked down, and no one said a word. At school, Eden has noticed an increase in racism amongst her Grade 12 classmates, with fellow students challenging her, “if rappers can use ‘the N-word,’ why can’t White people?”

Eden’s 22-year-old brother, Youeal, agrees that overt racism in schools, malls, on public transit, and online has gotten much worse in BC since the election of US President Donald Trump. “It’s as if people now have permission to say out loud what they have always been thinking, but wouldn’t dare to say.”

Over the past year, both siblings have become members of the tight-knit Black Lives Matter (BLM) community in Vancouver, finding in it a safe haven to heal from racism, a place to perform, share, and appreciate Black culture, and an opportunity to have a collective voice to advocate for respect for Black people in the wider world. “I wish someone had done this years ago,” says Youeal, “because it gives you a place to be in your Blackness.” Eden adds, “Before BLM, I was speaking out by myself, now I feel better, knowing I’m not alone, and that others will back me up.”

Eden and Youeal identify as second generation Ethiopian-Canadians. Their mother came to Canada from Ethiopia via Greece, where she had worked as a maid; their father was a political refugee from the communist Derg regime that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in the early 1970s. Eden and Youeal were born in Surrey and attended predominantly White schools in Cloverdale. When he was in Grade 8, Youeal remembers how boys in his class would stick pencils in his curly hair. In Grade 10, when he and two friends decided to get the same haircut, they found themselves summoned to the principal’s office, accused of being in a gang. After one too many requests from classmates to feel her hair, Eden straightened it to avoid the hassle.

youealLife was a challenge in the early years for their family. Their parents ran a convenience store in a tough part of Vancouver and their mother, seven months pregnant, was held up at gunpoint. But instead of handing over the cash, she shocked the robber with a hard slap across the face, and he took off. While both parents have been strong social justice role models for their children, they cautioned them to expect to work twice as hard to get ahead, because of their skin colour. Rather than respond in anger to the hurtful impact of racism, they taught their children to educate people.

Recently, Eden was sitting alone in a mall when an Asian man with two children asked her to move. She thought he wanted more room for his family, so she politely moved over a seat. But no, he said, “Move more, I can’t have my kids sitting next to a nigger.” Nonplussed, she fled, feeling embarrassed, frustrated, and discouraged that not one of the many people who heard the loud conversation came to her defense. Coincidentally, two days later the same man turned up beside her in the mall coffee shop. Taking a deep breath, she calmly confronted him about what he had said and how it had hurt her. Eventually, he apologized.

Youeal says BLM gives Black people a place to be understood, to wear their hair naturally, to laugh about the crazy things people say about it and to celebrate their Blackness. It also offers a safe place to express their feelings about the killing of Black men by police officers, the dangers of racial profiling, and the real fear that they too could be targets of violence. Youeal believes strongly that “the hashtag #blacklivesmatter means people can no longer hide their racism.” Both siblings are savvy with social media, regularly using Twitter and Facebook to call out the racism they experience and to get online support from peers.

Both assert that BLM is a non-violent movement that has been misrepresented by mainstream media. The tactics BLM uses focus on calling out the names of those who have been murdered by police and standing up for justice for Black people through peaceful protests. They feel the riots and looting perpetrated by others have been unfairly blamed on BLM by the media. Youeal was indignant that “one US station even suggested that BLM was the KKK for Black people against Whites.”

Youeal explained that the BLM movement is not a war on White people, rather it is a movement with three purposes: to hold police accountable, to memorialize those who have been killed and compensate family members, and to advance justice for those affected by systemic racism, wherever it exists. Citing a recent experience of being followed in a store, he knows that racial profiling is a common experience for Black people here and now. “The movement is growing stronger and cannot be ignored,” he says, “there is too much more to be done to educate people.” Both siblings have found BLM is a solid support network, providing them a safe place to celebrate their Blackness, an opportunity for mentoring, and to be heard and understood.

Eden and Youeal believe in working for change from within, citing examples of how they have stood up to the predominantly White members of their church congregation, insisting people must “get out from inside their bubble” to see what is really going on.

Youeal firmly supports Black History Month, but still wishes that teachers would infuse more Black history throughout the year, and he does worry about tokenism. Eden feels it should move beyond one month of February, suggesting that current events discussions in schools are ideal openings for conversations about racism. She asks, “Why isn’t the issue of racism always important?” Both strongly agree, “Education is the most powerful tool.”

What can teachers do to stop racism?

“Teachers need to listen carefully to students, be alert and sensitive to marginalized, vulnerable students, try to see the world as they experience it, and offer support.”

“Speak out against racism.”

“Be an ally. Look inside at what might stop you from speaking out and have the courage to act.”

“Teach everyone about Black history and culture.”

In the end, “We all need each other.”

Eden is now deciding which university to attend and is considering several offers. Likely she will enroll at University of the Fraser Valley to study psychology or social work, perhaps leading to a career in counselling.

Youeal is about to graduate with an English and Criminology degree from Simon Fraser University, and is considering law school. As a big fan of Black Entertainment Television, he had his heart set on the entertainment industry and had auditioned in Grade 10 for acting, singing, and spoken word gigs, but was told bluntly by an agent, “There would be little work in the industry for someone like you.” Now he performs as a spoken word poet. Whatever path he takes, he is sure of one thing-he will be an advocate for equality and justice.

This article was written by Marian Dodds and was originally published in the September/October 2017 edition of Teacher magazine.

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