CALGARY—Instead of organizations creating positive, inclusive environments to celebrate Black History Month with their employees, what has transpired is nothing less than an onslaught of microaggressions that would leave anyone disillusioned and depressed. Many organizations use their “celebration” of Black History Month to promote their minstrelsy.
We are now into the first half of Black History Month 2021, which hits differently this year due to a raging pandemic that disproportionately impacts Black communities and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, which spawned global protests about police brutality and anti-Black racism. We were told by white people in positions of power that they were listening and learning—unfortunately, that’s where many of them stopped. Many aren’t doing. And when they do something, it turns out to be a mockery of the times and further exposing the anti-Blackness of the organization.
Black History Month has turned into HR blackface by many organizations.
The first act of HR blackface was on the first day of Black History Month when attention was again turned to the Peel and Durham police departments which have, for years, wrapped their cruisers with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Viola Desmond to indicate … solidarity? Instead of addressing anti-Blackness in policing and the tragic results from that racism embedded in their institutional structures, Peel Police’s tweet read: “We celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth, an annual reminder for us to honour & learn about the moments that have shaped the #history of #Canada & to discover the voices who make history every day.” Blah, blah, blah. This was complete with a video tokenizing their Black employees to put a friendly face to the atrocities they have committed in the Black community over time. It was also traumatizing for those victims of police brutality, as reported by Global News: “Meanwhile, victims of police brutality say it’s hard to escape the traumatic memories that arise from seeing the vehicles.” Neither Peel nor Durham Police have committed to removing the images, nor have they apologized for this mishap, thereby continuing to ram their performative solidarity down the throats of the public while claiming to be listening.
Next up is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which denied a Black woman space to exercise her Blackness during Black History Month.
Tameka McLaren, constructed a display for Black History Month to commemorate Black legacies. After spending hours of unpaid labour on the display, the commemoration was removed by a white divisional manager who defied the COO’s decision to allow the display to be erected. Manny Sforza, vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told the Toronto Star: “This behaviour is absolutely reprehensible.” Indeed, it is. So much so that the manager has been suspended pending an investigation. There are some questions to be answered that relate to how this manager treats his, her, or their Black staff compared to non-Black staff and if discrepancies were found, what actions to remedy these discrepancies were taken by TTC. It would be foolish to think that this was the manager’s first stab at anti-Blackness. What is clear from this aggression is when Black employees initiate their own celebrations of Black History Month, they are condemned by the white power systems that initiate anti-Blackness in the first place.
And now the two-faced, two-step by the Canadian Forces.
On Feb. 10, Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Art Macdonald decided to tweet, “Conversations on diversity, inclusion, and culture change are not incompatible with our thirst for operational excellence. I count on my senior leaders to champion culture change. Diversity makes us stronger, inclusion improves our institution. We are #StrongerTogether.” This was accompanied by an image of predominantly white men in a boardroom whose only diversity was the choice of whether or not to wear fatigues. The image was jarring, to say the least, and re-enforced and normalize the accepted white, male power structure, particularly in the federal government.
It does make one wonder whether or not the Canadian Forces takes diversity and inclusion seriously; while I have long argued that diversity is not sufficient for anti-racism, it is a necessary condition. There is an even greater onus on the federal government to be representative of Canada, as Yahoo! Finance quoted Senator Ratna Omidvar: “It’s hard to read too much into a picture, but that picture of white men around the table is a picture of traditional power and privilege… that is not representative of all of Canada”.
There will be those who claim that these violations were unintended, even though the road to hell is paved with them, but I would insist that that excuse is not good enough. According to the definition of discrimination on the Ontario Human Rights Commission website: “Many people wrongly think that discrimination does not exist if the impact was not intended, or if there were other factors that could explain a particular situation. In fact, discrimination often takes place without any intent to do harm.” If you were shot by someone who didn’t mean to shoot you, you were still shot and you were still harmed. Racism is no different.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.