OTTAWA—“They invite you then mistreat you.”
Those are the words of the tweet thread by Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, the acting director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who was allegedly mistreated by German border control at the Frankfurt airport while on his way to the World Health Summit, a global conference backed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Ogwell, a Kenyan national, armed with the appropriate visa to enter the country, tweeted about his experience on Oct. 15: “I’ve been mistreated at @Airport_FRA by immigration personnel who imagine I want to stay back illegally. My attendance of the @WorldHealthSmt is now in doubt. I’m happier & safer back home in Africa. They invite you then mistreat you.”
Liberal and progressive spaces, while claiming to be inclusive, are abusive to racialized people, especially racialized women who have to battle against racism and sexism, both of which render the expectation of silence and obsequiousness from the white male majority. For the online publication Quartz, Dr. Fifa A. Rahman of global health non-profit Matahari Global Solutions explained that the treatment received by Ogwell is typical for those attending conferences that require participants to travel internationally and who are also darker than a No. 2 pencil: “Ultimately these incidences don’t just happen to Dr. Ogwell. I too was asked whether I had a return ticket and implied that I would stay illegally in Germany—and these incidences happen very often to Black and brown people when traveling in Europe.”
In Canada, similar issues culminated in numerous visa denials for would-be attendees of this past summer’s International AIDS Society conference in Montreal. Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman, associate professor at Yale Medical School, told the CBC: “We know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada lies a broader problem of global inequity and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health.” We also know that Canada has a problem with inviting conference attendees and then mistreating them, as I wrote in this paper about the Collision Conference in Toronto earlier this year.
Canada is not only abusive to Black and brown people at home—as evidenced by Chrystia Freeland’s recent display of anti-Blackness, Canadian officials take that attitude of subjugation abroad. While at the Brookings Institution’s event, “How democracies can shape a changed global economy,” on Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C., a young Black man who worked for the African Development Bank asked Freeland about Ukraine sucking up a disproportionate chunk of the foreign aid resources available to Africa. The consequence of that, he explained, could be that African countries backslide from democracy. Freeland’s answer was her usual mix of finger-waving and condescension, this time with a hint of obfuscation, infused with racism. While Freeland claimed that Ukraine is fighting for its democracy on its own, we know that isn’t true. The fact of the matter is Ukraine is a white country with a powerful ally in Freeland who happens to be deputy prime minister of Canada. Lucky them. And diasporic politics has seen Ukrainian interests receive way more face time with the prime minister and aid from Canada in the form of money, weapons, and support at NATO. Those politics have also given Ukrainian refugees carte blanche to settle in Canada, while mostly Black Haitian refugees at Roxham Road are treated like criminals. Instead of laying out an understanding of these conditions and considerations in her answer, Freeland chose to humiliate a Black man by reducing the whole continent of Africa to a bunch of lazy Negros, through an attitude of patronizing superiority that bordered on contempt.
As the Canadian Press reported, Freeland said that “western countries do need to step up and ‘prove we’re real partners.’ But she also said it is up to African countries to choose their own paths, and rejected the idea that they can simply fall into Russia’s orbit by accident. ‘A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy.’” In that exchange, Freeland used her power to create a troubled space for that participant.
And that’s not all. Wait ‘til you hear her “apology”: “If anyone did find my comments to be insensitive, then I’m very sorry.” This is a Real Housewives apology, which is a non-apology because it doesn’t take accountability or responsibility for her words and the consequences of them. As if these expressions of her anti-Blackness were not enough, Freeland—as reported by the Canadian Press—went onto further insult Black people by claiming: “If a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.’” Welp. She obviously didn’t mean her apology. As therapists always say, “an apology without a change is manipulation”. What a slap in the face that ignores the imperialism of Canadian interests that have ravaged the Global South, especially Canadian mining, and the violent imperialism of Canadian interference in Haiti. What is also reprehensible is the obtuseness with which these remarks were delivered.
In pointing this out, I, too, was treated like trash in a Twitter Space hosted by the National Observer. I got into a tussle with one of their more visible columnists, who happens to be a liberal white man, with a tweet that questioned his understanding of facts once the Twitter conversation about Freeland inevitably turned to the characterization of her grandfather’s relationship with Nazis. While in the Space, as I was being invited to speak, the host, who happened to be that same columnist with whom I tussled, publicly skipped over me claiming that he wasn’t going to let me speak and revealing it was because he didn’t like what I tweeted. I dunno. Maybe it’s me. But to publicly humiliate a Black woman in a Twitter Space is not the listening and learning Canadian newsrooms were supposed to do after George Floyd. In fact, I reached out to the editor-in-chief, a white woman, about this incident and she has so far failed to respond. The act of ignoring an issue of racism is racism. And shielding your subordinate from criticisms of misogynoir by a Black woman is not the inclusion we were promised, it’s a white supremacy flex.
At the end of the day, neither my work nor my reputation mattered in that Space; my merit didn’t matter. Rahman knows this all too well: “At the end of the day, no matter how many degrees we get or how prominent we become in global health, we are often disrespected at borders due to our skin color, and it does become a deterrent to us participating in these spaces.” As I wrote in this paper previously, Black talent is discounted and denied by the white majority.
But that’s how liberal white supremacy functions: they smile in your face, make promises about diversity and inclusion, and invite you in their spaces just to mistreat you. Just look at former Green Party leader Annamie Paul.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.