After the fires burn

Anita Jack-Davies, MEd'07, PhD'11

Bernard Clark

I don't know where to begin this essay. 

I don't have the words to speak with you right now.

And because I am Canadian-born, I will start with a preamble and measured politeness. After all, this is the Canadian way.

Three months ago, I watched as an African-American man named George Floyd begged for his life as a white police officer rammed his knee into Floyd's neck and slowly extinguished his breath. Up until that scorching day, i had never witnessed a murder before.

Now, the image remains emblazoned in the deepest corners of my mind, seeking haunting relief.

I can see Floyd pleading with the officer, “Hey man...I can’t breathe!” I hear him calling for his mother. I watch as he gasps for air, his life leaving his body as the minutes tick by. Days after the murder, I lie in bed and weep. I take comfort in the warmth of my husband's chest.

The next day, we sit at the dinner table and speak to our daughter about George Floyd. With a mouth full of blue braces, she shares with us that she and her friends talk about it. In her eyes she registers a sense of confusion about the incident that she fails to communicate with words. She glances at me with sympathy as her father relates George Floyd with my experiences with racism as a Kingston resident and at Queen’s.

For weeks, I am engulfed in a smoky haze, a fog. The university must be seen as doing something. “We must put an end to all acts of racism!” And so it goes. But we lie to ourselves, because we have always known that Black people in Canada have never been invited to partake as equals, as “Canadians.” If we are going to speak with each other, we must begin by telling the truth. We must begin by naming racism for what it is and for the ways in which it has crippled the lives of Black people in Canada, generations at a time.

And because I own a diversity consulting business, my phone is ringing off the hook:

Anita, we need some
diversity training
so that we can have a better understanding...of...
you know...
how Black people feel.

Dr. Anita Jack-Davies

At night I cannot sleep. I feel sick. Everywhere I turn, the media feeds me a consistent diet of the case: panel discussions, interviews, expert commentary, CNN, MSNBC, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, CBC National News, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, the Whig-Standard, and a 24-hour news cycle that provides little relief. The emails chime as they hit my inbox faster than I can reply. To make matters worse, I am stuck at home due to COVID-19, the global pandemic that has made my life unrecognizable.

I am stuck in Canada. I cannot travel to see my relatives in Trinidad, Boston, and Brooklyn. I worry about my cousins: Craig, Maurice, and Dayne, young Black men living in urban American cities. I worry that I will turn on the news and will learn that their lives have been taken from me. At work, I try to make it through each day without crying or appearing “weak.” I pretend that everything is okay, but inside, I am hurt, devastated, and angry.

But anger is the one emotion that I can never express as a Black Canadian woman. As a Black woman living in this country, to be angry and Black is akin to me committing a crime. You do not know how to deal with my anger, even though I have every right to it.

And so I suppress it.
I stifle it.
I snuff it out.
I do to it what was done to George Floyd.

Dr. Anita Jack-Davies

The campus is in a frenzy. Dr. Patrick Deane issues a statement denouncing police brutality and makes a commitment to reducing anti-Black racism on campus and in the curriculum. And when i read his words, I am moved. I am touched.  His statement stands in stark contrast to the array of racist micro-aggressions, micro-insults, and micro-invalidations that I have endured as a staff member, adjunct faculty member, and graduate student at Queen's. I look back now on the many instances at Queen’s when a  white administrator or professor has mistaken me for another Black person on campus. I remember one instance when an acquaintance – someone who has met me personally away from Queen's – confused me for someone else.

Anita, so good to see you! I remember that I was supposed to follow up with you after last week’s meeting…

Dr. Anita Jack-Davies

In actuality, I was never at that meeting. In actuality, I am mistaken so often for other Black women that I no longer explain who I am. Frustrated after being overlooked for someone I am not, I now play along:

"Yes, I did come in on the 9 am train from Montreal this morning,”

 I say to the cashier as I purchase my breakfast.

"Yes, I am still at the law school,"

 I say to a dean.

But inside my rage erupts like crimson lava. I am not Erroline! I am not Juliet! I am not Marian! I am Anita; Anita Jack-Davies. But in order to see me, you would actually have to look at me. To look at me, you would have to notice that I wear a Tank watch and that I only wear studs in my ears. To look at me means that you would have to notice the true colour of my skin and the texture of my hair. To look at me requires that I am the subject, rather the object of your gaze. It often feels as though I am nothing more than a dark-skinned figurine that you can count and parade to the world as evidence of inclusion.

  • Dr. Anita Jack-Davies

    Bernard Clark

In my graduate course, I sit in a group of three students after the instructor gives us our assignment. My colleagues, a white man and a white woman, speak to each other, pretending that I am not there. Ignored, the lava that has become all too familiar gushes through my veins again. In true Canadian fashion, I interject: “Excuse me…” and I ask politely whether it is possible for me to be included in the conversation. They are surprised by my boldness and we engage in a dance, a false sense of cooperation and good cheer. Beneath our polite Canuck veneer I know that they do not want me in their group and I am enraged that I have no choice but to be in theirs.

The irony is that I was made to feel like I had nothing to contribute to the group. Yet, I do have something to say. I earned a double major in English and Sociology from Victoria College at the University of Toronto. I can speak of Chaucer and Percy, Keats and Shelley, Byron, Auden, and Mary Wollstonecraft. I can speak of Swift, Bunyan and Coleridge, Dylan, Frost and Langston Hughes. When I attempt to articulate what I know, my words are deemed inaudible, incomprehensible, and incoherent because of the colour of my skin. What I am struggling to accept is the distance between what I was told by my grandparents, Lawrencia and Patrick Jack, and the reality of racism in my life today. My grandparents told me that if I studied hard and“became something,” racism would vanish from my life. In reality, the more degrees I earned, the more insidious race became. Suddenly, I am being called “uppity” and reminded that I do not know “my place.” After the class, I call my husband and rage about yet another example of the racist exclusion that has engulfed my life since arriving in Kingston in 2004.

As a Queen’s employee, I experienced racism in some work settings, but not all. I have had supportive colleagues who were wonderful to work with and have also experienced instances where my race was definitely a factor in my mistreatment. I have had supportive bosses. Tom Hewitt in the Office of Advancement will always hold a special place in my heart because he actually saw me. He treated me with dignity and respect and the colour of my skin was never a barrier to him. I have had bosses whose actions demonstrated to me that they did not have my best interest at heart. And because I work at Queen’s, it is not safe for me to share my experience without paying a hefty price. I have experienced racism in the Kingston community in banks and shopping malls and on playdates when the parents of my daughter’s friends are not expecting me to be Black. Racism, though, is difficult to prove and when I was the victim of racial discrimination, I did not feel safe to speak about it. Further, there were few opportunities for me to receive support for what I was experiencing, forcing me to suffer in silence.

Racism slowly festers and eats away at the lives of Black people. But no one ever cares to ask us. No one ever cares to name racism for what it is. As Black Canadians, we have always paid a price for articulating our pain. And this moment is no different. When a white person speaks about race, that individual is lauded as working for the“common good” and for being a social justice warrior. We live in a culture where white people who speak about racism become celebrities, quasi-heroes. I am thinking here about the fact that Robin DiAngelo, a well-known anti-racist academic and consultant, was interviewed by David Letterman recently after her book White Fragility became a highly recommended resource after the Floyd murder. Our culture rewards a white woman for articulating the very pain that I am punished for. And so, I am invited to remain silent.

When I speak about race, I am accused of “playing the race card,” even though that card is always in play, each and every day, in each and every moment of your life, whether you care to admit it or not. To speak about race opens me up to scorn, ridicule, and rejection. To articulate my experiences means that someone in a position of power will become angry. If I am not careful, I stand to lose my job, business clients, friends, and acquaintances at the hands of white-hot rage. I worry. I worry that the Heritage Front is alive and well near where I live in Kingston. I tell you this so that you might begin to understand the tremendous price I pay for daring to broach this topic. Race in Canada remains taboo, uncomfortable, and polarizing. It remains the thing that we can never say.

  • Dr. Anita Jack-Davies

    Bernard Clark

Who are Queen’s alumni and what do they think about race?

In 2019, I was elected to the University Council at Queen’s University for a five-year term. In May 2020, I was appointed as Council’s first EDII Adviser (2020–2022). EDII stands for equity,diversity, inclusion, and Indigeneity. On June 23, I hosted the first EDII Open Meeting in order to start a conversation about the ways in which we, as Queen’s alumni, can engage each other about a culture of inclusion at Queen’s. In attendance were Chancellor Jim Leech, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Dr. Mark Green, and several new councillors. The participation at the meeting was outstanding. Many of the councillors appeared on camera to register their ideas. Some listened silently.

I was eager to start this important conversation with Council; however, I could not help but feel the weight of the moment that we are in. It is a moment that I am calling “the reckoning” on race in Canada. I sensed, in that meeting, that the topic of EDII held tremendous meaning for councillors and other staff and faculty who joined the session. Prior to the start of my role, Council created a Special Purpose Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (SPCDI). The SPCDI also created a report to Council with recommendations aimed at guiding our efforts and I discussed these details at the start of the session. A few of the suggestions made by councillors included:

  • increased alumni engagement
  • developing baseline EDII competencies for all councillors through education and training, and
  • identifying where gaps in knowledge and best practices for EDII exist for Council.

By the end of the hour, we generated a list of ideas for how we will work together on Council over the next two years. However, as EDII Adviser, I am acutely aware that the difficult work of engaging you in conversations about race will remain a challenge. I use the term “challenge” deliberately. On campus, we often speak about “Queen’s alumni” as though we already know who you are, what you think, how you feel, and how you might act. “Queen’s alumni” has become so ubiquitous, I am invited to believe that the average grad is white, privileged, and resistant to change. However, this trope represents only part of the Queen’s story. We must now unearth other narratives that have remained hidden from view, buried and unarticulated. If we aren’t brave enough to do this now, there may never be a time when such stories will carry meaning.

I do not remember a time when Queen’s University has actually engaged you in conversations about race. There is a tremendous amount of fear surrounding this topic as it relates to you. Over the years, instead of tackling the issue head-on, it was easier simply to avoid it, or worse, to articulate a meaningless response to racist acts even as we made the national news. My point is that as a university, the time is right for us to create the spaces for you to be fully engaged with the topic of race, racism, and anti-Black racism and how as they are experienced by students, staff, and faculty members at Queen’s. We must create spaces for you to express your thoughts and views, even if you may not say what we expect you to say and even when you share ideas that might unsettle us. For instance, Queen’s University and the Faculty of Arts and Science have committed to creating a Black Studies program by 2021, an initiative that was created by Dr. Katherine McKittrick in the Department of Gender Studies. The program is envisioned as fulfilling many of the recommendations of the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Race, Diversity, and Inclusion.

According to Dr. McKittrick, the program will promote the study of “anti-racism, anti-oppression, and diversity” and will help with the diversification of curriculum. The program also aims to support the hiring of Black faculty, including areas such as tenure and promotion. If this program becomes a reality at Queen’s, we will join the ranks of other universities such as Dalhousie and McMaster in the creation of similar initiatives. My question is, how would you support a program such as this one? Do you believe that such a program has a place at Queen’s?

All that we have lost

I remember years ago when I was teaching grade eight in Toronto’s Jane-Finch community, I struck up a conversation with a colleague, a Queen’s grad. He was older than I was and we chatted about his time at Queen’s as an international student from Trinidad in the early 1980s. I remember the pain in his eyes when he spoke about his time on campus. He shared instances of rejection as he watched his classmates invite each other to weekend stays at cottages in the Muskokas. He spoke of experiencing racism in the classroom, of professors being surprised that he was intelligent or that he could make clever contributions in class, so deep was the anti-Black racism. As a Black Canadian of Trinidadian descent, I spent time in Trinidad and Tobago as a child and I can attest to the outstanding level of  education on the twin islands. Professors expressing surprise that my colleague was intelligent or that he was thoughtful is an insult that white students rarely have to endure in classrooms.

For Black students, there is this constant pressure to prove our intelligence. This is not only insulting, but time consuming and emotionally draining. I dream of a day when Blackness and intelligence will go hand in hand, rather than being treated as an oddity or as some mistake when we have something clever to contribute in classrooms. My colleague shared that he experienced racism for the first time in his life here at Queen’s. And after recalling all of this, he vowed that he would never give a penny to the university.

But Queen’s did not simply lose his financial support. Queen’s lost the ability to celebrate his life and his life’s work. Queen’s lost the ability to celebrate his life and his life's work. Queen's lost the ability to learn of his successes and to connect his talents with a new generation of students.  He was a gifted musician. Queen’s lost an opportunity for students to be mentored by an artist who could have contributed to the Dan School of Drama and Music or to other campus-based initiatives. Queen’s missed out on the likelihood that he would recommend Queen’s as a university of choice for his daughter. The possibilities are endless; however, we will never know what could have been.

And rather than being an isolated incident, my colleague’s experience is shared by many Black Queen’s alumni. As a child of immigrants, I was counselled against applying to Queen’s for undergraduate study by my grade 13 English teacher. He pulled me aside and looked me straight in the eye. He warned, “Anita, take my advice. You will not have a good go of it there.” And I could tell by the urgency of his voice that he knew more than I did. I knew he would lose nothing if I did not heed his words. And I did. There are many Black students with stories similar to mine. Students who are cautioned that Queen’s will not address their social, academic, and cultural needs. I am here today to suggest that there are Black Queen’s alumni who are haunted by their former experiences as students. They do not take part in Homecoming. This is because Queen’s University never felt like “home” to them. If you are a Queen’s grad who was fortunate enough to spend four glorious years as a student on campus, please remember that this experience was not “normal,” it was simply your experience. As an EDII adviser, I believe that the time has come for us to correct past wrongs and to engage all alumni, including those that we lost many years ago, in difficult conversations about what needs to happen before Black students, faculty, and staff will call Queen’s home.

Reflecting forward, lookin back

Now where do we go from here? The next time I write to you, we will have been given the gift of time and of hindsight. The George Floyd murder will be an event of the past, but his legacy will remain. This is a gift of vision that will provide us with much-needed clarity as  we reflect forward as members of the Queen’s community. Queen’s is a community that for a long time now has made it clear that I do not belong. However, I am not a victim. I am taking my experiences and working to create new spaces for racialized and underrepresented students at Queen’s. And I hope that you feel unsettled, stirred even, by my words. I hope that my words have caused an eruption of anger in you, even just for a moment. My community has lived with this anger, this lava, for a long time now. This very anger can be useful as you think about what you are being called to do, given what you know now. In the words of the African-American poet Maya Angelou, when we know better, we do better. This anger will be useful to provide some clarity around what our moral responsibilities are, after the fires burn.

And in the spirit of peace, I extend my hand to you. I am asking whether you are able to listen, to hear what I say, rather than to speak. I am asking whether you might begin to understand my point of view, rather than defensively proving your innocence.

You will never know what it is like to live in my skin and that is a fact. I am here to say that the time is right for us to put our politeness aside and begin messy conversations about race, ability, teaching, learning, and what it means to be a Queen’s grad.

And to the many allies who have supported me since I began studying at Queen’s University in 2005, I thank you. I am thinking here of allies at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, and at Ban Righ, the centre for mature female students on campus. The Office of Advancement was also a place where I felt at home. I am also reminded of a reading course that I took with Dr. McKittrick when I was introduced to her work on Black female geographies. The course changed how I saw myself as a Black Canadian woman and remains a major influence in my life today. These spaces,both inside and outside the classroom, were a refuge for me when I felt out of place in a campus culture that deemed me Other. My time at the university has been one of struggle and toil and far from a soft place to fall. Working and studying at Queen’s University will forever remain a bittersweet aspect of my life. Twenty years ago, I devoted my life to social justice so that my daughter will not have to experience what I have, if she chooses to study at Queen’s in the future. As I reflect on this moment of reckoning on race in Canada, I am thinking about concepts such as “healing” and “reconciliation.” As we have done with First Nations, Métis, Indigenous communities, I wonder whether there is room for Black Canadians to share our stories and for our stories to be heard. I wonder what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Black Canadians would look like. I wonder if there is room at Queen’s for us to speak and to be the authors of our own experiences. After having our voices stifled for so long, speaking and advocating for systemic change on campus will enable us to begin the healing process, if not for our sake, then for the sake of future generations. I remain hopeful and I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone.

Anita Jack Davies, MEd’07, PhD’11 (Education), is the senior research adviser (research initiatives, diversity, and inclusion) for the Queen’s Faculty of Education. She is also the president and CEO of Mosaic Cross-Cultural Solutions. Her first book, Lawrencia’s Last Parang: A Memoir of Loss and Belonging as a Black Woman in Canada, will be published in November. 

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