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Op-ed: Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi

Black History Month a time to assess from which lens we understand history and the present

By Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi

Some folks, believing we should be “colour-blind,” question the need to celebrate Black History Month, which was officially recognized in this country in 1996 after its introduction by member of Parliament Jean Augustine.

Lived experiences

Unfortunately, discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, indigeneity, sexual identity and orientation is all too present in Canadian society.

The truth is that we don’t live in a “post-racial” society.

Black History Month can serve as an annual reminder to learn about those that are different than us in terms of country of origin, mother tongue, religion or ethnic background, including those whom may have disparate lived experiences because of these differences.

Challenging Western-centric worldviews

I completed a rotation in tropical dermatology in a Vietnamese hospital and, upon visiting a museum, I noticed their reference to the “American” War of 1955-1975.

It took a second for me to register that this was indeed the same conflict most Canadians would refer to as the Vietnam War, largely because of our close ties and history with the United States.

“We must be intentional about appreciating different perspectives and learning history from a different lens.”

Eurocentric and Western-centric worldviews must be challenged in order to genuinely appreciate viewpoints of other cultures as well as the depth and breadth of their contributions to humanity; Black History Month may serve as a reminder to do so.

Anti-colonial lens

We must be intentional about appreciating different perspectives and learning history from a different lens.

In my administrative role as assistant dean of social accountability in the Faculty of Medicine, I am tasked with supporting and helping to implement Indigenous health initiatives.

As a clinician, I have been completing travelling clinics to the Innu First Nation communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu since 2019.

It is crucial to approach Indigenous health with an anti-colonial lens; understanding the enormous role that residential schools and cultural genocide, inequitable government policy and anti-Indigenous racism has had on health inequities that exist between Indigenous Peoples and settlers in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere in Canada.

Harlem Renaissance

Our beloved chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald often reminds Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to “hold fast” by continuing to adhere to public health guidelines.

The phrase always reminds me of one of the most famous works from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s in which African-American poet Langston Hugues urges readers to “Hold fast to dreams.”

In his poem Dreams, Hugues goes on to explain that “For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”

Contextualizing the present

For me, Black History Month should not simply be concerned with events of the past such as the Harlem Renaissance, but can serve as an opportunity to employ history to contextualize contemporary societal issues facing diverse equity-deserving groups, ranging from increased cases of COVID-19 among Black and other racialized Canadians, Quebec’s Bill 21 and pandemic-related, anti-Asian racism.

Recent practices of carding and streaming in secondary education and their deleterious effects on Canada’s Black population are reminders that we must remain vigilant of the more insidious ways in which racial bias can colour institutional practices.

“It is important to ask members of racialized communities how best to help.”

Beyond the common practice of highlighting contributions by Canada’s unique Black population, this month can serve as a way for all of us to promote anti-racism on institutional, personal, and societal levels.

It is important to ask members of racialized communities how best to help rather than assuming, even with the best intentions, that one knows best. Combatting anti-Black racism cannot and does not ignore ableism, sexism, transphobia, islamophobia or homophobia.

This Black History Month is unique in that it is the first to occur after an international reckoning of sorts about equity, anti-Black racism and discrimination throughout many institutions, including education, the child welfare system, the labour market and in health care.

Going forward, we must seize the momentum and move from the discursive to the material.

Understanding history

We have never been a “colour-blind” nation, as racism played an important role in creating and perpetuating inequities faced by many groups in Canadian society.

In 1918 Queen’s University formally banned Black students from enrolling in its medical school.

In the 1940s Indigenous children were denied adequate nutrition in six residential schools as part of a medical experiment by famed nutritionist Dr. Frederick Tisdall and the Indian Affairs branch of Medical Services.

In Canada, Black and Indigenous populations remain under-represented in the physician workforce while facing worse health outcomes than Canadians on the whole – we must understand this history in order to interpret our present.

“We need to enact policy to ensure that there is diversity at decision-making tables.”

When fast forwarding to the present day, if we insist on “colour-blindness,” then we cannot identify or correct health inequities that exist among different segments of our population.

While Canadian health authorities have been reluctant to collect race-based data, the push for this practice finally proved successful after the onset of the pandemic.

When said data was collected, it uncovered a more nuanced view of how COVID-19 affects different communities; it is clear that racialized and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, being over-represented in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.

‘More complete understanding’

We cannot un-see what the pandemic has laid bare, including severe impacts on the indigent, working poor, women and BIPOC communities.

We need to enact policy to ensure that there is diversity at decision-making tables and that procedures and practices always have the interests of the marginalized at the forefront.

As we work toward a more just tomorrow, Black History Month is a time to re-assess from which perspective we view history and reflect on how we can seek a more complete understanding.

As an African proverb holds, the story of the hunt is never told until you get the perspective of the lion.


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