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Op-ed: Laurabel Mba

Persistence by Black students is often the first act of Black resistance

By Laurabel Mba

When I think about Black resistance, there is no better place to see this in action than in a post-secondary institution.

How much do you know about the history of post-secondary institutions?

Minimal, impactful effort

Western universities were built for white people.

They were not formed to foster inclusive, equitable and safe spaces for Black people and, as such, it means these institutions remain ill-equipped to deal with systemic oppression and/or racial violence.

Unfortunately, as the student demographic in post-secondary institutions continues to become more diverse, there has been a minimal, impactful effort to create a welcoming space.

As a result, Black and other marginalized students continue to experience old-fashioned overt racism, politically correct covert racism like micro-aggressions, cultural racism, institutional racism, structural racism and individual racism on campus and in their communities.

In the face of these obstacles, Black students continue to thrive.

How do they do this?

The Black student body works tirelessly to create communities for themselves, advocate for improvements and cultural awareness in the teachings provided to them, and celebrate their identities, which are vast and diverse.

“Black resistance shows up throughout the entire Western education system.”

The term “Black resistance,” as defined by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, is derived from the fact that Black people have resisted historical and ongoing oppression in all forms — especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms and police killings — since our arrival upon the shores of Europe and North America.

Black resistance groups advocate for a dignified, self-determined life in a just, democratic society.

As we discuss the idea of Blackness, the Black experience and Black resistance, we must also acknowledge that the Black identity is not a monolith but, rather, an intricate quilt of many different cultures, nationalities and spiritual beliefs.

This is because the layers of racial identity are personal and nuanced. It is essential to respect these nuances.

Black resistance shows up throughout the entire Western education system.

Black students navigate a system where the only representation they find of themselves is either in athletics, through the objectification of Black athletes, or history, through teachings of slavery or the civil rights movement.

Not just during BHM

As reported in a September 2020 CBC article, parents and educators across the country have been calling for increased representation of the Black experience curriculums — and not just during Black History Month.

Despite what appears to be an intentional minimization of Blacks and their cultures in educational resources, Black students continue to apply and gain admission into post-secondary institutions.

This persistence is the first act of Black resistance many Black students engage in.

“Code-switching comes at a cost.”

With this in mind, when Black students, particularly immigrants and international students, enter the post-secondary ecosystem, it is typically the first time they are spending the majority of their academic and recreational time in a white-dominated space.

This forces them to build spaces where they can fully be themselves. There is a tendency for Black people to make our behaviours and language more palatable to Eurocentric values and ideologies.

This is called code-switching; it is a means of survival. Unfortunately, code-switching comes at a cost.

While it helps Black students navigate white-dominated spaces — fit into groups and advance in the workplace — the psychological toll is enormous.

By code-switching, Black students downplay their racial groups and minimize their authentic self-expression.

In their own communities, some Black students who code-switch risk being accused of “acting white.”

These negative experiences push Black students to create associations and cultural groups within the university so they have a space and community that allows them to be their authentic selves.

At Memorial University, the Black Student Association (BSA) and various national groups, like the Zimbabwean and Caribbean student groups, are just some examples.

Since its creation, the BSA has shared the good and the bad that Black students have experienced while attending Memorial. It has also given them a place to call home and to celebrate the occasions and the experiences they value.

Eurocentric perspective

Resistance to systemic oppression and racism found in predominantly white systems doesn’t stop with the creation of space.

Black students, on many occasions, have protested and advocated for a culturally sensitive lens to be applied to the curriculum and teaching styles offered at their institutions.

This advocacy has resulted in some professors and administrators acknowledging that they have operated from a Eurocentric perspective and that they now need to challenge the status quo and present new and diverse ideologies.

A great example of this occurred in 2017 at the University of Toronto.

Black student groups highlighted a critical gap in racial literacy, awareness and understanding of the Black experience in engineering education.

According to them, the curriculum was designed and being delivered from a predominantly white perspective.

“Regardless of what history says, we strive, we persist, we resist, we achieve and we will thrive.”

As a result, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering implemented recommendations that opened the door for Black representation and inclusivity to be improved at all faculty levels.

Despite the systemic barriers built to discourage Black enrolment, Black people continue to break down barriers and forge ahead.

More than ever, Black people are entering fields that were once viewed as unattainable because they were seen as predominantly white professions.

We are pursuing education that will allow us to be lawyers, doctors, teachers, architects, artists, mayors, members of Parliament and so much more.

There are many beautiful examples of this in our province today.

We have Memorial alumnus, Dr. Bolu Ogunyemi; entrepreneur Isaac Adejuwon; and the renowned professor and poet, Dr. Delores V. Mullings, who show that, regardless of what history says, we strive, we persist, we resist, we achieve and we will thrive.

We push ourselves to excel as an act of resistance to a system and society that is stacked against us. We aim to do this as inspiration for those who come after us.

We are creating long-lasting systemic change so the next generations of Black students are not in the same battle and can feel at home in the space and focus on reaching new heights.

Seeds of Black excellence

I say all this from my own personal experience.

My time at Memorial University gave me the opportunity to push myself.

There were many times I fell, but I got up again because I knew there were many who were not afforded the opportunity to be where I was and I would not let their efforts be in vain.

So, when I think about Black resistance and post-secondary institutions, I believe they are gardens in which Black excellence, like the mustard seed, sprouts.


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