Governance & Social Justice

Tracing the roots of anti-Black racism in pursuit of an equitable future

Dismantling structural discrimination and injustice

Governance & Social Justice

Tracing the roots of anti-Black racism in pursuit of an equitable future

As Black Lives Matter protests sweep the continent, the ongoing and systematic racism that Black people face is once again in the public eye. The movement has prompted Canada to confront its own experiences with anti-Black racism, both historically and in the present day.

Police brutality towards Black people is among the most well-publicized concerns to be voiced in 2020. Yet for those who study anti-Black racism in Canada, there are many other elements of our society — from politics and health care to entertainment and media — that are implicated in persistent racism, bias and violence.

While for some these revelations may be new, leading researchers at Ryerson University have been shining a light on these issues for many years. Through their work, they have uncovered structural and historical injustices that, although sometimes unseen or ignored, continue to influence anti-Black racism today.

Mental health discrimination

Idil Abdillahi, a professor in the School of Disability Studies, specializes in research on anti-Black sanism — discrimination against people who have, or who are labelled as having, a mental illness. Through her scholarship, activism and policy work, Abdillahi is informing current debates on critical issues such as fatal police shootings of Black mad-identified peoples. She stresses that the nature of this line of research is interdisciplinary, taking into account real people’s experiences across many facets of life, including the rights of prisoners and those held against their will in hospitals.

a protester holding up a sign that says Black lives matter
The Black Lives Matter movement continues to expand globally, advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people. Philadelphia, PA, USA. Photo credit: Chris Henry

“My work focuses on the places that we don’t see and the people that we’re often not looking at,” says Abdillahi, who is the advisor to the dean on anti-Black racism in Ryerson’s Faculty of Community Services.

Abdillahi’s work has highlighted ongoing anti-Black discrimination in mental health diagnosis and care. She says that Black people are frequently over-diagnosed with mental health issues and are often not provided with appropriate care. For example, Black children are being psychiatrized at higher rates and young Black men are diagnosed with schizophrenia more than any other group. Through her work on the front lines in Toronto — including as a social worker for over 15 years — Abdillahi has found that more Black-identified patients are being held against their will in hospitals.

My work focuses on the places that we don’t see and the people that we’re often not looking at.
Idil Abdillahi, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

At the heart of this issue are the diagnostic tools that are used by health-care services, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Too often, Abdillahi says, people are under- or over-diagnosed, or receive inappropriate care. And too often, people are assigned to psychiatric institutions where their civil liberties are taken away. In her experience, the system is like a fixed algorithm.

“When we talk about these ideas, we don’t talk about the fact that they are absolutely imbued in issues around race,” she says. “A part of my work is looking at interruptions to people’s livability in the context of mental health. For Black people, it’s carcerality.”

Abdillahi’s work is impacting not only our understanding of these issues, but also that of justice surrounding cases of discrimination. In 2017, her theorizing helped to inform the inquest of Andrew Loku, a Black man killed by police in Toronto in 2015. What followed was one of the first instances of the term “anti-Black racism” featuring in an inquest recommendation. However, Abdillahi says that there are still too many circumstances involving police where official information does not provide enough detail.

crowded protest scene with multiple prostesters kneeling and holding up signs
Street demonstrations, part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Washington, D.C., USA. Photo credit: Clay Banks

“What we know is that they were killed — they were in crisis, someone called the police and something happened,” she says. “Those are often the things that we know, and it is not good enough.”

Abdillahi’s forthcoming book, Blackened Madness: Medicalization and Black Everyday Life in Canada, will see her examine personal experiences, policies, inquests and interventions, providing a critique and offering ways forward. She says working within the School of Disability Studies gives her the environment to do this important research.

One of the first instances in which the term “anti-Black racism” was used in an Ontario inquest recommendation

“I’m working in a space where my scholarship is seen as urgent,” says Abdillahi. “My thinking is validated and my leadership is honoured.”

The history of blackface in Canada

As far back as the 1850s, examples can be found of blackface performances in Canadian theatre houses. From this point, these shows — which involve white men and women painting their faces darker — grew in popularity over the next century, from the big stage to schools, sports clubs and churches. Yet, until recently, very little was known about this part of Canada’s cultural history. Our improved understanding of these shows is largely down to the pioneering work of one person, School of Creative Industries professor Cheryl Thompson.

“The work that I’m doing is really the first to centralize Canada as the place where this was a thriving form of entertainment for at least 100 years,” she says.

a vintage photo of people lining up in front of a movie theatre
Al Jolson in Blackface on Ace Theatre marquee located at 605 Danforth Avenue in Toronto, Ontario (1940)

For the past decade, Thompson has been unearthing the history of blackface in Canada through research in newspaper archives. With a collection of more than 8,000 files, she is now conducting a major project to get these items online and available for the public on a new research website. Together, these documents reveal exactly what shows took place, their location and who performed them. Thompson says that, as well as providing a resource for research and education, her work will encourage people to engage with a history that is recent enough to involve people who we may have known, such as relatives.

100 years
Approximate period of time in which blackface was a thriving form of entertainment in Canada

“Part of this work is really uncomfortable,” she says. “How do you reconcile the fact that you are seeing these people as good people, and yet they’re performing these acts that I believe are a kind of performative violence against a whole community?”

While this part of Canada’s past has been swept under the rug, Thompson says the legacy of blackface can be seen in art forms that are practised today, such as tap dancing, which originated from Black male performers who had no choice but to wear blackface on stage. Yet this influence has been sanitized from curriculums, reflecting the broader fact that Black people have been erased in the history of performance.

“For me, this project is explaining contemporary culture, even though I’m doing it through history,” says Thompson.

a vintage photo of people wearing blackface on stage
“McCormick Minstrels” posing in various rows at the Second Floor Stacks, 255 Spadina Rd, Toronto, Ontario (1920, January 29). Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 794. City of Toronto Archives.

To tie her work together, Thompson is also producing a documentary about the subject. She says that working within the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) offers a unique opportunity to explore both creative and academic ways of representing history and culture.

“I always tell people this, but it’s just factual — I don’t think that I could do this work at any other university,” she explains. “In FCAD in particular, you really have the breadth to be a creative.”

The story revealed by Thompson’s research not only illuminates a history of racism but also of Black resistance to discrimination and oppression. This includes the establishment of a Black newspaper in London, Ontario, in the 1920s and ’30s, and on-stage protest in the form of choral singing. Thompson hopes that highlighting these actions can help to broaden current debates.

“It speaks to the fact that there is a resiliency in Black communities that is not just about our relations with policing,” she says.

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