The 2018 ECI Mandela Lecture began with a musical performance from AmaiKuda et LesBois. For Amai Kuda et Les Bois, “music is about healing – the healing of the earth, our ancestors and ourselves”. We were invited to join in singing and it felt right to begin the evening in this way.
The keynote speaker, Robyn Maynard, is a Toronto-based writer and activist. Her lecture focused on opening up the conversation about privilege and oppression with a Canadian context. She explained that we must “broaden our lens of where it came from and where it exists today”.
There is an overwhelming narrative that Canada is an accepting, multicultural utopia. As Robyn identified, “we are trained to see that racism happens in another place (the US) and another time (the past)” and so the conditions of black people in this country are frequently erased. This is the first roadblock we must pass before any real progress can be made because “without truth telling, there can be no reconciliation”.
We often think of whitelash as a new thing, however, it can be more accurately described as “newly emboldened”. Robyn explained that white supremacists suggest they are being “overrun” because of “the perceived threat of racial levelling and what is demanded in terms of justice in a so-called “free” society”.
As Robyn said, the rise of social justice movements pose a threat to end “a five-hundred year period of unearned and violently enforced white dominance”. Fear of this new world is at the heart of the whitelash. However, there is power in understanding this system. We must take stock of our learned behaviours and implicit biases, realizing that society has been “fundamentally structured around racism long before the return of these acceptable acts”.
We have been blinded by ideology and rhetoric in so many ways. Black people are subject to a wider array of violences that we are not seeing. As Robyn said, “if we think about the young black teen in the alley, we are not seeing the poor black mom in her apartment”. She pointed out, “there are many forms of racial control and punishment that don’t necessarily involve an arrest” including profiling, surveillance and the interruption of familial relationships. Robyn noted, “we speak about walking and driving while black but we do not speak about parenting while black”.
Broader cultural and political revolution is very real and is happening everywhere. Activist, artist and educator Syrus Marcus Ware shined a light on the importance of creative practice in trying times because “artists literally help us paint a picture of what it is we’re trying to get to”.
Ultimately, Robyn made her point abundantly clear: it is important that we do not recreate these gaps in our ability to understand historical and contemporary realities of antiblack racism. Policing and safety inherently do not match up. It is time we reimagine alternative forms of safety.