Sil Time Capsule: Black students on Black Lives Matter 2020
Black McMaster students reflect on the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020
This article is a part of the Sil Time Capsule, a series that reflects on 2020 with the aim to draw attention to the ways in which it has affected our community as well as the wider world.
In the summer of 2020, sparked by the death of George Floyd, there was a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests spread across the United States and the world. Businesses and individuals, both with and without a history of supporting Black communities, began posting messages of solidarity on social media and pledged to do better.
In just over a month, it will be a year since George Floyd was murdered. In addition to the killings, we have also seen how Black folks have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. For Black folks around the world, this year has been exhausting and retraumatizing.
It’s been exhausting and retraumatizing to learn of more killings and what little action has taken place. It’s been exhausting and retraumatizing for our organizers and protesters, who have been met with police violence. It’s been exhausting and retraumatizing to field questions and concern from those in our lives who have never before cared about our Blackness.
It’s been exhausting and retraumatizing for Black students. All year, Black students, alumni, staff and faculty have been observing McMaster University's response to the resurgence and continuing to advocate for safe spaces and meaningful action.
So as this academic year comes to a close, it was important for me as a Black woman at McMaster to use one of my last articles at the Silhouette to discuss how Black students have been dealing with this tumultuous year.
Student activism in summer 2020
On May 25, 2020, in Minnesota, George Floyd was killed while in police custody, for which now-former police officer Derek Chauvin currently is standing on trial, charged with murder and manslaughter. The news and video of Floyd’s murder flooded traditional news and social media. In the days and weeks that followed, protesters took to the streets across the United States and the world.
While this wasn’t the first time a Black person had been unjustly killed, for many, Black and non-Black alike, the summer of 2020 felt different. There are many factors that influenced the increased response, chief among them the pandemic. Black folks, who have been disproportionately affected, were fed up with government neglect while non-Black people quarantining at home had no choice but to pay attention.
“People rioting and actually protesting and doing stuff like that was the reason people started talking about it more, because, essentially you had something for white people to debate about and to fight about . . . [T]hat eventually just made a chain of events so people were being like, “Why are black people rioting?” Okay, well, why are black people rioting and then people were actually looking at it,” said Aaron Parry, a fourth-year student and promotions executive on the Black Students’ Association.
Black McMaster students were among those protesting both online and offline last summer, continuing the work that many have been doing for years. For instance, on June 17, 2020, McMaster student organizers held a protest to demand the removal of the special constables on campus and the dismissal of Director of Security and Parking Services Glenn De Caire, who has a history of supporting the highly controversial practice of carding. Students have been advocating for De Caire’s removal since 2016.
Black students also spent the summer further educating themselves and having difficult conversations with friends, peers and others in their life.
“I actually did summer school in June, July . . . Since I'm in political science, race [is] a topic, especially during this course. I feel like I tried, as a Black person, to educate some of my fellow peers about what we experience,” explained fourth-year student and Women and Gender Equity Network Research Coordinator, Shae Owen.
Online, many students responded to McMaster’s statements on Floyd’s death and anti-Black racism at the university with demands that they fire De Caire. Students were quick to point out that McMaster’s statements did little to address Black students’ concerns and calls for action.
Both current and former students took to social media to share their experiences of racism at McMaster. Canadian football player and former McMaster student, Fabion Foote, tweeted about the systemic racism he experienced at McMaster, which was met with support from other Black McMaster students, alumni and faculty.
“Doing nothing is no longer acceptable. However, reposting on social media is classified as hardly doing anything, because it lacks your personal tone and influence,” wrote the Silhouette Production Editor and Black Students Association Photographer Sybil Simpson in a June 2020 Silhouette article.
Effects on mental health and academics
While Black students were at the forefront of the activism, many also found the summer and current academic year overwhelming. Students didn’t get to take a break from their everyday lives to grieve, having to continue to work, attend summer school classes and study for tests.
“In Nigeria — this was in October — there were killings of peaceful protesters . . . and that was very close to home. Things don't necessarily slow down. When all of this is happening, it's not like school pauses. You still have deadlines. I used my MSAF for the first time in four years last semester, that's how much I just felt like everything was going on. I had to ask for extensions and I couldn't make deadlines,” explained Toni Makanjuola, a fourth-year student and director of logistics with Black Aspiring Physicians of McMaster.
For some students, these feelings of being overwhelmed were compounded by the physical and emotional isolation caused by the pandemic. Students who were not able to go home to see family often had to deal with the devastating news on their own.
“There's a lot going on with just COVID by itself. I couldn't see my family because of COVID and I was already planning to see them. I think I mentioned I'm an international student and my parents live abroad and my family's kind of dispersed. So it was definitely a lonely time,” said Makanjuola.
Moreover, Black students expressed how the summer of 2020 changed their relationships. Students reported that they got closer to Black family members and friends as well as non-Black allies. On the other hand, relationships fractured with those in their lives that failed to check-in or speak out.
“I found myself being like, “okay, I can't actually be friends with this person, even if they make a racist joke like here and there.” That’s now too much for me. It wasn't too much before, but now that everything's become more extreme, my barriers have to become more extreme,” said Aaron Parry, a fourth-year student and promotions executive on the Black Students’ Association.
Response to university initiatives
During the summer, McMaster put out several statements, some of which addressed how the university intends to tackle anti-Black racism on campus. While none of these intended actions included firing De Caire as students had demanded, some positive actions included the accelerated hiring of Black faculty, the hiring of an anti-Black racism education coordinator and the announcement of a Black student services office.
“In terms of the hiring, I think that was extremely needed because personally, I'm in my fourth year, and this was like the first year that I've had Black professors and that's because I'm taking history . . . I'm interested in research right so [when I found a potential Black supervisor], I emailed her. I was so excited because I knew she wasn't there before. I got to share a research idea with her. But I don't know that I would have felt as comfortable emailing someone else,” said Makanjuola.
However, the fact that many plans were created without the input of Black students begs whether they’ll be helpful at all.
“What little they do give to Black students, it's not even involving Black students that often and then they just kind of surprise us as if it's a gift . . . They design whatever services they think that we want rather than actually actively involving us and actively asking us, “what do you want, what do you need, what are you looking for in a Black Student Services, what do you think will help?”,” explained Parry.
In response to Foote’s tweets, the university organized a Black student-athlete review, which was completed in October and revealed “a culture of systemic anti-Black racism within the department.” However, many students believe the review did not do enough.
Some of those who were involved in the review noted that internal politics played a role in what actually made it into the report and how what was included was worded.
“[W]e know that they have their agenda and it's not in the interest of Black students most of the time. It was definitely disheartening to know that I was a part of a project that was doing that,” said Parry, who was part of the review’s task force.
Many students wondered why the review was restricted only to athletics when many of the stories told are experienced by Black students across campus. Others were eager to know what comes next.
“[The positive changes] are, however, being done so very slowly and with caution; this is unchartered territory for Mac. However, I’m growing increasingly frustrated, not only with the immediate aftermath but with the contents of the review. How could they let this happen? How has it taken so long for someone to finally put their foot down? Moreover, where the heck do we go from here?” wrote McMaster rugby player Payton Shank in a December 2020 Silhouette article.
Creating safe spaces
Support for Black McMaster students this year didn’t come directly from the university, but through the actions of Black students, faculty and staff. For example, on June 11, 2020, Black staff members facilitated a Black student virtual check-in to give students a safe space to share their thoughts and experiences.
Black community members at McMaster took on this work for no pay on top of their work, school and personal lives. Many Black students at McMaster are executives on multiple Black-focused clubs while the African-Caribbean Faculty Association of McMaster offers mentorship and events with no funding from the university. However, because of the importance of these spaces, Black students, staff and faculty feel an obligation to continue.
“We are going to help ourselves and our siblings because there's not a lot of us at McMaster. But it kind of brought us closer together, because during that time a lot of clubs had talks and chill sessions and discussions . . . I even made some new friends that way,” said Owen.
All year, Black students have been continuing or creating clubs and events to have important conversations and take a break from the constant stress. Some of these new clubs came from discussions among students that occurred last summer, such as the Black BHSc Association.
Established Black clubs used their platforms to empower Black students and support new Black clubs. For example, BAP-MAC chose the theme Black Resilience for their annual iRISE conference and had talks and workshops dedicated to medical racism and health advocacy. In November 2020, the Black Student Mentorship Program held an event for first-year students that focused on coping with loneliness and online school.
“[The summer] also made me a lot more conscious of other people's mental health and that was like one of the reasons [behind] the loneliness event idea. Because of what I was experiencing during the time, I just thought it would be nice to do something where people could speak out and be vulnerable and know that they aren't alone with that during the school year, especially first years,” said Makanjuola, who came up with the idea for the BSMP event.
However, in creating these safe spaces, Black students had to be wary of other students infiltrating these spaces. On Nov. 20, 2020, the Law Aspiring Black Students of McMaster experienced a racist attack during their Zoom LABS Chat. Since then, Black clubs have been trained on how to avoid Zoom bombing and have had to take special care to avoid similar incidents.
“I was shaking because I never expected something like this to happen at a university, especially because we can’t put a face to the name. We don’t know who these people are. So it’s like am I walking amongst people who feel this way, am I sitting in classes with people who could possibly infiltrate a chat?” said Maab Mahmoud, the vice-president of events for LABS, during diversity services’ podcast, Listen Up.
The incident served as a reminder of the importance of safe spaces, but also made it clear that Black students at McMaster are not safe among their peers. This was also seen in the reactions to Black student initiatives such as the new Black engineering student scholarship, where non-Black McMaster students complained that it gave Black students an unfair advantage.
“Mac did the exact same thing where they just go, yeah, here's the scholarship to help Black students. We're going to ignore all that shit about non-Black students attacking Black students . . . we're going to continually let you go to school with and live with your abusers, constantly,” said Parry.
Yet through it all, Black students have continued to be there for one another and create places where they can be seen and heard. We do not know what the future holds and if the university will become a safer space for Black students.
But I know that we are resilient. As I graduate this year, I have faith that the Black students, staff and faculty of tomorrow will continue to make McMaster a place where Black students can succeed.