C/O Jessica Yang

By: Nethra Wickramasinghe

A safe space for Black women to empower each other and build community 

Blackspace is a student-run organization at McMaster University aimed at fostering the empowerment and collaboration of undergraduate students who identify as Black women. The group consists of over twenty-five members and has an expansive alumni network dating back to the organization’s initiation in 2019.  

Within the club, students are able to join a safe space to discuss issues pertinent to the Black community, taken from a female-centralized perspective.  

Blackspace co-presidents Zainab Salami and Nana-Afia Agyeipah aim to fulfill the organization’s mission of connecting Black students, despite the challenges presented with COVID-19.  

Salami, a third-year student in the life science program and Agyeipah, a fourth-year honours life science student, are passionate about welcoming first-year students and helping ease their transition to university life.  

In response to the restrictions imposed by the advance of COVID-19 in 2020, this year, the organization had pivoted to an online format, with virtual events held over Zoom and Facebook live.  

On Feb. 9, Blackspace held its second general meeting via Zoom to allow members to reconnect and discuss plans for the remainder of the term. 

In the past, the organization has held initiatives such as the Black Business Space event, which allowed students to connect with Black-owned businesses.  

The group has also held an academic panel discussion, Workspace, which allowed Black professionals in the arts, business and science industries to speak to students about their achievements and career paths.  

Salami and Agyeipah both stress the importance of showing undergraduate students success stories of Black women and building community on a smaller, close-knit scale.  

“It’s so rewarding to be supported by other women and knowing that we’re working towards something bigger. Seeing other women succeed, I think, I can do it too,” said Agyeipah. 

“It’s so rewarding to be supported by other women and knowing that we’re working towards something bigger. Seeing other women succeed, I think, I can do it too."

Nana-Afia Agyeipah, Co-President of Blackspace

Seeing representation in undergraduate studies allows students to enter a community where their experiences and voices are validated, and their opinions are heard. Fostering a community is essential for undergraduate students, both co-presidents expressed, especially when the majority of students surrounding you neither look like you nor share your experiences.  

Salami attributes the importance of this sense of solidarity to the broader context of education.  

“A large determinant of academic success is social support,” said Salami.  

“A large determinant of academic success is social support."

Zainab Salami, Co-president of blackspace

Not only does this foster more robust academic success, but it also creates a ripple effect in uplifting a greater population of BIPOC students, creating a university environment that supports diversity, and values the distinct perspectives of all students. 

In recognition of Black History Month, Blackspace held an event that took place on Feb. 28 on Zoom.  

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A post shared by Blackspace (@blackspace.mcmaster)

At this event, Blackspace facilitated discussions focused on the mental health of Black women and non-binary members of the Black community. This includes topics such as pretty privilege, colourism and texturism.  

The event also included a raffle draw with prizes such as a Google Nest Mini and McMaster Campus Store gift card.

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A post shared by Blackspace (@blackspace.mcmaster)

Blackspace is an integral part of McMaster and essential to the promotion of Black female voices and perspectives. By creating a space for undergraduates to see the achievements of fellow Black women and finding solidarity in a safe community, members have the opportunity to explore their potential, both as students and as individuals.  

Students are welcome to join Blackspace at any point during the year. Students interested in joining the organization or learning more about upcoming events can contact Blackspace on Twitter, Instagram or email at blkspace@mcmaster.ca.  

C/O Yoohyun Park

How a student’s dual identity has impacted her life 

By: Kimia Tahaei, Opinions Staff Writer 

We tend to generalize the types of racial identities that may be found within the Black community. We often forget the diversity that exists within the Black community itself, a community filled with different cultures, ethnicities, traditions and struggles.  

To gain a deeper insight on the extent of the matter, I interviewed Lina Hamed, a third-year chemical engineering student who proudly identifies as an “Afro-Arab.” She comes from a Sudanese background but was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates prior to moving to Canada.  

“When I started looking for my future university, I would without exception check their student demographics to see if there were other Sudanese people like me. I craved a sense of community with other Afro-Arabs so badly,” explained Hamed. 

Knowing that Lina and most likely many other individuals in underrepresented communities have to check for their demographics to feel a sense of community made me think whether underrepresentation causes feelings of doubt. Feelings of insecurity and doubt become more common among racialized minorities as they don't often see people from their culture presented in a positive light in their circles. 

“It’s strange because if you see that no one who looks like you made it, you question whether you can make it. You ask yourself if my people didn’t go through it, can I truly go through it? As a woman in STEM, these are the types of questions I ask myself often that unfortunately ignite my feelings of self-doubt,” said Hamed.  

Being of both Sudanese and Arab descent can affect one’s sense of identity in many different ways. This can be intensified when one may not feel welcomed in their communities.  

“The thing is, I grew up in the Middle East. So, often, I identify more as an Arab. I spoke Arabic and was more in touch with the Arab culture that was within Sudan. However, people in the Middle East really didn’t consider me Arab and I was often labelled as African. That’s not to say I’m not proud of being African — I take a lot of pride in being a Black African. It’s just that the Black community wasn’t too accepting either since I was more in touch with my Arab roots. It wasn’t the best feeling knowing that I’m part of two communities, yet neither fully accept me,” explained Hamed. 

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many multi-ethnic individuals. There are feelings of uncertainty, doubt and confusion when it comes to their sense of identity as they don't feel fully accepted by either community. Often, these feelings of insecurity heighten when stereotypes are attached to one’s ethnicity and race.  

Oftentimes, multi-ethnic individuals such as Afro-Arabs will face negative stereotypes regarding the various communities to which they belong.  

“As a Black woman, I’m often called unintelligent. As a Muslim Arab woman, I’m classified as a terrorist. And as a Sudanese, I’m characterized as lazy,” said Hamed.   

Such deplorable labels can discourage minorities as they already have feelings of doubt due to underrepresentation.  

Through all of the struggles and obstacles that individuals like Lina face, many come out stronger than before. They embrace their identity, culture, traditions and history and gain a sense of empowerment. 

“Identifying as Afro-Arab was something I didn’t think of until I was 16 or 17. Finalizing my decision to identify as Afro-Arab made me embrace both aspects of me. It felt as if I’m in touch with all the parts of me — that made me who I am. Even if my sense of identity gets lost sometimes and I question who I am, proudly calling myself an Afro-Arab reminds me of my roots and where I came from,” she responded.   

Unfortunately, unlike Lina, many individuals who come from different backgrounds still cannot fully embrace their identity and culture as they don’t see themselves represented in academia and media. It is crucial to understand that through a positive representation of minorities as they can gain confidence and flourish. Furthermore, although many people don't see it as necessary, having essential information on different ethnic backgrounds is vital. Not only does education on different cultures help us better understand individuals who come from diverse backgrounds, but I also believe that through education a sense of empathy is formed — a sense of empathy that can help us create a healthier and safer space for underrepresented communities like Afro-Arabs. Hopefully, when we discuss inclusivity in the future, we should consider each and every sector of different ethnic groups in hopes of an all-embracing society.  

C/O Chana/Unsplash

McMaster has more supports in place for Black students than I expected

By: Bianca Perreault, Contributor

Countless people think that being a Black student has always been the same as being a "regular" student. Obviously, many students can relate to being a minority visibly: not looking like everyone else, having different types of hair, skin tones and culture. Especially when coming from a small village or town, that receptivity can be even more dominant. But how is it at McMaster? What does it feel like to be a Black student in 2021 at McMaster University? 

Perhaps before 2021, the experience was different or even the same in its own way, but I believe that McMaster has improved its role in the Black community since last year. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 truly impacted the whole world. It was a beautiful and poignant reunion of a community fighting for its rights and Mac did not let these circumstances leave in a mist. As a matter of fact, McMaster put in place many different initiatives in support of our Black student community. As a Haitian student myself, I was more than pleased to discover all the opportunities and programs awaiting me and I can confidently say that I feel welcomed in my own skin.

First and foremost, McMaster’s Student Success Centre was a forum established to direct students towards the resources they may need. Perhaps the most marvelous thing about the organization is that they have specifically created a division for students of Black/African descent: the Black Student Success Centre. It is entirely dedicated to supporting and championing the success and well-being of Black students. Through fostering a positive student and athlete experience, they intend to value us at any level, whether that be academic, professional or personal. As a Black student myself, feeling like you have access to resources as much as any student is of the utmost priority. I believe that this division is a safe space for us to connect with people who feel comfortable nurturing our academic and personal growth at university. BSSC is guided by Unbuntu, an ancient African philosophy which means, "I am because you are.” Connection, community and collective success are emphasized by this word.

BSSC is not the only support we have at McMaster. In fact, the department of communication studies & multimedia and the department of history have created bursaries for up to $2,500 per year for many Black students based on their financial needs. It’s amazing to not only see the impact of these two initiatives on the Black community at McMaster, but also to recognize the true impact of the two programs supporting such bursaries. Through communication arises our ability to share milestones and recognition of one another. Through history, arguably the most critical part of our African-descendant story is shared and valued towards achieving shared, common knowledge. Even the fact that the bursary was put in place is in itself a form of thoughtful acknowledgement. 

Besides BSSC and Black Student Excellence scholarships, McMaster has established postdoctoral fellowships for Black graduates, a coaching program for Black scholars called Thrive, and launched employee resources for staff who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour. While there are some that I haven't even mentioned yet, Mac is committed to amplifying voices that can share our concerns and elevate their attention to an institutional level. Being a Black student at McMaster, I can fully expect to be supported and heard.

Photo C/O Afro Canadian Caribbean Association

Please note that this event has been postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 Virus. For more information please visit: https://accahamilton.com 

Since 1979, the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association has been creating a sense of community and empowerment in the African-Canadian Caribbean community in Hamilton. Evelyn Myrie, the president of ACCA, says that even though African-Canadians have been here for hundreds of years, they are still treated as though they don’t belong in this country. On March 13-14, ACCA will be holding an event called “We Are Planted Here: Narratives in Belonging”. The event will combine art and advocacy to dismantle this assumption, establishing the right that African Canadians have to feel at home in Canada, because it is their home. 

“[T]he objective of this initiative, symposium, celebration is to assert our existence and long-standing presence on these lands, on this land of Canada . . . there is still a perception [when] you're walking on the streets, there's an assumption that you are from another place. So it's really to situate our position as Canadians in various locations, to have conversations about our rich and diverse contributions to this land and to reassert our presence here . . . We're located here socially, politically and economically,” said Myrie. 

Not only is the physical presence of the Black community ignored, but so too are their contributions to Canada. Myrie says that she hopes the event will help to educate people both inside and outside of the Black community about Black history in Canada. She says that many of the social and human rights that we currently have were fought for by the Black community.

“[P]eople don't know that human rights laws, housing laws, we were the ones who were the canary in the mine, because we were the ones who suffered those experiences [and fought] to change laws, immigration laws, especially; Black people were not allowed to come to Canada and it was Black people who fought against [that]. And now we have a whole slew of different people coming to Canada—and wonderfully so—racialized people, who sometimes forget or don't know that they are benefiting from the struggles of the Black community,” said Myrie. 

“[P]eople don't know that human rights laws, housing laws, we were the ones who were the canary in the mine, because we were the ones who suffered those experiences [and fought] to change laws, immigration laws, especially; Black people were not allowed to come to Canada and it was Black people who fought against [that]. And now we have a whole slew of different people coming to Canada—and wonderfully so—racialized people, who sometimes forget or don't know that they are benefiting from the struggles of the Black community,”  

In the early days of mining, miners are said to have brought canaries with them into mines they worked in. Canaries are more vulnerable to carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases than humans, so a dead or sick canary would alert the miners to danger. In this metaphor, Myrie is suggesting that because Black people are far more likely to experience human rights violations, it frequently and unequally falls on their shoulders to fight for social change. Because they are so unequally adversely affected, they are the first to know when laws need to be changed. They were and are the canary in the coal mine.

Myrie hopes that this event will educate attendees on the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and the othering of Black people, and the ways that this continues to be perpetuated in Canada, and that it will also encourage allies to examine their own actions and biases, and how they can seek to call out this behaviour in their day-to-day lives. Othering is a part of colonial discourse that creates an “Us versus Them” narrative, where the dominant group becomes accepted and the marginalized group is dehumanized and made into the “Other”. This manifests itself as increased violence towards marginalized groups, and removing them from mainstream media and discourse.

“So to us, anti-Black racism is a key part of this, because it's really just like white supremacy in that it keeps knowledge away . . . So we're telling our stories, because we know that anti-Black racism has kept those stories away from curriculums,” said Myrie.

“So to us, anti-Black racism is a key part of this, because it's really just like white supremacy in that it keeps knowledge away . . . So we're telling our stories, because we know that anti-Black racism has kept those stories away from curriculums,”

“We Are Planted Here: Narratives in Belonging” is a two day symposium. On Friday, March 13, there will be an evening of art and spoken word at the ACCA Banquet Hall (754 Barton St. E), and on Saturday March 14 there will be academic and community discussions at the Hamilton Central Library (55 York Blvd.). Both events are free.

 

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