By: Emile Shen
On Sept. 28, the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton Area) held Hamilton’s 36th annual Take Back The Night. It was also the first time that the McMaster Womanists tabled at the event, a group that seeks to give survivors a chance to not only reclaim their right to safety, but also collectively heal in a march around downtown Hamilton.
The McMaster Womanists was established in 2014 by Kayonne Christy and Kermeisha Williams to specifically address the issues affecting black women both on and off the university campus. The group’s advocacy is rooted in intersectional principles and black womanism, which prioritizes the experiences of black women to inform advocacy methods.
Gachi Issa, the co-president of McMaster Womanists, spoke on behalf of the group’s activism especially in relation to Take Back The Night.
“Take Back the Night is a great space for mobilization and it’s a great space in which people can gather and talk about gender oppression,” said Issa.
“But we’re also going to carve space for people to talk about racism, to talk about transphobia because a lot of these movements are centered around whiteness, but also a very specific view on femininity and women,” she added.
She noted that feminist spaces have traditionally been predominantly white in their demographic, and trans-exclusionary in their views.
“Even the narrative of Take Back the Night, like, ‘women are subject to serious sexual assault’. People of colour and black women are disproportionately affected by sexual assault — it is a fact,” said Issa.
The status quo of this movement causes the many material issues of other marginalized groups to be ignored. For instance, being a woman who is a visible minority is an additional risk factor for gender-based violence.
“It’s identifying that there are intersections and you can’t just be one thing. You are many things. You can be black and a woman. You could also be a Muslim and facing many different oppressions,” she said.
As such, the official tabling at Take Back The Night by the McMaster Womanists this year practices what the group preaches: both grassroots activism and providing a safe or more comfortable and inclusive space for black women, non-binary folks and other women of colour.
“Every year I go, it’s been adding elements,” said Issa.
Still, it is activists that are demanding that movements expand to include the narratives of people of colour, specifically black women and non-binary individuals.
Outside of special events like Take Back The Night and the Women’s March that immediately followed Donald Trump’s inauguration in February, Issa stresses that a willingness to learn, to come out and talk at events, and to use the resources available online are invaluable.
“Some people don’t understand racism because they’re not affected by it, which is okay but the fact that we are being affected by racism and oppression, but then also have to explain that is a lot. So again, Google is free,” she said.
As Take Back the Night continues to grow every year, groups like McMaster Womanists hope to see more consideration for other marginalized groups.
In collaboration with several other organizations, McMaster Womanists have taken on a bottom-up approach to addressing racism within the city of Hamilton through the Anti-Racism Action Initiative.
The Anti-Racism Action Initiative is a grassroots, discussion-based series of events hosted by the McMaster Womanists meant to tackle the various intersections of race and community issues. The first event took place in late Nov. 2016 and gathered over 250 people to discuss their experiences of racism in Hamilton and to incorporate them into a report that outlines over 30 demands of Hamiltonians regarding racism within their city.
The first event was held in response to the shortcomings and criticisms of the Sept. 26 Anti-Racism Directorate’s community consultation, in collaboration with McMaster Indigenous Students Community Alliance, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, The Presidents Advisory Council on idling an Inclusive Community, New Generation Youth Centre and the office of Councillor Matthew Green.
Held at the Central Hamilton Public Library, the Anti-Racism Action Initiative served as a more accessible venue for community members and students to discuss their experiences of racism and xenophobia within the city of Hamilton. The event was set in focus group discussions surrounding a series of topics, and amplified the voices of community members by allowing them to use their lived experiences to draft strategies for the change they would like to see in the community.
"Making sure that we're staying informed on what's going on locally and globally is important. The issues of racism are always tied to broader concepts of colonialism, imperialism and can't be removed from larger contexts."
Demands of this report surrounded topics including the intersectionality of disability, carding and police brutality, anti-Indigenous racism, community backlash, labour discrimination, hate crimes and gentrification.
On March 31, the Anti-Racism Action Initiative held a Community Report Back, an event that gathered over 150 people to discuss the full report summary from the first Anti-Racism Action Initiative event, in addition to community updates of race related happenings in the city. Taking form through discussion groups assigned to each topic in collaboration with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, the Report Back allowed the community to decide what the next steps were.
“Staying involved and making sure that the demands that came out of the initial report are being worked on is a good step,” said Sarah Jama, co-president of the McMaster Womanists and co-planner of the event. “But also making sure that we’re staying informed on what’s going on locally and globally is important. The issues of racism are always tied to broader concepts of colonialism, imperialism and can’t be removed from larger contexts.”
Following the event, Jama released a statement to her Facebook page regarding an incident with a security guard that occurred during the Anti Racism Action Initiative Community Report Back. As noted in her statement, during the event, a security guard allegedly refused entry to individuals who came to the event late and refused reentry to individuals who stepped out briefly, including Jama’s mother, although the McMaster Womanists had booked the space.
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The security guard allegedly told community members and volunteers that if they left the event or came to the event late, that they would be refused entry, without the knowledge of the organizers. Jama’s mother, who had volunteered to help with child minding at the event, had left the event briefly. Upon her return, she was denied entry, but had returned to the event to supervise the children in attendance amongst the traffic of individuals leaving.
The security guard had allegedly yelled at Jama’s mother in front of the children in the room, asking her to leave the library despite a white ally explaining that Jama’s mother was a volunteer. The security guard then allegedly threatened to call the police because they were afraid that Jama’s mother was being aggressive.
Jama noted in her statement that they will be filing a formal complaint against the security guard, and stressed that the issue with the security guard, not the Hamilton Public Library.
The McMaster Womanists are to review the minutes from each table discussion from the Anti-Racism Initiative Community Report Back and will assign the demands noted within each discussion to various community groups and activists who will take on the responsibility of accomplishing them. The group plans to reconvene next spring to update the community on the work that is being done.
By: Emile Shen - WGEN Contributor
The annual occurrence of Black History Month in the United States and Canada is something that most of us have been aware of since elementary school. Not officially recognized in Canada until 2008, it still served as an important reminder of the contributions and legacy of Black Canadians.
In my memory, however, the root causes of oppression were never explained well enough when I was younger. The intolerance was displaced, and I did not understand the full history and effects of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. I did not understand the continued prevalence of racism and how it is still manifested everywhere in microaggressions, stereotypes and institutionalized racism.
Black History Month is over, but it is important to continue to strive against forms of racism still present in today’s society. The McMaster Womanists, a group established in 2014 by Kayonne Christy and Kermeisha Williams to address issues affecting women of colour, is one of the organizations that demonstrates how and why the fight continues, and the importance of safe spaces in these efforts.
The Womanists focus on grassroots activism and education at McMaster and in the broader Hamilton community. The demand for justice is vital, but strenuous and emotionally taxing in a currently divisive political climate. The safe space for Black women and other women of colour allows the McMaster Womanists to create an inclusive area for those affected by the issues, and regather their thoughts.
One commonly discussed criticism about safe spaces is its contention to the freedom of speech. After all, it is difficult to hear opposing ideas or opinions in such a place, and there seem to be fears of spaces turning into echo chambers.
This is a misconception of the purpose of safe spaces. This assumption is dangerous because they serve not to self-segregate or censor, but to provide a structured time and place to cope with the toxic effects of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
Lilian Obeng, a secondyear Arts and Science student speaking on behalf of the group, explained, “closed spaces connect those who face the same struggles and allow oppressed people to share their experiences.”
There are experiences that folks who are not women of colour may sympathize with, but cannot fundamentally empathize with because they lack the lived experience. That is okay, but that is why safe or closed spaces exist – for similar individuals to lean on one another.
The heart of the McMaster Womanists, however, is not that of safe spaces. These help frame the courses of action for their public efforts. The Anti-Racism Action Initiative, hosted in late Nov. 2016, is a prime example of the community-based and intersectional nature of the McMaster Womanists’ work. It involved discussion on how racism is a problem in Hamilton with topics regarding housing inequality, carding, police brutality and anti-Indigenous attitudes.
Broad-based community solutions were discussed to address these concerns, and the common thread between different concerns was the necessity of education from holistic sensitivity training for more appropriate responses by police officers to the development of curriculum surrounding racism and hate crimes for the public education system.
The event was hosted in collaboration with the Presidents Advisory Community Alliance, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (McMaster), McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, The Anti-Oppressive Committee of the School of Social Work and the NGen Youth Centre.
Despite the Womanists’ focus on the issues that racialized women face, Obeng reminds us that identity politics scarcely exists in a bubble.
“The positive, individual and easy to identify iterations of oppression prevent us from clearly addressing the massive, systemic nature of institutionalized oppression. It also blocks us from seeing how our unique struggles are intrinsically connected.”
It is this awareness that oppression never happens in isolation that will allow for more empathy, more meaningful collaboration and more freedom in the gloomy political climate that surrounds us.
By: Bina Patel
On Nov. 25, McMaster students held an anti-racism initiative at the Hamilton Central Library to allow youth and community members to engage in this important conversation.
The McMaster Womanists hosted the meeting in collaboration with other clubs, including McMaster Muslims for Peace, McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McMaster and more.
“McMaster Womanists decided to organize this event as a direct response to the community consultation that was hosted by the Anti-Racism Directorate of the ministry. They came to Hamilton at the end of September, and didn’t really reach out to a lot of youth,” said Sarah Jama, co-president of McMaster Womanists.
The community consultation held on Sept. 26 attracted approximately 150 people, and focused on establishing whether or not systemic racism existed in Hamilton. Audience members critiqued the event for ignoring past research that had already completed by community organizations.
According to the description given by the organizers of the initiative, this most recent meeting aimed to elevate community voices and develop strategies on how to combat racism in Hamilton.
In the planning phase, the clubs determined how they wanted the event to unfold and see racism be addressed. This included giving people who had experienced racism first-hand the opportunity to speak and share their thoughts on how to combat racism in the city.
The meeting attracted more people than the 100 that the organizers had anticipated. This included representatives from clubs, organizations in Hamilton, McMaster students, professors, volunteers and other community members. After hearing speakers share narratives about racism and discrimination, attendees split into groups to discuss a range of topics from gentrification and Indigenous concerns to hate crimes.
In addition to facilitating a focused dialogue, there was also an emphasis on what Hamilton could do to be progressive, such as stricter rent controlled areas protection for small commercial enterprises.
Over the course of this component of the event, individuals had with others in the group and then shifted to other tables with a different focus so that they engage in a multi-faceted conversation that touched on many concerns. There was an emphasis for this meeting to include those who truly represented victims of racism.
In addition, organizers wanted to hold the initiative at a location that was more accessible than that which was chosen for the community consultation in September: Mohawk College.
“We wanted to take an opposite route and have a consultation that would involve the community directly. It was a grassroots initiative,” Jama said, explaining why the main branch of the public library best suited the meeting.
As attendees expressed their concerns and ideas to help fight racism, facilitators took down notes to include in a report. McMaster Womanists hope to use what is taken from this event to impact further change.
“It’s a grassroots report that we’re going to use to lobby locally, provincially and maybe even federally. People were really engaged so I’m hopeful that the report will be robust,” Jama said.
Preliminary demands include the cessation of carding in Hamilton, formal responses condemning “alt-right” groups in Hamilton which have been linked to white supremacy, implementing measures to prevent discriminatory hiring practices, and more.
An executive summary of their findings will be published in December.