Assault on Black Women's Bodies
In the launch of Ally Needed, Celina shares her experience facing microaggressions, thereby teaching us that discrimination is not blind to spaces of power.
I recently wrote an article in Refinery29 calling on allies who witness racist, sexist, homophobic, un-inclusive and discriminatory comments to immediately ask the culprit, “Why?”. Why did you say that? Why did you touch her? Why? It swiftly takes the burden of the comment made away from the victim, and places it back onto the culprit – where it belongs.
Two years ago, I gave a speech in the House of Commons, while wearing braids, to let the Chamber and all the viewers of the now viral video know, that all forms of our hair and head coverings belong in all spaces, including Parliament. The speech was in protest of a young Black girl, in Toronto, being removed from her classroom because her hair was out and deemed “too poofy”. I have come to realize that no matter where Black women and girls are, in classrooms or in Parliament, there is an assault on their bodies, especially their hair. Now, while nobody ever asked me to leave Parliament because of how I looked, I was constantly asked why I was there, because some security personnel could not remember what I looked like. Despite being required to memorize all elected Members of Parliament, and being the only dark-skinned woman elected, I was asked, at least on a monthly basis during my four-year term, why I was in the building or which office I was looking for? If I was the only one, I should have been the easiest to remember, but I was not. They may as well have removed me, because I was invisible to them. In those four years, I only had one colleague look the security in the eye and tell them that they did not need to question my presence, because they were talking to an elected Member of Parliament. He proceeded to take me by the arm and walk through the security gate. It was a moment I will never forget.
Allies have a strong role to play in ensuring spaces are inclusive and that Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) are not invisible.
They can help ensure that we get to the point where discriminatory comments or actions are not tolerated in workspaces (or other spaces), by making an intentional and sustained commitment to inclusion (notice that I did not say diversity). Diversity is ubiquitous. Look around you. There is no place in the world more diverse than Canada. It is the inclusion piece which requires work. It is not enough to hire a Black woman and check the “race” and “gender” box off on your diversity checklist. It is not enough to hire a Caucasian, non-binary person in a wheelchair and check off another two boxes.
Diversity is not enough, because when those individuals get hired, they are excited and willing to bring their 100% authentic selves to work. Unfortunately, when they enter spaces, they are often the recipients of direct microaggressions and discriminatory comments about their bodies or beliefs, as well as indirect systemic microaggressions - do they still have to choose between gendered washrooms? Why? Does the organization still hold company retreats in inaccessible spaces? Why? Are their any BIPOC individuals (with an “s”) among their leadership? Why, not?
As these daily assaults on their person mount, they bring less and less of themselves to the workplace. The person that started off eager and at 100%, eventually drops to 75%, then 50% then 25%. When they have had enough, and reach 0%, the result is a great person leaving an unhealthy organization. Death by a thousand cuts not only impacts the individual, it impacts the ability of that organization, community, school etc. to get the maximum benefit of that person’s experiences, ideas and perspectives. The intervention of those who call themselves “allies”help both individuals and organizations.
We all have a role to play in ensuring that spaces are inclusive and equitable. We all have a role to play in challenging the status quo and breaking glass ceilings for one another. It does not fall on any one community or person, nor should one community or person be left behind. We are all in this together. Now, let’s act like it.
Celina Cesar-Chavannes is a former Canadian Member of Parliament (Riding of Whitby), serving alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Celina is an advocate for mental illness, equity, and justice. She was named the Most Influential People of African Descent. Global 100 Under 40, Politics & Governance and Black Parliamentarian of the Year in 2017.