Radio — The struggles and strategies of Black students in Canadian universities

Ladna Mohamed, Kaku Kenyi, and Andre Harriott are all current students or recent graduates of post-secondary educational institutions in Toronto. Scott Neigh speaks with them about Black in Post-Sec, a new documentary film about the experiences of Black students in Canadian universities.

Profound anti-Blackness is built into the heart of this country’s mainstream insitutions. Black people in these contexts have to deal with heightened surveillance, disproportionate targeting for regulation and punishment, erasure and disbelief of Black voices, lack of Black people in positions of authority, disproportionate denial of access and resources, widespread dehumanization, and more. As important work by Black Canadian writers and scholars has documented, this is not just an issue when it comes to obviously punitive institutions like police and prisons, but also institutions with mandates that are ostensibly about support and helping. It is true, for example, of Canadian universities.

Mohamed recently finished a diploma in journalism and a degree in professional writing, and she works doing freelance writing and media production. Kenyi has a diploma in TV broadcasting and is currently studying film and media at Humber College, and she is a photographer, filmmaker, and poet. Harriott did a bachelor’s degree in criminology at York University and a Masters of Teaching degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and he currently works as a high school teacher with the Toronto District School Board.

As students or recent graduates themselves, they and a few other people decided that they wanted to come up with a way to amplify the voices of Black students talking about all the things that they face that make universities hostile places for them, as well as the strategies that they use to survive, to thrive, to resist, and to excel under those circumstances. They decided to do this by creating a documentary film.

To keep it manageable, they focused on Black students who attend the three universities in Toronto – Ryerson, York, and University of Toronto. They wrote some grants. They started tackling all of the logistics that go into making a film. They developed a social media presence, particularly on Instagram, to connect with potential participants and to build an audience. And then it was a matter of arranging and doing the interviews – for the most part, group interviews with students involved in Black Student Associations (BSAs) and one-on-one interviews with other students.

In doing these interview, they heard a number of common themes. Perhaps the most common was a recognition that universities market themselves as diverse and inclusive, but they do little to actually make themselves safe and welcoming for Black students – “woke performativity,” one of the people interviewed in the film named it. Many talked about the massive underrepresentation of Black people among staff, faculty, and administrators, and about curriculum that often includes few Black scholars and Black voices. Campus security disproportionately targets Black students and Black-focused events. Often, faculty are not held accountable for racism. There is a general lack of mental health supports and an unwillingness to recognize the support needs of students who have faced anti-Black racism. And there is often a refusal by these institutions to acknwoledge and adequately respond to the specificities of anti-Black racism, as distinct from the experiences of other racialized groups.

At the same time, the participants in the film also show how resilient Black students are in the face of it all, and how much Black students do to support each other in the context of unsupportive institutions. In particular, BSAs are crucial to creating community, creating safe spaces, and putting together resources to support Black students – they are a place “to find joy in the chaos,” as Harriot put it.

Black in Post-Sec had been screened only twice at the point when this interview took place, but interest in more screenings has been pouring in from across Toronto, elsewhere in Ontario, and beyond. Today’s guests and the other people involved in the project will be working hard in 2020 to meet these requests. And as they do, they are looking to spark many more conversations – not just about the problems, not just about the strategies for getting through, but about what it might look like to create alternative institutions in which Black students could truly thrive.

Image: Used with permission of Black in Post-Sec.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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