The Power of Conversation: Sharing My Experiences as a Black Woman in Academia

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In early June, a friend reached out to me to let me know they were thinking of me. They told me that they were aware of their privilege and they were trying to be better. Then another friend messaged me on Facebook. Three more texted. A few DM’d me on Instagram. In the end, about 12 people messaged me within the span of a few days. Some people I hadn’t spoken to in months — years even. In the midst of a new dystopian reality, stories about protests and riots were everywhere. Underlying tensions were ignited following a series of brutal killings in the United States. The social unrest fueled a renewed vigour in the Black Lives Matter movement and everyone was watching. I felt humbled and grateful to know that I came to mind for many of my friends.

However, with time, my feelings started to change. My knee-jerk reaction was to thank my friends. I wanted to comfort them, and tell them I was doing well, but I couldn’t. To maintain the emotional fortitude required to finish my studies, I had holed myself away. I was deliberately avoiding the news and social media and making headway on my thesis. But these messages ripped me from my fortress of ignorance, and threw me abruptly back into my sobering reality. I was overcome with emotion: I felt angry. I felt sad. I felt unwanted. Above all else, I felt completely alone.

I was reminded that I’m one of the only Black people that many of my friends know. It made me think, how many others want to say something but don’t know how? Instead of responding to each friend one-by-one, I decided to write a letter to share with all of them at once. After the first draft, I thought I should probably also share it with peers and colleagues. But the more I wrote, the stronger I felt. Why stop there? I needed my community to know that anti-Black racism wasn’t happening somewhere else. They needed to know it is here. I am here, and I live it everyday. On the advice of a friend, I decided to expand my target audience. I remembered using Maclean’s magazine’s Rankings Issue to help me decide where to submit my university applications. So, I decided to pitch my story to them. With their reputation covering education in Canada, it felt like the perfect place to share my story about being a Black woman in academia.

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I am proud to be Canadian. As a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, I was taught to appreciate the freedom and opportunity I enjoy as a citizen of this country. Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands of years, but otherwise we are all immigrants or their descendants. That is our strength. We are an eclectic mix from various ethnicities and cultures. Sharing our stories brings us closer together. It helps us better understand the people living and working in our neighbourhoods. Honestly, I think stories allow us to relate to each other, and to reflect on ourselves. They show us that although our identity is associated with the love of hockey, poutine, and maple syrup, as Canadians, we are so much more. I wrote my letter to contribute to this narrative.

But I also wrote to provide context. I needed to speak my truth and to describe how the everyday racism which I experience is nuanced. It is not physical attacks, it is being ‘the only one.’ That is one of very few Black people in an academic space. The isolation I feel is a hallmark of a system whose barriers prohibit entry for racialized people into places of power. Everyday racism is also in what is not there. It is the denial of our histories, and the erasure of the existence of Black people — of my own existence — in more ways than meets the eye. I wanted to convey the lesser told story of racism, and to humanize the faceless people of colour who live this reality in our country.

After my story was published, I braced myself to receive a bunch of hate-mail (hate email? trolling?) online because, you know, the internet. But it never came. Instead, I’ve received supportive messages from across the country. I’ve learned that I don’t have to continue to feel alone. The response has been one of love; it’s been more positive than I could have imagined.

I want readers to know that it’s okay to feel awkward, and it’s okay to fumble with language. We all start somewhere and we’re learning together. Sharing my story with at least one other person who may not understand anti-Black racism is a small but powerful action towards sharpening the picture. It’s important for us to talk to each other in order to acknowledge, process, and address racial inequality in Canada. We are filling in the lines, and giving depth to the perception of the Canadian experience.

Maybe personal anecdotes like mine make us more empathetic. I hope they make people feel something at all. Emotion might be what’s needed to help us push past the discomfort, and have these tough conversations. Systemic racism will not be dismantled overnight, but together we can disrupt the status-quo. I believe that everyone has a part to play. Ultimately, it is up to us to make Canada a more supportive and equitable place.

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Evelyn Asiedu is a PhD candidate in the Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Alberta. Evelyn is the author of the Maclean’s article Canadian universities must collect race-based data.”