When video of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police surfaced on news channels and social media sites in May 2020, it sparked something advocates against anti-Black racism say they had not seen before.
“Having talked about this for 35 years… it was the first time I had heard so many specific references to systemic racism, and that part of the conversation changed,” said long-time anti-racism educator Enid Lee, BA’74 (Brescia).
“People often talk about racism as an episode, but the visual experience caused people to see this is not just a one-off thing, but that it has deep roots in the way in which society is structured historically.”
Lee joined fellow alumni Tracy Moore, MA’00, daytime television host, and Chris George, BA’01, portfolio manager, Hockey Diversity Alliance advisor and BlackNorth Initiative chair, for a discussion about race and racism, moderated by Idil Mussa, MA’13, producer with CBC Radio’s World Report.
Now based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Lee is an internationally renowned consultant on equitable education.
“I think I’ve heard the terms ‘systemic racism’ or ‘structural racism’ more since George Floyd than I’ve heard in the 35 years prior to that. Those terms led me to say, ‘Okay, we’re finally going deep now,’” she said.
Real conversations around racism began to take centre stage as well, says Moore, who hosts the popular lifestyle television show Cityline, and has made it a personal mission to elevate diversity and equity on camera and off.
“I’ve been speaking about race and gender forever, but there was never really a platform to talk about it. What I found was the conversations I was having in private, with my husband or my Black girlfriends, I was now being asked to have in public spaces and very white spaces,” Moore said.
This change of climate around racial equity is also happening in sectors that have traditionally been white-dominated. There is now a “resounding understanding” around systemic racism that was never there before, said George, a former professional hockey player, NHL draft pick and Western Mustang (1998-2000), who is now a portfolio manager at Scotia Wealth Management.
He believes the global pandemic that inadvertently forced people to be grounded and more connected, albeit virtually, has also allowed them to draw on some fundamental emotions, like empathy.
“We certainly are in a moment where people are trying to better understand our situation, and then literally asking what they can do to help. I’m optimistic that our community seems to be more connected than ever,” said George, whose family of Jamaican origin immigrated to Canada in the late 60s.
Following are excerpts from the panel discussion, hosted by the Western Alumni Gazette in June 2021, on how these alumni navigate challenges around racial equity, ultimately becoming influential figures in their own industries and elevating the conversation around systemic racism and diversity.
Tracy Moore on feeling a sense of responsibility
I take great responsibility for what I say. I think there are a lot of people in the spotlight who say, ‘I’m not a role model, stop looking at me.’ It doesn’t matter if I want to be one or not. People are looking to see how I act and what I say. As part of a marginalized community, there is added weight in how we’re perceived because, unfortunately, whatever we do is going to be sort of emblematic of the race for some reason. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, so I absolutely take responsibility for the things I say and for making change. It’s the whole reason I got into journalism.
I was supposed to be a news reporter, so how did I end up on a lifestyle show? That was never the plan. I was supposed to be in war-torn areas, talking about populations that needed help and were underserved – and here I am talking about stilettos and sofas. But what I realized is that even in this lifestyle space, a lot of change can happen. There are a lot of people listening and watching. Even outside of my job, volunteerism has always been a very big part of my life – making sure I’m in grassroots situations where I’m speaking to kids or immigrant populations that need my help. That happens off-camera all the time and has since I was in high school. I take the role very seriously and I’m okay with that. It’s not going to be forever. I’ll be on air for a while, and then I’ll be off-air and it’ll be the work I do off-air that really counts. Right now, I’m just using this opportunity to the best of my ability.
Enid Lee on learning from history
Unless we have a historical perspective, we are not going to go as deeply as we should. Western needs to look at its historic record. Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor in the 80s whose research focused on race and intelligence, comes to mind. Know the historical roots of racism within your own institution, so that you will know what needs to be dug up, addressed or turned around. The point of history is not to shame and to defeat; it is to expose, so we can correct, and put emphasis and energy and resources in the right areas.
Another component is having a culturally responsive method of capturing students’ experiences in any plans. Many times policies don’t take into account students with a whole range of contexts and backgrounds. That human experience beyond the grades is important. What is your experience as a student of whatever racial identity? Does your life matter to and at this institution?
Other essential elements are structures to ensure that the work is done. People write policies, and they must be followed up by questions, like “Where are the resources? What is the report card that Western is going to put out? Which students will benefit from this?” We know it’s not going to be done in one fell swoop and that the change is often not permanent. It must constantly be refurbished. Yes, the climate is less racist, the access is greater, and the hiring reflects the rich racial diversity of humanity and all its talent. It means you are ready for the next level. These are always my words to those who say they want to change systems.
Chris George on making progress
Sometimes progress isn’t in a straight line. We have to realize we’re making certain sectors feel uncomfortable, and they’re enabled and empowered on social media in some ways.
I think we have to be stronger than ever as we prepare for this potential backlash, as we’ve seen recently with the horrific act against Muslims in London [Ont].
I, myself, experienced racism in London. I was coming home after a game one night and a biker gang came up to me, hurled the N-word at me, knocked me out with brass knuckles and kicked me unconscious. It was an extremely blatant racist act. I was a 20-year-old man at the time. Fortunately, people carried me to the hospital, where I got eight stitches in my head. Looking back at it now as a 45-year-old, I remember feeling almost guilty. It was like I didn’t want people to know what had happened. I didn’t want to be that Black guy who was getting in trouble. I didn’t want to get kicked off the team. At the time, I was happy we were able to keep it quiet and that I didn’t get punished. I literally did nothing wrong, except I was Black in the wrong spot.
Right now, as much as you probably pick up a tone from me that I’m optimistic, that we’re organized and we have these allies – we still have to realize change is not received well by everyone. We need to be really vigilant with how strong and connected we are. It’s a movement, not a moment.
The next leg is going to be more behind-the-scenes, the really hard work. When we’re no longer the top news story, that’s the real grassroots stuff.