I am black. This is a challenge. It is especially difficult in a university setting. In my graduating class, there are a total of seven girls and two boys who share my skin colour. It’s 2015.
Stating this fact, or “whining” about it, doesn’t make it any less difficult or any less true. Discussing it with people who are also experiencing such a reality however, definitely provides relief.
Nov. 13-15 was the seventh annual United Black Students of Ryerson (UBSR) conference. According to its website, UBSR aims to “promote a strong sense of community among black students at the university,” and does so through various outreach.
For seven years, this student group has put together a conference that brings together post-secondary black students.
The weekend-long event was hosted at a DoubleTree Hilton hotel, where students from all over the province came together to discuss some of the important issues facing the black community and simply be around more than two to three black people at once.
Being in my final year at Ryerson, I felt it was time to muster up the courage to overcome a somewhat irrational fear and frustration I have with groups of people.
Throughout my life, I was consistently put in the position where I was expected to defend or validate myself, my demeanour, attitudes and my choices to the majority as well as many of my own people.
There are few places I feel truly comfortable around my peers. There is a great deal of mental gymnastics required to keep everybody happy, unoffended, manage people’s perceptions, and disassociate myself from the multitude of stereotypes scripted for me — all while still remaining true to myself.
Middle school and high school was comprised of these gymnastics, though it was much more unconscious with a much simpler understanding of my true self.
Often, to white people I can come across as “ghetto,” angry, mean, or a bunch of other things I’m not. And to many black people, I can come across as “bougie” (pretentious). None are accurate, but if I had to correct every inaccurate assumption made about me, my dark brown face would turn blue.
By the time I got to university, I was uninterested in all of the bending. So I started keeping to myself, often feeling like a walking stigma.
This sense of solitude became comfortable. Anything outside of it left me anxious or annoyed. Because I spoke and carried myself a certain way, I was labelled “whitewashed.” This is, hands down, the single worst thing you can call me. Because I was articulate, didn’t fight to settle my scores, and was fortunate enough to be educated, I was “whitewashed?” Oh, because black people can’t possibly read, write or speak in any other language than slang? Right. Copy.
I remember being in high school hearing my “friends” tell me, “you’re black, but not black black,” to which I foolishly responded with a smile, flattered. I was separate from my group, despite the quite literal impossibility of such a concept.
For a long time I was in social group affiliation limbo. I never really felt accepted by people who share my skin colour and, as a result, my struggle. So I avoided them, and everyone else. If I wasn’t welcomed by my own, I wasn’t interested in anyone else.
I had a summer of intense study. Among many things, I was fortunate enough to learn a lot about myself, the world, my individual and collective history. I grew less intimidated by black people as I came to understand some of the systems and structures that tend to shape our perceptions of the world and one another.
I became so interested in our complex, tragic and triumphant history. And I wanted to learn more.
I figured that since it’s my last year, it’s my last chance to take part in this UBSR event. I felt this leap would help eradicate that fear and expand on my self-knowledge.
I didn’t go to the conference with anyone I knew. I was sharing a room with strangers. This was miles away from my comfort zone — my bed.
After check-in on the first day, I left my room to head down to the opening event. I was met by eight black girls waiting for the elevator. What happened next was odd. I smiled wide and introduced myself to all of them.
All eight girls enthusiastically responded with their names and schools. We laughed and chatted, excited for the weekend ahead. It was like home. I’d never met these girls but felt comfortable enough to go out of my way to introduce myself? Rare.
“The intersections of our identity make it so that our blackness is a huge part of who and what we are as people, while being a huge part of what makes us unique,” said Tari Ngangura, UBSR’s director of events. “That is one of the reasons why we made the theme ‘Unique in Our Blackness, United in Our Struggle.’”
The three-day event was kicked off with a meet and greet so we could get to know all the different people from all the different schools.
There, we listened to a speech from Ryerson’s Denise O’Neil Green on black people in education administration and how there aren’t nearly enough. We listened to an original song by Renée Henry, and a spoken word poem by Cassandra Thompson about concepts that are usually inexplicable to anyone other than a fellow black woman.
Finally! I was in a space with a room full of people who not only looked like me, but for the most part, thought like me? Very rare. By the end of the day, and certainly by the end of the dinner, I was comfortable.
A sense of familiarity and ease with people I’d never met continued in Day 2. I was able to attend a workshop on self-care: the idea that you must put yourself and your needs first. A seemingly simple but extremely complex undertaking. The discussion shone light on feelings generally kept in the dark. We were able to freely and comfortably converse, articulate our problems and deconstruct them. We also provided each other with suggestions and tools on moving through those feelings of frustration, especially when your environment doesn’t allow for such crucial self-maintenance.
It was a secret knowing and understanding of the pain and struggle that comes with being black in general — but specifically in university.
The organizers made sure to keep the balance, following the heavy stuff with the light. Saturday’s workshops were followed by a formal gala with speeches, performances, dinner, then dancing.
On our final day, we had brunch and recapped the weekend we shared. There was a panel discussion by black professionals who gave us tips about how to get our foot in the door and how to remain a valuable asset to employers. We were provided with tools to help advance ourselves academically, emotionally, and in terms of our career. It was a safe space where we could simply be.
Being at the conference was like being at a family reunion. Our skin colour and presence at this event made us family for three days. We were related not by blood, but by struggle.
We sat in understanding while our sister wept about experiences of isolation all too familiar. We snapped our fingers while poets unpacked concepts our souls understood but could not yet articulate. The ballroom was thick with joyous laughter and cheers as we watched our brothers dance.
The theme of being unique in our blackness and united in our struggle was perfect. We were all there, we were all black, and it was lit. I left the weekend feeling recharged and ready to take on the white world with the patience and understanding so desperately required.
The conference was a “safe space, because you can be your authentic self and not have to fear being judged on your blackness,” said Ngangura.
This space provided sanity. It reminded me who I already knew I was, but am “not allowed” to be. For two nights and three days, I was not the visible “other.”
I didn’t realize how great that could feel. Being there was so necessary, and for three years I ignored it. I had been on underwater cruise control and didn’t realize I was drowning. The weekend was a deep and most satisfying breath of fresh air.
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 25, 2015.