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Panel teaches black history to unlearn white privilege

Roundtable discussion March 23 sheds light on black contributions and lived experience
March 23, 2017
Social Work professor Michael Embaie is one of the professors co-leading a special roundtable on teaching black history.

Social Work professor Michael Embaie is one of the professors co-leading a special roundtable on teaching black history.

The roundtable, March 23 from noon to 1:30 p.m., will focus on how to use teaching the contributions of black Canadians and their lived experience as a tool to break down barriers of racism and prejudice.

The roundtable, March 23 from noon to 1:30 p.m., will focus on how to use teaching the contributions of black Canadians and their lived experience as a tool to break down barriers of racism and prejudice.

Most Canadians are justifiably proud of our nation’s policy of multiculturalism. However, Social Work professor Michael Embaie says when you look closely at 400 years of black history in Canada, the history looks a little different. 

Embaie points to a legacy of institutionalized racism exemplified by decades of racist immigration policy, which worked hard to exclude black people, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, famously turned away a boatload of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and denied entry to the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying nearly 400 Indian and Sikhs refugees.

“I mean, at the time, you had a former premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, actually saying, ‘We always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.’ So there is a long history of racism in this country, and there continues to be racism in Canada today," Embaie says.

On Thursday March 23, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Embaie, along with fellow Social Work professors David Este, PhD, and Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, and social work students Kehinde Ariyo, MBA, and Dorsa Sobhani will lead a special Diversity Week roundtable discussion they’re calling Teaching Black History/ Unlearning White Privilege.

Education as a primary intervention to prevent racism

“The idea," says Embaie, "is that hopefully by learning and understanding black history — by understanding black experience, lives and the contributions that black people have made, individuals will be better able to see past prejudice and stereotypes and start seeing people as individuals.” 

Embaie says education and awareness is the first step in making things better, noting the real impact of oppression comes in the denial of opportunity. It comes from excluding people from full participation in society and denying them social licence that people with white privilege take for granted. 

“The context we are going to be discussing is the context of black Canadians,” says Embaie. “It doesn’t make the experience of racism any less important for other groups experiencing oppression. Having said that, statistics show that black people are less likely to be advanced in their careers, that they are paid less, and in many places in Canada are three to four times more likely to be randomly stopped by police than a white person.” 

Este agrees, and says that as a black man, for that reason, he feels fear every time he sees a police car. “I tell people that racial profiling and carding happens in Canada all the time. There was an article that was written by Desmond Cole, who wrote for Toronto Life, who talked about his experiences as a black male in Toronto and being stopped by the police in either Kingston or Toronto at least 50 times. I do have a profound fear of police cars, knowing that there's a higher probability that I might be stopped.”

Racism not just a U.S. issue

Embaie says it’s not all bad, and that while Canada has come a long way, we still have a long way to go. He adds that making black history courses a routine part of the curriculum might dispel a lot of racist myths, while working as a primary intervention to combat racism, which he says Canada may need to do out of necessity. “Immigrants and people of colour are an increasingly large percentage of our population," says Embaie. "We need their labour and skills now and in the future as we turn to immigration to make up for our declining population. As a society we can't afford to be racist anymore.” 

The roundtable is co-sponsored by the Faculty of Social Work, the Social Work Students Association and the University of Calgary’s Diversity Week. For more information, visit the Facebook event page

Diversity Week is an initiative to celebrate diversity and inclusion on University of Calgary campuses through a variety of events, open to all community members. From March 20 to 24, we can embrace our differences, get involved and create safe and inclusive campuses for everyone. Find an event for you here