In honour of Black History Month, I sat down with local Black community organizer, Shanice Nicole, to discuss the role we all play in advocating for racial justice, what it means to be anti-racist and the struggle between exposing young people of colour to racial complexities and preserving their innocence.
Can you tell us a little bit about the meaning behind Black History Month and why it’s important to take this time to celebrate and reflect on the achievements and contributions of Black individuals?
The recognition and acknowledgement of history is incredibly important because it informs not only our present but our future and how we exist as a society. We have seen the way in which history is rewritten and that goes beyond Black history. Canada has particularly worked hard to rewrite and erase a lot of the history of this nation, especially in relation to communities of colour. Legacies of discrimination and harm against people of colour remain hidden or silenced. In the context of Black history for example, a lot of people don’t know that slavery happened in Canada and in Quebec, which makes it even harder to have open and honest conversations. It’s hard to change if we’re not addressing the truth. For me, Black History Month is an opportunity to tell the truth: the beautiful parts and the not so beautiful parts, and to think about what kind of world we want to create for ourselves.
I think 2020 was a sort of awakening for a lot of people on how deep racial injustice runs in the country. However, some people have downplayed the prevalence of racial issues in Canada when compared to what is happening in the United States. Our own Premier, François Legault, has denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. Do you think these are common misconceptions here and what are your thoughts on the state of Black community activism in Montreal?
Quebec has a very unique history that makes it particularly challenging to have these kinds of conversations. Black communities in this city and province are incredibly diverse in terms of ethnic background and language which is a huge distinguishing factor in comparison to other provinces. The linguistic diversity is especially enriching, but it also results in some division between Black anglophone and francophone communities. However, although there are unique barriers in place, there are also unique opportunities for collaboration and for relationship building across those lines of difference.
When compared to other provinces and countries, Quebec is often thought about as this distinct and separate place but anti-Blackness doesn’t care about human-madeborders. I think it’s important to be mindful of the differences without getting caught up in the idea that the borders that surround us protect us from that violence . The same thing happens around the Canada-US dynamic. The border that we think is so powerful and real is very much constructed. That illusion of being so different just exacerbates the false idea that we are different or better than whoever it is that we’re comparing ourselves to.
You’ve done a lot of work in creating and organizing community resources to help Black community members get access to financial support and job opportunities. What role would you say small businesses in particular have in supporting communities of color and encouraging diverse representation?
I think it's rooted in the power of responsibility and the idea that everyone can work towards creating change - even in the smallest way. One of my mentors, Rachel Zellars, once shared this quote with me: “There’s a difference between not having enough and not having anything.” I think that’s such a good framework and reminder of what it means to support each other and be a community. You don’t need to have a massive amount of resources to share. We live in a society that teaches us to be very individualistic which means scarcity culture is quite real and can make us feel like we have to protect and care for ourselves first. That's often based in a very real fear, of not having enough, of going without. It’s important to recognize how we are all interconnected and need each other. A lot of the work that I do, especially when organizing, is about disrupting that narrative that we need to rely solely on institutions.
In the past 2 years of my fundraising work, individual people have sent me over 70 000$ to redistribute, which is mind blowing. It’s such a testament of people wanting to support and help however they can. With my fundraising, there’s no formal application process and I don’t ask for proof of what people do with the money. I trust that people know what they need and I don’t need evidence of that. I think it’s important to have these avenues where people can ask for what they need and get it, no questions asked. For me, that’s just an example of what’s possible. There are people everywhere who are trying to figure out how they can contribute and how they can make change which is super inspiring.
You often reference Maya Angelou’s quote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Would you say the path to racial justice starts with education on an individual level?
I think education is a really important part of it but it can’t be just about that - especially in the "traditional" form. Over the summer, there were so many different curated reading and resource lists made available. Obviously, it’s very important to educate ourselves. However, I also know that we have been reading and educating ourselves for decades so it can’t just be about reading books and articles and listening to podcasts. The most transformative change comes from being in good relationship with each other. You can’t get that from simply reading. It’s really about building and sustaining relationships with people. That’s how I’ve done my most transformative learning. It’s been from, with and through people.
I think this conversation is often framed in a way that says if you do x, y, z, then things will change overnight. That formula is not true and doesn’t actually speak to the way these systems were designed and developed over centuries. There's no way a reading list could undo centuries of harm and violence. I don’t know that there’s anything that could undo that but I do know that the way forward has to be in connection with other beings and not just information. Education is critical but look at your relationships. Who is in your community? Who do you love? That speaks volumes on how change happens and how it can be sustained so that it’s not just performative.
There has been increasing discussion around the distinction between not racist and anti-racist. How do you define this difference and what does anti-racism mean to you?
Essentially, the key distinction is the understanding that racism is this global system that has existed for a long time and that is going to continue to exist for a long time. As individuals, we can reflect on our actions and behaviors but we are also tied up in this system that informs so much about our world and our life. It’s impossible to deny that these systems exist and are present, and that you can somehow not be affected by or connected to them.
I prefer to be working towards anti-racism than the idea of being anti racist. I prefer focusing on the verb, on the action, instead of claiming this identity because learning and unlearning is an ongoing process. The practice of anti-racism makes a lot more sense to me. It’s recognizing that these systems are at play and that I am a part of them. It's understanding that I have a responsibility, no matter who I am, to challenge those systems and do my part in creating change in the world that I’m living in now and the world that I want to create in the future.
Your children’s book, Dear Black Girls, celebrates the differences among young Black girls. What is the main message you hope young readers gain through your book?
Dear Black Girls is a love letter to Black girls of all ages and also to all Black people. I just want them to feel loved and valued. I want it to be a book they return to often when they have to navigate a society or a world that doesn't always love and value them. I think that can be so hard regardless of your age, but especially as a child who is just trying to figure themselves and the world out. I was a very avid reader as a child and this is a book I would have loved to read and have as part of my collection. I’m just so excited for Black girls as well as older Black women and people to be able to have access to this story they can share with young people in their life. I want people to receive and feel the abundance of love that does exist.
If you could speak to your younger self as you are today, what would you say?
Probably just chill the fuck out. You’re going to be fine. I feel like there's so much pressure put on young people and I think that one’s youth should especially be a time of discovery or exploration and it’s hard to do that when so much pressure is put on you from every corner of your life. I would just want my younger self to breathe and to tell her that things are going to be okay. You’re going to make mistakes but it's going to be an adventure and journey worth travelling.
Do you feel like the importance of racial identity is a message that isn’t shared enough among Black youth?
Growing up in the mid-90s and early 2000s, we didn’t have the same kind of dialogue and access to these conversations and this present idea of representation. I was very lucky to grow up in a family and in a home where our Blackness was acknowledged and celebrated.
Things are changing so drastically now in a way that’s both positive and potentially negative if not done with care. We’re having these conversations a lot so young people are being exposed which can be a really positive thing. However, there’s a downside to it as well that can create added pressure for young people if they aren’t adequately supported through the learning Having to think about and understand your identity, know who you are, who you’re going to be, and what that means can be another form of pressure.
For example, how do you talk to a child about racism? You want to protect the innocence of this child but at the same time it has already been disrupted because of the experience of violence and harm that they’re exposed to. So how much do you continue to expose them in order to prepare them, and how much do you actually let them be a child? For Black children in particular, that innocence is often threatened very early, which is devastating.
I definitely had that moment of awakening a lot later and I feel like young people today aren’t having to wait till their 20s to start being exposed to these complexities. You have children and teens who are already having these conversations. On one hand, it’s inspiring and on the other, I hope they’re having fun and doing reckless shit that young people should be doing. We have to keep thinking about how to do this work and this learning with care and intention so that we don’t cause more harm than necessary. But as always, progress is a process.
Shanice Nicole is a Black feminist educator, facilitator, writer, and (out)spoken word artist. She distributes funds to Black and Indigenous community members and organizes free community resources such as Jobs & Things, All Black Everything in Montreal, and the BFCN Scholarship Directory. Her children’s book, Dear Black Girls, which features beautiful illustrations by Kezna Dalz, is now available for purchase. Find out more about Shanice Nicole’s work and how you can give back here.