“I always feel like somebody’s watching me”
The exclusion and surveillance of Black lives in Vancouver
Kevin Kapenda // Hall of Famer
Last month on Feb. 11, Jamiel Moore-Williams, a former student-athlete who was a part of the 2015 UBC Thunderbird championship football team, was stopped, thrown to the ground by a half-dozen officers and tasered multiple times on Granville St. for jaywalking. Must have been a slow night.
While the Vancouver Police Department were quick to defend their actions and refute claims of racial prejudice, I am not surprised this happened. Less than a year earlier in May 2017, a teenage girl of Haitian descent from Surrey was violently slammed to the ground by the city’s RCMP and handcuffed in a case of mistaken identity relating to a mental health call. These incidents revealed something our community has known for years: anti-Blackness does not require a large population. It all it needs to reveal itself is for us to reveal ourselves.
It is often said that there is strength in numbers. Try being one per cent of the population. Powerlessness and constant surveillance are just a few ways black life is experienced in Vancouver. Being a highly invisible minority is quite the paradox. You seemingly don’t exist but almost always stand out simultaneously. When you’re the only person in the room, you are unimportant, but the centre of attention all at once. This positionality can make it difficult to advance as a people.
For decades, Black Canadians have struggled to fight for economic and political equality in this country. We are unimportant to businesses because there are too few of us and we are unimportant to those in power because our voting bloc is too small. Furthermore, it is also difficult for Black Vancouverites to develop their own economic communities and political momentum, because Canada’s immigration system has and continues to be anti-Black. When Black people from elsewhere do immigrate to Canada, most settle in Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto. Some go to Alberta in pursuit of higher wages onset by the now-crippled oil industry. This is a key reason why Black people make up a smaller proportion of the population in Vancouver than they do in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Winnipeg, as well as all of the cities mentioned above.
One thing that skeptics of anti-Blackness in Canada point to is our country’s changing ethnic diversity. Overall, only 70 per cent of Canada’s population belongs to the visible “majority”, and many Canadian cities, including Toronto and Vancouver are now minority-majority communities. This abundance of diversity is often cited as evidence that racism, and moreover, anti-Blackness is receding or even disappearing. Of course, as countries like France, and the United States are teaching us, more diversity or “multiculturalism” does not correlate with greater tolerance. In fact, as we’ve seen with rising housing prices and the racialization of Chinese newcomers as the source of real estate inflation, more diversity often produces more strife.
Another reason why Black life in Vancouver is arguably in a more precarious and undervalued (as is Indigenous life) state, even with increased immigration and culture, is because White Supremacy is not a binary. It’s a hierarchy that excludes no skin colour from its caste. Two big stories from the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month included Chloe Kim, a snowboarder who won gold in the half-pipe, and figure-skating bronze medalists Alex and Maia Shibutani. All three Americans are of Asian Descent. Upon winning, Trump’s “forgotten majority” was quick to single out East Asians, who tend to be non-Muslim, non-religious or Christian, as worthy immigrants from non-shithole countries. Thus, these immigrants were told that of all racialized people, they were most deserving of the privileges afforded to whites at birth. The trait of “desirable immigrant.” Those who bring dedication, industry and whit, rather than disease, laziness and “Sharia.”
White Supremacy’s inclination for ranking ethnic groups based on their value has, in my experience as a Black man, lead to a universalization of anti-Blackness in our post-colonial world. In the final years of Apartheid in South Africa – which borders my native country – East Asians, whom the regime was forced to do business with due to Western sanctions, were designated as “honorary whites” by the government, as the Japanese were by Hitler. Many Indo-Africans and Indo-Caribbeans were brought to British colonies to serve as the entrepreneurial class, being designated as a superior to Blacks but inferior to whites.
In my own life, I’ve had garbage thrown at me from moving cars in my South Asian neighbourhood, been subject to excessive surveillance while shopping in majority-white South Surrey and been called all sorts names in Chinese enclaves. The idea that more people of colour reduces racism in society, particularly anti-Black and anti-indigenous sentiments, couldn’t be less true.
While predominantly white Vancouverites and Torontonians bemoan Chinese foreigners for their inability to purchase homes in their chosen neighbourhoods, I fear that people who look like me will no longer be able to put a roof over our heads, period. Due to rising costs, the precariousness of Black labour and rental market discrimination – something that people feel is only worsening with “diverse” landlords. In Toronto, studies reveal that no population struggles more to find rental accommodation than single Black mothers. Take that, multiculturalism.
As Vancouver becomes more diverse, and Canadian society persists to suppress its violent history of anti-Blackness and slavery, it is unlikely that Black life will become less precarious in the city. After all, recent and present-day discourse tells us that we are anything but White Supremacy’s model minority.