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Black business owners in Vancouver share successes, calls to action

"The thing about racism is that it's not always the words that you expect to hear or a physical confrontation. It can be a glance. It could be a question," says Roger Collins, co-owner of Calabash Bistro in Vancouver.

'The thing about racism is that it's not always the words that you expect to hear or a physical confrontation'

Roger Collins, co-owner of Calabash Bistro, says racism is not always about a physical confrontation, it can be a glance or a question. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Black squares flooded social media feeds earlier this week for #BlackOutTuesday — a campaign that arose from the worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd.

The black square campaign was criticized for silencing the voices it was trying to amplify, which in turn led to a call to support black-owned businesses by using the hashtag, #SupportBlackBusiness. 

Here, CBC News profiles three businesses owned by Black people in Vancouver. 

Jackee Kasandy, owner of Kasandy

Jackee Kasandy, owner of Kasandy, is pictured in Vancouver on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Jackee Kasandy started her business four and half years ago selling fair-trade baskets, bags and leather jackets made in Kenya, she struggled to find someone in her field to lean on.

"There wasn't another single Black person I could find that had a business that I could talk to," she said.

But with the help of two women she met at a market in Vancouver she started her business, at first doing pop-ups together, then opening a store in downtown Vancouver. 

Now, she is moving to a bigger location on Granville Island.

Kasandy is moving to a bigger space on Granville Island. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Before starting her own business, she worked in various corporate jobs where she would often be the only Black person in the workplace.

"I walked into an organization that had 800 people and I think I was maybe one of two Black people. That's it," she said, adding while Vancouver prides itself on being diverse and multicultural, there is much concealed racism. 

"I would go into a room and the first thing people would assume is I didn't know much," she said. 

LISTEN: Jackee Kasandy shares her experience about working in the corporate world in Vancouver.

Kasandy says as a person of colour she also finds that if she disagrees with someone, it's often seen by white people as "aggressive," even if she is speaking in a calm tone. 

"So you always just have to be careful. And those are things you kind of learn without wanting to learn."

Roger Collins, co-owner of Calabash Bistro

Calabash Bistro co-owner Roger Collins opened the restaurant 10 years ago because he found there was no Caribbean scene in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Roger Collins and his business partners opened Calabash Bistro 10 years ago this month.

"I felt it was very necessary to open a Caribbean restaurant at that time in Vancouver because there wasn't a lot of representation and I could see the need for culture," he said.

The restaurant, located in the Downtown Eastside, is a hub for live music performances and gives artists a space to display their work. Despite his efforts to promote Caribbean and African culture in Vancouver, Collins says he often experiences racism in the city.

"Walk out my door, you know, I'll be in my own head, do my own thing, walk outside and right away, I'm like 'Oh yeah, that's right, I'm Black and I'm in Vancouver,'" he said.

Collins said it's not always malicious or overt. 

"The thing about racism is that it's not always the words that you expect to hear or a physical confrontation. It can be a glance. It could be a question," he said. 

Or when someone crosses the street when they see him or clutches their purse. 

Calabash Bistro provides a space for black artists to showcase and sell their work in addition to being a restaurant and live music venue. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"There's so many subtle layers to this thing and that's why I feel like it's going to take time to really dissect and break down the issues that us as a society face because it's everywhere, you know, and I think that's the hard part for people to accept or even understand about systemic racism is that it is systematic," he said.

LISTEN: Roger Collins co-owner of Calabash Bistro talks about concealed and systemic racism in Vancouver. 

Collins said he is happy to see conversations taking place across social media about systemic racism.

"I think globally a lot of people are really looking deep at themselves and I mean all people, including people of colour ... everybody is looking at themselves right now. So there's like a huge mirror being put up right now to the world and if you keep looking away you're gonna miss what's happening. You gotta look at yourself in order to move on," he said. 

Akeem Pierre, owner of Rich Sol Foods

Akeem Pierre, owner of Sol Rich Foods, says people need to go beyond posting about racism on social media. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver entrepreneur Akeem Pierre began selling herbs, teas and other products from St. Lucia a year ago with the goal of helping people. 

Originally from Calgary, Pierre moved to Richmond as a teen, where he and his brother were the "token Black kids."

"I was being chased around like 'Hey, you're the new black guy.' We fit the stereotype of what black people, what black men, boys should be. We played basketball, liked hip hop and spoke a certain way," he said. 

He said the other kids were interested to learn more and perhaps felt good about "having a Black friend," but often didn't dig deeper to understand their history and culture. 

Pierre feels similarly about many of the social media posts he's seen lately.

"I feel like it's just easy to do and social media is a great way to bail out, it makes me feel good, everyone see it, it's an easy way to feel like you're contributing," he said. 

LISTEN: Vancouver Entrepreneur Akeem Pierre talks about how people need to go beyond just posting about racism on social media.  

Pierre says making those deeper connections with each other and within is what's necessary.

"If we go to a level of loving ourselves and doing what's right, everything will go into harmony and balance without any force."

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