Nfld. & Labrador

The 'casual brutality' of racism: Black Lives Matter launches in N.L.

Racism is alive and well in Newfoundland and Labrador, though it is often more subtle than what you might see on American television.

Protests around the world have sparked a need for conversation about anti-black racism here, too

A Black Lives Matter sign hangs in the window of a home in downtown St. John's. Protests erupted across the United States after the death of George Floyd. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"For me, the most telling thing was that he knew that he was going to die."

Sandra McKellar, a black woman who lives in St. John's, describes seeing the video of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, which sparked ongoing worldwide protest, as feeling like she was "being kicked in the gut."

"It was so clear.… There was no misunderstanding of what was happening, the very casual brutality of it."

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man and father, died on May 25 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd's neck under his knee for more than eight minutes. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and three other police officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

It might be easy to think of Newfoundland and Labrador as being removed from the conversation about race and police violence happening in the United States.

At least, easy for those not experiencing it.

In the Independent this week, College of the North Atlantic student Thandi O'Grady wrote an opinion piece, entitled "My Skin Colour is Not a Threat," about her experience with racism. When people deny anti-black racism is a problem here, she told the St. John's Morning Show this week, it sets back the fight to end it. 

"When you've never experienced something, you don't understand the pain someone has gone through," she said.

A subtle, constant presence

McKellar's family has been in the province for eight years. She says the racism she experiences here is not the overt violence of the U.S. but is, rather, a subtle, constant presence.

"My daughter even had this experience just this weekend. She was with two white friends and they remarked on it. It was in the store and there were three of them, her being the only person of colour. And she was the one followed around the store.

"Her two friends wanted to know, 'what's up?' and she just kind of looked at them."

Being followed is something McKellar has experienced everywhere she has lived. Once, she said, a guard at The Rooms followed her whole family around the building for the duration of their visit.

"Many individuals make no bones about it. When I was in Ontario someone said to me, 'I don't think you can afford to shop here.'"

Precious Familusi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter NL, says they didn't expect support to be as big as it was in the province. (Prajwala Dixit/CBC)

'Overwhelming' support in province

The Black Lives Matter movement, organizing against anti-black racism and police violence, is new to the province. But one of the co-founders, Brian Amadi, says even having a discussion about racism can be met with resistance.

"It's been my experience that when you try to get people to talk about it [they] vocally or even silently try to stop you from saying anything … because they just feel personally attacked even if you're trying to explain to them that it's the system. 

"So Black Lives Matter NL is just trying to bring this knowledge to the forefront of everyone's mind, that racism is in the system and we should try to be aware of that."

Only four days after launching their Facebook page, the group has more than 6,000 followers, and an official release from the City of St. John's declaring support and encouraging residents to "stand up against racism."

"It means we have huge support from a lot of the white people here, which we're really pleased about," says Amadi. 

His co-founder, Precious Familusi, says the support has been overwhelming.

"We didn't think it would go as big as it's been."

An exhausting daily battle

The page is a resource and a platform for black voices in the province, but also support for those dealing not just with anti-black racism, but with the sheer exhaustion of fighting it every day.

"As a black person," says Amadi, "say, you have like 30 white friends and now each of them is texting you, asking, 'What do we do? How do we go forward? It's very, very exhausting.'"

The founders of Black Lives Matter NL hope to give people in the province resources to learn about racism without putting that burden on those experiencing it. 

They are also planning events, not just to echo the situation in the U.S., but to talk more frankly about anti-black racism right here.

"We're going to be planning different ways to have that conversation," says Familusi.

"How does anti-black racism look in Newfoundland? How can we address what is happening here in Newfoundland, and what ways could we unlearn racism?"

No option to ignore it

Thousands of kilometres from Minneapolis, Newfoundland and Labrador has a predominantly white population, so it can be easy to feel sheltered from anti-black racism. But this feeling is not a luxury that black people in the province can afford.

O'Grady has had slurs shouted at her while walking in St. John's, and knows she isn't alone.

"This is a problem that we face in our daily lives. We didn't ask for it. Racism exists and racism needs to be solved right now."

"The kids do notice," said McKellar, adding that black parents have no choice but to start teaching their children about racism from Day 1.

"You don't want to take away their childhood, but they don't have the luxury of not understanding it, and not being able to pick out situations where they may be at risk.

"You don't have the luxury of not understanding the impact it can have on your life."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Andrew Hawthorn

Journalist

Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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