Ottawa·Point of View

I fight anti-Black, anti-Indigenous racism with academic excellence

Jordan Gray recently graduated university, but he writes that it wasn't easy to get there. He shares his experience as a Black and Indigenous student, and his hopes for those just starting school.

Jordan Gray reflects on graduating university and his hopes for Black and Indigenous students just starting

Jordan Gray graduated in June 2020 with distinction from at Carleton University. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about Gray's research into Indigenous communities, saying it made 'Carleton and Canada proud.' (Submitted by Jordan Gray)

Most students don't picture the prime minister celebrating them in front of their class when they graduate university. Neither did I, until it happened.

On June 10, in a televised address to the class of 2020, Justin Trudeau acknowledged that my research with marginalized communities and presentations at the United Nations made "Carleton and Canada proud."

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When I graduated from Carleton University in June, my academic journey included presenting Indigenous research on three continents and earning six research awards.

Jordan Gray presented research in five different countries during his undergraduate studies. In 2019, he presented at the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. (United Nations Photo )

For me, these achievements weren't just academic, but a symbol of resistance against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous narratives that all young Black and Indigenous students deserve to see.

I know, because I am one. And I have experienced the painful consequences of racial assumptions my entire life. 

Growing up Black and Indigenous

Growing up in Mississauga, Ont., I went to school with the constant fear of the hate that accompanied being Black and Indigenous, knowing that if I admitted to descending from a Trinidadian mother and a Mi'kmaw father I would invite that hate onto myself.

To avoid anti-Indigenous assumptions in school I didn't often tell people I was Mi'kmaw, but my visual appearance made anti-Black discrimination impossible to avoid.

Gray says he found his voice in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. In high school, he was named most outstanding student and class valedictorian. (Submitted by Jordan Gray)

Other students would call predominantly Black neighbourhoods "unsafe" or "sketchy." When teachers spoke about Indigenous peoples, it was as if we were mythical, only living on far away "troubled" reserves. 

The narrative I learned was that Black and Indigenous men were poor, criminals, drug addicts, abusers — but never just students.

As a Peel District School Board student, regular attempts were made to put me and the handful of students with black or brown skin into an English-as-a-second-language class. My first language is English.

When my mother confronted teachers, they responded with lines like, "He may be more comfortable there."

By the age of eight, my schooling had taught me that people with black or brown skin did not belong in regular classes.

My mother called out racial discrimination several more times before moving me to the local Catholic board in 2009. Though racial discrimination remained, I was allowed to read what everyone else was reading and my grades quickly improved. 

Exploring words like colonialism, institutional racism, and oppression while in high school helped me to understand the history that impacted my lived racialized reality. To explore even further, I decided to pursue a university degree in history.

Gray says he wanted to change assumptions about Black and Indigenous people, so he made that the focus of his research. (Dominique Marshall )

Racism on campus

I didn't expect it to be easy to get my degree. I knew from the books I was made to read, and the examples I was taught to follow from kindergarten to high school, that Indigenous or Black men's perspectives were rarely included.

When I arrived on campus, I wanted to change that, and I focused my research on bringing forth a diverse range of racialized experiences that challenged outdated opinions.

Carleton graduate calls for action to fight racial stereotypes

3 years ago
Duration 1:16
Carleton University graduate Jordan Gray reflects on his academic career and how he hopes to inspire other Black and Indigenous students. 

But for myself and my ideas to belong, I first had to overcome anti-Black and anti-Indigenous assumptions that deterred people who look like me from thriving in university.

During my first major research project into Mi'kmaq pre-contact storytelling, I attended a public workshop on preparing to present research. Visibly white students and guests were greeted with "welcome" or "thanks for coming," but when it was my turn to enter I was physically stopped and asked, "Can I help you?"

Again my schooling had taught me that those with black or brown skin are effortlessly singled out and deemed unworthy of contributing to learning.

Jordan Gray writes that as a Black and Indigenous student he didn't expect it to be easy to get his degree. Having graduated, he shares his experiences with discrimination throughout his school years, and why it matters to those just starting now. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Rewriting the narrative

I did not let that experience deter me. I worked hard to have my research included in academic conferences to show that Black and Indigenous people are not only worthy of being in university but that academia is better with us.

My success in university has not changed that there is still a need for us all, particularly non-Black and non-Indigenous peoples, to stomp out negative racial assumptions at every level of our schooling.

Yet, I hope my story shows Black and Indigenous students embarking on their paths that we have a place in academia. We have words that matter and perspectives that are worthy of sharing.

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Jordan Gray graduated from Carleton University's Global and International Studies program with a specialization in history this spring. He now works as a policy advisor with the federal government to advance Canada's reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.