Young activists talk about resilience, community, and the importance of speaking out
*Content warning: this article contains retellings of racist incidents
Recently, Mount Allison professor Dr. Rima Azar’s blog has come to light. In this blog, Azar states her views on racism, colonialism, and environmental justice among other topics. Helen Yao, a third-year Mt. A student has been addressed by name in these posts. Husoni Raymond, a recent St. Thomas graduate, is also addressed. Since this story has blown up, Raymond and Yao have been on the receiving end of media attention. Both have been featured in news articles and subsequently have received some unwanted attention on social media. The following is an edited transcript of an interview between the Argosy’s editor-in-chief (AMF), Helen Yao (HY), and Husoni Raymond (HR).
AMF: Recently, there’s been a blog, that has some gotten some attention, that raises the question as to whether structural racism is real or not. What’s your response to that?
HR: Well I think specifically, to the claims made in the blog, I think I just don’t see the logic behind it. I think one Black person winning an award does not mean racism has been eradicated, or prove that racism has been eradicated. There’s still racism in so many other forms. We can point to disparity in healthcare outcomes in Canada for Black and Indigenous people, the overrepresentation of racialized people within the criminal justice system, the criminalization of racialized communities and criminalization of poverty.
You have racism in healthcare. Even as simple as pain medication prescriptions. Like I had my wisdom teeth extracted earlier this year and I was prescribed pain medication and when I went to the pharmacist she told me that I should take less because I was Black. But I was still feeling pain and when I did research about it I couldn’t find anything to justify Black people having a higher pain tolerance or a higher reaction to Tylenol. But what I did find was that Black people are often undiagnosed for pain or given less pain medication because they’re seen as being more resilient, more tolerant to pain. And that’s an idea that comes from slavery, that justifies the enslavement of Black people and the uses of Black people in a lot of medical experiment throughout time.
So again, I think me winning an award to demonstrate there’s no racism—without actually knowing my experience—is ludicrous to say the least.
HY: I think, again, a main issue I take with [the] blog is that it makes the conflation between the personal and the social. She seems to think that if she can pick out individual instances that somehow contradicts the lived experiences of people and statistical evidence that points otherwise. So, I think that’s a really dangerous assumption to make. And it’s especially dangerous for a psychological professional to think that way. That somehow her accounts discount a bigger structural issue. The way she has approached the discussion about structural oppression and structural racism on her blog really concerns me.
AMF: What’s it like to be named in a blog? Husoni, you were named in a National Post article by a pretty well-known media personality in Canada, and there has been a lot of backlash about that on twitter… Helen, you were mentioned by CHMA and there has been some talk on Twitter about that as well – not naming you by name by referring to you as the “student” named in the article. So, personally, what’s it like to get all that negative attention?
HY: I guess it’s a bit surprising to me. For the most part, a lot of the stuff in the blog is just about me speaking at the climate strike and me organizing as part of Divest. Like, I didn’t really expect for a lot of people to pick up on that. I guess when I first saw it I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that the stuff I did had that much of an impact. People are mad about it…” At first I didn’t really expect it. Overall though, the reaction that I received could be much worse… I guess we’ll see what happens going forward.
One thing I’m overall concerned with when it comes to the university community is that I feel a lot of people are being emboldened by this. That as this whole thing unfolds, we’re seeing more trolls trying to comment on Divest [‘s posts]. In the last few days people have been trying to go after us. Obviously, the National Post article really sparked a lot of people to want to comment and say really disgusting things. I think a lot of people in the community could become really emboldened. Like the alt-right people who didn’t want to, or didn’t feel comfortable, expressing their views will see this as an opportunity for them to do so. That particularly affects marginalized students.
HR: Well I guess that it’s just the sad nature of being in this type of work in a white supremacist state. As soon as you talk about racism there’s a lot of people who try to deny it, try to gaslight you even though it’s your literal personal experience that you’re talking about. So, it’s not something that’s particularly new.
A couple of years ago, when I just came here and I spoke about the prevalence of racial stereotypes in New Brunswick and my experience with that as a newcomer… when I came here I was still being subjected to racial stereotypes, someone called me the n-word on campus in my first year, there was no celebration for Black history month… I decided to speak up about that and I ended up in a CBC article.
I feel like at that time, I was more devastated about the response I received because I was a second-year student. People were commenting, “Why don’t you go home?”, “It’s not as bad as the United States, you’re not getting lynched – why are you complaining?” At that time, I took it more personally. I was like, “Everyone hates me, I’m just causing trouble. I should be quiet about it because I don’t want to face this kind of public attention so I should just keep being subjected to this kind of racial violence and not say anything.” But then I decided to continue speaking up against what I think is not right and that I think needs more attention and needs to be addressed.
Being quoted in that [National Post] article prompted even more people reaching out to more a part from folks who were commenting on my tweets. People actually sent me personal messages saying, and I quote “Hey way to go. You made it into an article celebrating the destruction of someone with a different opinion than you. You sound like a horrible awful human being with authoritarianism written all over you. All you see is race. Absolutely disgusting.” So, you get all these personal messages and it just takes a really thick skin to know that what you said is right and that this is just a part of that very difficult work… it goes much deeper than [a difference of opinion]. That person tried to erase the experiences of a lot of racialized people here and that continues to pose a barrier to social justice and social inclusion. If the narrative that there’s no racism here continues to persist, then no resources, no attention will be drawn to it for us to actually develop solution and implement strategies, and reimagine systems that are inclusive. So just her simple denial of racism and mentioning me in that post can inflict harm upon our communities.
It’s emotionally draining to experience this kind of bullying and harassment for standing up for what’s right but at the same time it’s just the harsh reality that you must persist but just knowing the legacy of Black resistance around the world. My ancestors survived slavery, they started revolutions, independent, emancipation, segregation, discrimination by the state and they still persisted. So, that’s just a part of the journey- it’s just a continuation of the centuries long struggle for Black liberation that I have to endure.
AMF: How are you taking care of yourself dealing with all this?
HR: For me it’s just about trying to stay organized, trying to stay in the right mindset, not being drained. Trying to say no sometimes. And I think trying to put in your routine – trying to make sure to eat, trying to make sure to stretch or exercise if that’s something that you do. Or trying to find time for yourself… try to prioritize whatever brings you calm and peace. Also, what keeps me from burning out is reminding myself why I continue to be a part of this work…. it’s the dream and the hope that in however long it takes Black people will be truly liberated and have the right to self-determination. They’ll be racial equality. They’ll be the dismantling of capitalism so people won’t have to be working five jobs to make ends meet – which is predominantly, again, racialized community’s that are subjected to this kind of capitalistic violence. It’s the hope that one day the future generations won’t have to go through the same experience that I’ve witnessed and I’ve had to go through myself.
HY: That’s kind of what I was thinking too. I think to myself – these people [internet harassers] wouldn’t want to see me happy. They wouldn’t want to see me in a good place and thriving. They’ll be mad to see me doing well and so I’m going to do well. That’s the best way to not let it get to me. I think they want to let it get to me and to be scared and be silent, so I’m not going to give them that satisfaction. I also now try to not engage with people as much…. We used to try to refute them and tell them why they’re wrong an explain to them. And I also did my share of replying So, the best thing is to just disengage and de-platform them… I’ve been trying to disengage and focus on doing thing that I know is valuable. And my existence is valuable and worthy… community is really important to me personally. A lot of what keeps me going as an organizer is focusing on community. I think it’s disingenuous for us as organizers if we think that it’s ourselves against everything. The whole reason we’re organizing is for a better world for everyone and we are doing this because we love our community. We want to believe in the strength of our community. It’s important to learn to share that burden and share the knowledge and experiences with other people who are doing important work. And it’s always encouraging for me to hear from someone who has been organizing longer than me and hear their advice and see them be successful. It’s nice to see people who have been through much harder things still be happy and hopeful. That’s the really beautiful thing – in spite of all the things that happened, we are still hopeful. We still have that resilience. We still want to believe in each other and uphold each other.
I feel like I’m kind of denying what capitalism and white supremacy wants me to think which is that I can’t make a difference, that I’m alone, and that I’m misguided in trying to fight the system. Once the system convinces someone that there’s nothing they can do to change it- that’s when the system has won. So, I think that hope is important.
As per an email on Mt. A has launched an internal review process of this situation. The Argosy reached out to Dr. Azar for comment and has not hear back from her as of press. We will continue to monitor and report on this story and any new developments.