Cullors and Khan visited the Netherlands mid-December to talk about racism in various cultural centers. During their talk in De Balie, they added another point to their agenda: “We’re here to recruit you for our movement.”
What are the differences between Black Lives Matter in the United States and in Canada?
Janaya Khan (CAN): “Some of the major things that stand out for me are that we are fighting for all people of African descent, our organizing models, coalition building and the myth of the racial haven of Canada. A big difference between the USA and Canada is that no one identifies as a black-Canadian. We identify as Haitian, Congolese, etc. There’s a relationship to your African roots, because Canada reserves itself for whiteness and white people reserve Canadian identities for themselves. Black people in Canada aren’t fighting for freedom just in Canada alone. When you live in a place like Canada, which is directly besides the United States, there’s an idea that the United States’ treatment of African-Americans or black people is somehow exceptional to everywhere else. But that is the reality for black people all over the world.
Slavery in Canada is not something people often talk about
Another thing that is significantly different is that we understood that we were never going to have a completely black national movement because of our population difference. Out of the 35 or so million people that exist in Canada, we make up for 2.9 percent of the population. We had to look at coalition building and solidarity from the beginning. We did this with native folks. The ways that native folks in Canada are treated are some of the most dehumanizing experiences you can imagine. As a movement of black people, we can’t ignore that.
Lastly, there is the myth of Canada as safe haven. This is a very pervasive idea that Canada is the land slaves escaped to, in order to be free. That type of shared history doesn’t look at the fact that this actually went both ways. The idea that Canada is not as bad as the USA has made it a very uphill battle for us in terms of challenging racism in Canada. Slavery in Canada is not something people often talk about. Our histories have always been in sync.”
What needs to happen to show that racism is a serious problem in Canada?
Janaya Khan (CAN): “The creation of data is one of our major fights. The federal government is not mandated to collect information on the massive incarceration rates of black people. Particularly the last 10 years where there’s been an 80 percent pike increase. It means that the data we actually need to lay out the reality of systematic racism doesn’t exist. The data that does exist looks at our personal information. If there wasn’t that fervent belief that somehow Canada is better than the USA perhaps the data would be there.”
Black Lives Matter Canada has worked with other groups from the start. When we look at the US we see a lot of active Afro-Americans. Are there other groups involved in Black Lives Matter USA?
Patrisse Cullors (USA): “We have developed solidarity with many groups. We have improved our relationship with the native communities inside the USA since the recent event in Standing Rock (native tribe refuses oil pipeline, ed.). Our work has been in deep alignment with the undocumented movement, mostly the Latinx movement (gender neutral word for people with Latin-American descent, ed.), and with Muslim communities. We have developed spaces where we talk about solidarity. I think now more than ever we are trying to figure out what the best ways are for our movement to come together.”
How do you uphold the ideals of Black Lives Matter when working with other groups?
Patrisse Cullors (USA): “I believe we must focus and centre anti-black racism in every single conversation, specifically when we start to do solidarity work. What would happen when we started to do solidarity work was that words like ‘people of color’ were used. It didn’t actually mean black people; it meant everybody else of color, except for black people. In building this new solidarity movement we don’t want to lose the specificities of how anti-black racism impacts every single one of our communities, whether you are white or non-black. Our argument is: ‘If black people get free, everybody else gets free’.”
The documentary Wit is ook een kleur by Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman about white privilege caused a stir in the Netherlands. What do you think of a white woman making a documentary on anti-black racism and white privilege?
Janaya Khan (CAN): “My gut reaction is: good. It’s less annoying than a white rapper, which comes with a lot of other implications. Film isn’t necessarily specific to black people talking about their oppression or their fear. I think if Bergman is using this platform to talk about matters around race, she’s doing what’s been asked of her. It gets tricky, though, if a documentary discusses black issues and black people aren’t in it. As a movement, we are figuring out what our asks and demands are. One of the things that has historically been our demand was white people having conversations about racism with other white people. And that’s happening more, so we are going to see what the implications of this are.”
In addition to praise, there is also criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. By way of response, the hashtag #AllLivesMatter was created. The idea behind the hashtag is that all lives are important, not specifically black lives. There’s also criticism from within the black communities.
What do you think of black people criticizing Black Lives Matter?
Patrisse Cullors (USA): “Right now the criticism we see coming from black people is mostly coming from black, heterosexual men. They think that we have co-opted the movement for the gay-agenda. We are talking about black trans or queer people. They think we don’t talk about black men enough, but when we fight for black transwomen’s lives we fight for theirs as well. They should be joining a movement that is fighting for all black lives. And then there is another set of criticism that we get from black people, which is that we don’t have a vision, that we have very little aim and that we’re just a protest movement.”
People are incapable of answering: ‘What is it that Black Lives Matter does?’
Janaya Khan (CAN): “Nobody has fought harder for black men than Black Lives Matter. I hear a lot of criticism about Black Lives Matter, all the time. But people are incapable of answering: ‘What is it that Black Lives Matter does?’ They have many opinions but they don’t actually know what we do: ‘Oh but you’re on the street and you stop traffic.’ But that’s not what we do, and that’s not necessarily what we stand for. You measure a movement by its goals, values and practices, not necessarily only by its methods.
And when you only know us for the action that we do, are you really an informed enough person to develop an actual opinion? Besides, there’s also misogyny in combination with anti-black racism on how we define leadership. They say: ‘You don’t have any leadership in your movement.’ No, we’re not framing it in the way you understand where there is a singular leader. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any leadership, just because people fail to recognize black women as leaders.”
Patrisse Cullors (USA): “A lot of people are comparing our movement to the sixties and seventies. They ask us: ‘Where’s your leader? Where’s the charismatic leader of this moment?’ What we used to see, or characterize (as a leader) is a black heterosexual, Christian man that is giving us our marching orders. I think there’s this idea that we had to really challenge. We had to show people that this movement is leaderful. That there are many of us on the frontlines saying: ‘Enough is enough.’”
How do you make yourself visible in your activism?
Janaya Khan (CAN): “I went to Charlotte in September when Keith Lamont Scott had been killed by the police. He had a book in his hand and the police said it was a gun. I went out there and I met a woman. She voiced her criticisms to me while we were marching. The militarized police was all over us and it was 2 am in the morning and she chose this moment to have this conversation. ‘My son was killed. But you use these tactics I don’t agree with. And why are you saying black lives matter in black communities?’, she said. It was such a fascinating and incredible moment to have this conversation in this context. I was able to interrupt a lot of the misconceptions she had. There’s a lot of misinformation on what Black Lives Matter is and what it does. We are looking at the very same systemic issues. The idea that black people hold themselves responsible for that is how anti-black racism has formed us culturally and socially. We are fighting for the same thing, we just use a different route.”
The election of Donald Trump as future president of the US has been one of the most defining moments of 2016. What does his election mean for your movement?
Patrisse Cullors (USA): We’re up against a great enemy. It’s not just Trump as a president, but it’s an entire administration that he’s building. Many of us have no idea what it’s going to look like in the next four years. The Obama administration really created the dynamic that had people believing we are in a post-racial society. It pushed a lot of folks to have to talk more clearly about how we were in a post-racial society, and we still had to talk about black people and anti-black racism. And then Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown were killed. It exposed: “Oh look this country is still deeply racist”.
Janaya Khan (CAN): “The entire system has failed black people and was very successful for white and non-black people in different ways.”
You can watch the lecture by Patrisse Cullors and Janaya Khan in De Balie here.