“Working while black” means working for less money and with fewer opportunities because of individual and systemic racism, but that’s not all. As the featured panelists at the OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus Black History Month forum made clear, working while black also means living with mental distress and trauma.
“The microaggressions and obliviousness that we face in the workplace, each and every day, make us start to question our sanity,” said panelist Donna Alexander, an OPSEU member and social worker in the Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean-origin Youth at CAMH (Center for Addiction and Mental Health). “And we can’t speak out about it because then we’re ‘not approachable’, or ‘too aggressive’, or ‘too loud’.
“There’s no organized support for the trauma we experience because of workplace racism, and that has to change,” she said. “We need to be talking about this. We need to be gathering data. We need to be organizing.”
Alexander was just one of three featured panelists during the event, which was called “Promoting Health Equity in Racialized Communities.” Organized by the OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus, the panel coincided with Black History Month and the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent.
The other speakers echoed Alexander’s call for an organized response to trauma that black workers experience on the job.
Akilah Haneef-Jabari, Senior Public Engagement and Education Advisor for the provincial government’s Anti-Racism Directorate, was blunt about conditions for black workers in the Ontario Public Service.
“It’s difficult to believe how much racism there is in the OPS,” said Haneef-Jabari. “Black women in the OPS are going through hell, and black men in the OPS … well, they’re not even getting hired.”
But Haneef-Jabari encouraged the audience not to give up hope.
She said that through organizing and activism, change will come, pointing to the group of black women in the OPS who spoke up last month about the high number of black workers being suspended after filing harassment complaints.
As a result of the women’s actions, the Ontario government put a moratorium on suspensions of employees and has said that it will independently review harassment and discrimination policies, among other actions.
“Thank goodness for those women who stood up and spoke through their pain and trauma,” she said. “You want to talk about black history? That was black history in the making. Those women are making change.”
Working inside government at Queen’s Park, Haneef-Jabari said that she’s seen first-hand how quickly politicians respond to letters of complaint from their constituents, particularly when they come in large numbers.
“We need to get organized,” she said. “We need to make noise. We need to vote.”
The panel’s final speaker said that she knows how powerful community organizing can be because of the success her group, the Jane Finch Action against Poverty, has had organizing the communities at Jane and Finch.
“We fought for 10 years against having police officers in our schools, criminalizing our youth. And we won,” said Butterfly Sabrina Gopaul, an OPSEU member and Community Health Worker at the Black Creek Community Health Centre. The Jane Finch Action against Poverty was instrumental in the recent removal of Student Resource Officers from TDSB schools.
Gopaul also pointed to the passage of Bill 148 as a significant victory for community activism.
“In our neighbourhood, there are more than 200 temp agencies. The people working for them are incredibly precarious and usually earn less than minimum wage,” she said.
Since Bill 148 makes it illegal to pay temporary employees less than permanent employees, Gopaul says “it could end up being a huge victory for our neighbourhood.”
"The panelists at OPSEU’s Black History Month event emphasized the need to organize when 'working while black,'" said Peter Thompson, Chair of the Workers of Colour Caucus. "This means not only taking care of ourselves and each other by mobilizing formal support networks, but honoring the legacy of activism in the past and present, so we can imagine and realize a different future."