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Systemic racism: trying to make sense of it all

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When you hear the words “systemic racism,” what comes to your mind? For many, it’s been an afterthought, because they have never had to experience it before. Unfortunately, for racialized communities, particularly Black people, systemic racism is a pandemic that has been affecting us for generations.

Notice how I said “us.” I’m a racialized person. All of my life, I’ve been told that, through hard work and perseverance, a person can achieve anything they want. That is not entirely true, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Recently, OPSEU held a teletown hall for its members so they could receive a better understanding of what our racialized brothers and sisters go through in their personal and professional lives on a daily basis. The panel consisted of OPSEU staff and members who have experienced the effects of systemic racism and what they’ve done to cope with it. Two sessions were provided, and it was also a safe space for members to ask questions and for panellists to provide their thoughts on what the membership and OPSEU could do to provide solidarity for racialized members.

To be perfectly honest, as a Black person, I didn’t expect anything out of the teletown hall. I thought it was a good gesture on the part of OPSEU to provide members with a platform to speak their minds on an issue that has always plagued the Black community. What I did take away, though, is that there is an underlying sense of disappointment and frustration amongst some racialized members, because we’ve never felt included.

For example, right after the town hall, I spoke with a local president and a board member to get their perspectives. For transparency, both of these members are Caucasian but have fought so that our racialized members haven’t been left behind. What I took from the conversations –and some of the panellists alluded to it – is that members need to become more involved in the operation of the union.

Let me be clear: To say to just become involved is one thing, but for real change to occur, I’ve found there hasn’t been enough support put behind members to actually get into positions that can really shape how inclusive OPSEU is. This goes back to my opening point about hard work and perseverance. Even through all of the hard work, when push comes to shove, it’s always been the same old status quo. Organizational politics, by no means exclusive to OPSEU, historically prevents substantive change. This has been a societal problem which has been brought to light again because of everything that has been happening with COVID-19 and police misconduct.

Here’s the tricky part: Black people do not want a handout. We want to be treated as equals to the rest of our peers. That has always been and will always be the goal. I understand the politics. I don’t want a position to be filled because of the colour of my skin. I want the position because people I work with know that I’m capable of handing the responsibilities of the position.

My impression has been that Region 5, which is made up of the most diverse members in OPSEU, has always been looked upon to set the trend in terms of getting racialized members more involved. What about the other regions? Again, this is not an attack on anyone. Racialized members have legitimately questioned this for years. I understand that visible minorities tend to live in the more urban areas of the province, but that shouldn’t dissuade racialized members in rural areas to find out how they can take charge in their respective locals and regions. Unfortunately, this is an example of our own systemic racism, and our members feel it every day.

I’m a chief steward in my local. I’ve worked hard to gain support and trust from the members in my local, yet there are some days I get the feeling it’s still not enough.In meetings with members or employers, I feel like they are questioning my knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement and whether I’m educated enough to properly address their concerns with the employer. It feels like, for me as a Black member, there is no such thing as “benefit of the doubt” – as though people are just waiting for me to screw up. But I keep pushing forward, because that’s what we, as Black people, have had to do. Unfortunately, these are examples of our own systemic racism, and our members feel it every day.

If anyone would like to share their thoughts with me, please feel free to reach out. Let’s have some tough conversations, because that’s the only way things are going to change for the better.

With love and solidarity,
Michael Hamilton