Black community’s opposition to Intersectionality Awareness Week was not about identity – it was about a vision for the city that should imagine us all
When Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam floated a petition and proposal for the establishment of “Intersectionality Awareness Week” earlier this month, I was among a group of Black academics, activists and professionals who signed a letter calling for its withdrawal.
The motion, says Wong-Tam, was proposed as a “first step to help City Council and city staff better understand the experiences that shape the lives of Black, Indigenous and other racialized individuals in Toronto.” We saw it as an empty gesture since the issues the proposal sought to draw attention to (and presumably change) remain stubbornly avoided by our city council.
From transit and housing, to policing and health services, Toronto city councillors, including the most progressive among them, have refused to put the most disadvantaged – that would be Black people – first.
Few have pushed back hard enough against a John Tory budget that will further eviscerate the lives of the most deprived among us.
In reality, if councillors and bureaucrats were doing their jobs, we would not need such a week.
The response to our protestations were equally revealing.
Those who rushed to criticize the letter as “the left eating the left,” or as an attack on allyship, miss the mark.
Signatories to the letter come from diverse backgrounds. Some are immigrants. Some were born here. Some are queer and trans – we share many of those identities with Wong-Tam, who is Toronto’s only openly gay councillor.
But the letter’s signatories are also Black, and we know what that means in the city of Toronto today.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Wong-Tam’s motion given the challenges faced by Black people in Toronto and with City Hall over a number of issues, including racial profiling and the recent findings of the coroner’s inquest into the police shooting death of another Black man, Andrew Loku.
The proposal is also not in keeping with the profound meaning of the term “intersectionality” coined and given analytical heft by American civil rights activist, legal scholar and feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Instead, Wong-Tam’s motion, which she says was the brainchild of “a dynamic young, LGBTQ2S+ racialized woman working with my office,” reduced intersectionality to an amalgamation of differences residing in one body, a kind of individual multiculturalism. It missed the now broader and more nuanced understanding of the term – not to mention the Black feminist and labour movements that inspired it.
Wong-Tam’s insistence that Crenshaw offered her blessing to the idea does not make criticism of the proposal any less valid.
Black folks who navigate multiple oppressions and for whom intersectionality is a way of life in the city were not consulted. Was Crenshaw summoned as the authentic Black person versus our inauthentic Blackness?
By withdrawing the motion Wong-Tam did the right and ethical thing. Toronto is not ready for such a week.
Councillors who care about the idea of intersectionality should work hard to use those ideas to frame, shape and inform policy rather than announce a week of high-profile speeches, receptions and activities with partner universities while Black people at the north and west of the city cannot find adequate public transit into the city core to participate in said activities.
The stingy politics of recognition make it seem that Black people must be grateful each time a piecemeal acknowledgment of our contributions is offered up.
But as voting rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’m sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives.”
Indeed, there are many symbolic days and weeks announced by the city each year. Chief among those are Black History Month, and yet Black people in this city cannot get a clear answer from the Mayor on the police practice of carding or on how he will fix the Toronto Community Housing repairs deficit. These are matters that require an informed intersectional approach because we know that Black people are disproportionally disadvantaged in all these areas.
Our opposition to Intersectionality Awareness Week was not a contest about identity. It was about a vision for the city that should imagine us all.
In 1993, Black people in this city rose up in protest against the staging of the musical Show Boat.
Back then, Harvard African American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was invited and hired by Garth Drabinsky to write a guide on viewing Show Boat.
The guide was meant to quash Black protest over the staging of Show Boat at a publicly-funded theatre. NourbeSe Philip (who wrote Showing Grit, a self-published critique of the production) and the late Austin Clarke (who in a debate with Gates reminded him he had taught him at Yale) staged their own kind of protests.
This is not 1993, but we Black folks have a responsibility to the future that includes taking on those who claim to represent us and making them listen to us and put into place frameworks, policies, practices and procedures that fundamentally understand Black life as mattering in this city.
If that’s not happening, we will be meeting you on the street, at City Hall, in the Twittersphere and anywhere else for you to hear our disapproval.
Rinaldo Walcott is Director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto.
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