Canada’s First Black Graduation Ceremony Was Pure Joy

While the event celebrated the achievements of University of Toronto students, organizers are hopeful of starting a movement across campuses.

by Sarah Hagi
Jun 23 2017, 7:22pm

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Growing up black in Canada is a unique experience. For me, because Canada prided itself so deeply on itself for not having "American" style melting-pot problems. Over and over, I would hear the words "cultural mosaic" to describe how great our stance on racial and ethnic diversity was. Because we "embraced" our differences, we were told this was the same as them being celebrated. While a fantastic sentiment, the reality is that it wasn't always the case.

As I got older, I realized that the "cultural mosaic" platitude served as more of a way to embrace the good and ignore the bad. When I started getting old enough to understand situations as being racist, each experience was seen by white people as a one-off experience instead of a symptom of an issue that wasn't addressed. So many times, I've been told, "Well at least we're not American," as though somehow racism would feel differently if I crossed an imaginary line into another country.

Because so much of North American discourse surrounding blackness focuses on a very American experience, many of our own issues are either ignored or put to the wayside. Speaking to other black students throughout my own schooling, it almost feels like everyone else had the same experience. We always felt we weren't able to speak to our own unique experiences or challenges as black Canadians, because we were made to feel like they didn't exist. And while this isn't news to any black person I know, recent studies show that our experiences weren't exaggerated.

According to a report released April 2017 by York University's Faculty of Education, black students in Ontario experience an inordinate amount of barriers at a young age. About 42 percent of all black students have been suspended at least once by the time they finished high school. Not only that, but only 53 percent of black students were encouraged to take academic classes that put them on the path of university, in comparison to 80 percent of their white counterparts. Most troublingly, the report echoed exactly the same experience many black students I know have expressed—that individuals were told by their school boards that, "these incidents were not connected to anti-black racism in the school system, but were instead 'isolated incidents.'"

The report again confirmed what so many of us know, that academic success is a hurdle for black kids in Canada. So when I heard of the University of Toronto's black graduation ceremony — I was thrilled — even though many (as seen in online comments and conservative op-eds) were not.

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First reported by the Toronto Star, the celebration organized by two black graduates, Nasma Ahmed and Jessica Kirk, was created as a way to celebrate black academic success. It's believed to be the first of its kind in Canada. Reading the comments on Twitter, it was clear many white Canadians didn't share that feeling. People with Canadian flag avatars and flag emojis in their names left comments like, "If U of T was hosting a White graduation ceremony these same people would be out side [sic] protesting in outrage, double standard much?" Others compared the celebration to racial segregation. Ultimately, the celebration was framed as antithetical to Canadian values.

Speaking to both Ahmed and Kirk, the Thursday's was born out of seeing similar celebrations in the United States and wanting to bring that same celebration of black achievement north. "The biggest inspiration for all was to celebrate black students," Ahmed who is graduating with a bachelor of Arts degree in public policy and city studies, told me. "We all had a pretty tough time in university and we wanted to have an opportunity to celebrate people who were graduating and doing amazing work."

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For them, this experience was important not only because it's uplifting to the black community, but because the black community has done so much for other black students. Kirk, who graduated with bachelor of science in psychology told me, "We want to make sure this [the help of the black community] was recreated in their final steps of graduating university."

Most importantly for both organizers, this celebration isn't going to end with that one day—but will hopefully spark a movement. "Obviously, we hope this tradition continues," Kirk tells me. And not just for the University of Toronto, but for campuses all across Canada. "We're also having conversations with the university around meaningful ways of continuing support for students. We want to think about sustainability in the larger sense." This means supporting the unique challenges black students may face, not only during their postsecondary careers but before as well.

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Attending the event as someone with no ties to anyone graduating, I couldn't help feel a strong sense of pride the same way I do when a black person wins an Oscar. The 90 students, from undergraduates to people who've received their PhD, were beaming — not only because of their achievements, but because they were around so many people who've shared their experience at a school where they told me they've been the only black person in their class.

The organizers explained to me this had nothing to do with showing white people anything. Both emphasized this had nothing to do with the white gaze, but was purely a celebration for black students. Still, a part of me felt triumphant. Regardless of what any assholes online said, they couldn't take away from the pure joy and atmosphere of celebration. These graduates worked their asses off and nobody was going to ruin their success.

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