‘Anti-Black racism is a crisis’: University of Toronto scholar imagines a freer society

Robyn Maynard, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Women and Gender Studies Institute, has studied – and participated in – social movements committed to Black and Indigenous liberation for more than a decade (photo by Stacy Lee Photography)

For scholars and activists like Robyn Maynard, our current reckoning with anti-Black racism is long overdue – and not just in the United States.

The protests that erupted around the world following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last year also served to raise awareness of anti-Black racism and structural inequities in Canada, a country that has long celebrated its multicultural approach.

But Maynard says the existence of anti-Blackness should not have come as a revelation to anyone.

“We have been pointing this out for generations,” says Maynard, a Vanier scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute.

Maynard, who has studied – and participated in – social movements committed to Black and Indigenous liberation for more than 10 years, recently won the Talent Award, one of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council 2020 Impact Awards, which celebrate the achievements of Canada’s top leaders, thinkers and researchers. The award will fund her dissertation project on how anti-Blackness intersects with borders, detentions, deportations and the other kinds of harms that constitute Black people’s global experience.

Eve Tuck, Maynard’s research supervisor, says Maynard is perfectly positioned to do her research on Black peoples’ collective struggle against border enforcement and displacement.

“She combines her skills as an organizer and as a scholar to ask questions that can lead to meaningful change in the lives of Black migrants and their collaborators,” says Tuck, an associate professor of critical race and Indigenous studies at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“Maynard is a generous and compelling writer, a thoughtful and committed reader, and an insightful and imaginative theorist.”

Maynard, who is also a sessional instructor at U of T Mississauga, says Canada needs to address its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the mass criminalization of Black individuals. Educators, she adds, should specifically cover the history of anti-Black racism in Canada in their courses, as opposed to presenting it as a purely American phenomenon.

“Right now students are being denied the actual history of their country,” Maynard says. “It’s really important to remove any discourse that would render invisible the Canadian state’s involvement in anti-Blackness.

“Anti-Black racism is a crisis – has been a crisis for 400 years. Now we’re starting to see a broader public understanding of that reality.”

Maynard’s comments come as organizations throughout North America have pledged to work harder to address systemic anti-Black racism. U of T, for example, launched an Anti-Black Racism Task Force last September and hosted the National Dialogues and Action for Inclusive Higher Education and Communities. The initiative brought nearly 60 universities and colleges in Canada together to discuss and address anti-Black racism in higher education.

For Black History Month, Maynard says it’s also crucial for people to think about the large numbers of Black incarcerated people who are under lockdown as a result of the pandemic and to push for their immediate relase – part of a broader effort to defund and dismantle carceral institutions and build safer alternatives for the community.

“We know that in prisons in Canada, Black people are very disproportionately represented,” Maynard says. “There has been a total abandonment of Black and Indigenous prisoners – and all prisoners – during this health crisis.

“It’s so damning of our society and what it stands for.”

Maynard’s award-winning book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, published in 2017 by Fernwood Publishing, returned to bestseller lists last year amid the surging attention to anti-Black violence in Canada and the U.S. The book explores the “nearly 400 years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punishment of Black lives in Canada.”

Maynard’s abolitionist work continues today, with her research shedding light on the ways Canada can move towards ending the anti-Black racism that she says is endemic to its policing.

Maynard co-runs Building the World We Want, an online resource-sharing platform that aims to build a world without surveillance, police and incarceration. She recently published on the site “A Roadmap to Police Free Futures,” a document that explains the movement to defund the police and outlines community organizing strategies.

“The role that policing plays in our society is itself a kind of harm,” Maynard says. “We are seeing a very powerful, vital and transformative shift toward the idea of abolishing the police and carceral systems.”

In “Police Abolition/Black Revolt,” a recent paper published in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Maynard argues for divesting police funding and redirecting billions of dollars of social wealth, and highlights that this is part of a longer arc of the Black radical tradition.

Maynard says educators and educational institutions have an important role to play, too, including by hiring more permanent Black faculty and engaging critically with students on current events.

She says she spent the pandemic exchanging letters with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an Indigenous activist, academic and fellow mother. They wrote to one another about abolition and anti-colonialism, the multiple crises of the pandemic, Black social protest and recent triumphs of community organizing.

The intimate dialogue will be published as a book in 2022 by Knopf Canada, honouring the past efforts of activists while imagining a more just future.

“We were trying to commune with each other in a difficult and isolating time,” Maynard says, “to think together about what it means to get free.”

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