Black Graduations and the Importance of Representation

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BY: KABRENA ROBINSON

As a newly landed international student from Jamaica, I was consumed with excitement being able to pursue my goal of becoming a qualified journalist at an accredited Canadian institution. While I was ready for the classroom, I couldn’t prepare myself for the culture shock I was about to experience: I was the only black individual in my program.

This reality had me uneasy for my first two years of college, as I was often hesitant to communicate with my peers and professors- a common experience among black Canadian students. In learning spaces provided for us to excel, we are visible minorities.

There is no secret that the marginalization and social obstacles faced by people of color in Canada reflect greatly on their inaccessibility to higher educational opportunities. Most institutions within Canada pride themselves on upholding a standard of ‘diversity’ among students, but the reality is very different; racial variety in most Canadian schools is lacking.

Black students have however taken the first step in correcting this issue. In order to celebrate the excellence of black students, the first Black Graduation Ceremony in Canada was held. The event hosted at Hart House on the UofT downtown campus on June 22nd was aimed at acknowledging the barriers that remain for people of color pursuing academia according to the organizers.

The ceremony included black graduates of undergraduate, Masters or Ph.D. programs from all three of the University of Toronto’s campuses. The celebratory event was a successful one, with inspiring keynote speeches from Toronto journalist Huda Hassan and Dr. Akua Benjamain- both prominent and excelling in their various fields.  This perfectly mirrored the purpose of the occasion which was the importance of black representation.

The room echoed with the powerful sentiments of keynote speaker Dr. Benjamin.

“Many of these institutions must recognize you exist and you had to overcome many barriers to get in,” she said in her address to the graduates.  “Education is part of our resistance and we carry that germ of resistance within us. We carry resistance in our DNA.”

This celebration was a necessary and important event, one that we should have the pleasure of indulging in more often as the elephant well pronounced in the room is that black students continue to be underrepresented and marginalized in tertiary spaces.

The number of black students in universities has historically been low compared to the number of black people in the GTA. The absence of black graduates later results in underrepresentation of black people in workspaces and also as educators and mentors in academic institutions. The City of Toronto recently released a report stating that the unemployment rate among black residents stood at 13%, about twice the provincial average.

This is based off a systemic societal condition that restricts possibilities for black educational advancements due to mostly financial constraints and even contacts with police and other experiences with racial profiling and discrimination.

Earlier this year, The Toronto Star featured the story of Brampton native Chika Oriuwa, the only one in her class of 259 first-year medical students at the University of Toronto who identifies as black. Following that revelation, the University announced an initiative aimed at boosting the chronically low number of black students who apply to medical school and go on to become doctors. This along with the institution’s receptiveness of the Black Graduation Celebration is a progressive step towards much-needed diversity in universities and colleges across Canada.

The Black Graduation ceremony was a reminder to the graduates, other black students in Canada and even me that we are capable of excellence despite the barriers that exist restricting us from navigating our way to great heights in education. When black students are able to overcome and resist, it is necessary to celebrate.

A highly commendable step has been taken to inspire and empower black students and the work must continue as more long-term efforts to eliminate barriers for black students in educational institutions is a pressing dilemma. The hope is that more universities will emulate this progress.

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