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Vinita Srivastava: From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’m Vinita Srivastava.
Roberta Timothy: Colonization is a key feature to the development and myth of Canada and it continues to create policies and practices that have treated Black and Indigenous folks and other racialized, or what I say, purposefully marginalized folks, unequal or not fairly.
VS: I started my conversations with today’s guest, Roberta Timothy, about a year ago at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roberta is a health and human rights researcher, but her work is not just theoretical. As a therapist and activist, she’s intimately connected to her community. She says there are many reasons for health disparities. Some of these are historical, some are social. These are called the social determinants of health. Roberta was definitely not alone at the start of the pandemic when she highlighted the fatal consequences of not dealing with these factors earlier. In this episode, she reflects back on the year and explains why racial justice is a public health issue. Roberta also talks about her new international health project, Black Health Matters. She’s a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Here is our conversation.
VS: We think about Canada as the land of equity, you all have public health care so what’s the issue? Isn’t everybody treated equally within the health care system?
RT: That’s a good question. The answer is no. In the Canadian health-care system people are not treated equally. And we have to go back to history and current-day experiences. This is a colonial settler land, Canada. It’s Indigenous land and it was taken from Indigenous communities, from European settlers. And it’s also land that has had African enslavement. So colonization is a key feature to the development and myth of Canada. And it continues to create policies and practices that have treated Black and Indigenous folks and other racialized, or what I say, purposefully marginalized folks, unequal or not fairly. And that means they have not been provided with the same resources, the same access. We have to really start from the beginning of that notion of Canada being equal and Canada being fair. For who are we talking about? Canada as fair and equal, in some incidents, to white folks, to white middle class men mainly, and women to a certain degree. So the health of Canadians is not the same. Look at the disparities that are happening, and we’re talking about within COVID, and even before COVID, the health disparities come directly as a result of colonial violence. So people have not been treated equally.
VS: Both of us are in the city of Toronto and 83 per cent of the people impacted most by COVID-19 are racialized people of colour. And we now know that similar tragic patterns exist across cities, exist across North America. So that means we’re talking about Black communities, South Asian, lower income, Indigenous Peoples. These communities and neighbourhoods have the highest mortality rates. Can you talk about why that is? What are the conditions that make certain communities harder hit?
RT: The conditions that make certain communities harder hit, first of all, is the impact of racism and other intersectional violence. So it’s not a coincidence that Indigenous, Black and South Asian folks are the the highest numbers of COVID, because if you look at before COVID in terms of health disparities, Indigenous, Black, South Asian, racialized and purposefully marginalized folks were already dealing with health disparities.
VS: And I have been wondering myself, why don’t I feel like celebrating when it comes to this vaccine? I don’t feel a sense of relief. And I think it’s partly because of what you’re saying, which is that racialized communities have a reason to be skeptical.
RT: We have over 400 years to be skeptical. First of all, the whole history and current experience of scientific racism, right. Where Black, Indigenous and racialized folks have been tested on by science. There’s so many different examples of particularly Eurocentric science, which is considered mainstream science, which, of course, is a problem, and the detrimental impact on Black, Indigenous and racialized communities. So when we now come to vaccines there is lack of trust of what and who are these vaccines for and how can we trust these vaccines are not going to harm us based on our experience of the medical systems locally and globally that have actually harmed and killed in some ways our communities. So, yes we want a vaccine. Who doesn’t want a vaccine that works for us? I want to take my mask off. I want to go down the road and get a roti and get some fufu. And, you know, I’m good, but I need some commitment that they’re doing some work to try to deal with some of the historical and current day impacts of anti-Black racism and violence and what are they going to do differently regarding this vaccine?
VS: What’s the rollout going to be? And what you’re saying is what you need is an acknowledgement of historical wrongs.
RT: One hundred per cent. I think we need to have a conversation. We can’t just say: hey, Black racialized folks take the vaccine when, in fact, there’s a lot of fear.
VS: As a therapist, you’ve said that you’re seeing a lot of grief come up in your practice.
VS: How have you been seeing grief manifested in the last 10 months? And what kinds of things are you seeing?
RT: As a therapist who does anti-oppression psychotherapy work, who does decolonizing mental health work, who sees mainly BIPOC folks, but other folks also, but comes from an anti-oppresion perspective, grief is something that comes into my office, walks into my office on a daily basis through the clients that I see. The grief from dealing with the daily, daily impacts of racism, anti-Black racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, transphobia, all of these types of violence on a daily, simultaneously happening. So I do want to say that grief is always something that my clients bring into the practice. And I also want to say, as an African-identified woman, grief is something that I also bring into the room. I bring my own grief from the experience of violence and trauma that we’re constantly living with. So now let’s get to the last 10 months. We’ve been dealing with grief in our lives for most of our lives based on our social locations and how this structural violence impacts our world and then a pandemic strikes. And there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of anxiety.
VS: Many of these COVID deaths, potentially, what you’re saying is could have been prevented if the system had been in a better place to have responded.
RT: A hundred percent. Let’s talk locally, when Black community health leaders were saying, hey, we need race-based data in general, even before COVID, people were saying, no, that’s not necessary. We don’t have that issue in Canada. Then, you know, COVID came and we were noticing the numbers were increasing and we were seeing that the also the rates in the states, you know, looking at Brazil right now, looking at India, some U.K. numbers came out, too, and showed that Black and racialized folks were disproportionately being impacted by COVID. So we have been saying this for years and years and years. And the answer to us has always been, well, do you have the stats that racism is impacting our health? And we’ve said we have stats in our community health centres and different organizations, but we don’t have a national type of statistic. And they would say, well, if you don’t have it, that’s what we need. We need some facts. Then when we ask for it, they say, no, we can’t have it. It’s not important. So, we’ve been given so many different messages and this is the impact of anti-Black racism and other types of violence. And then we look at what’s happening today and we see that this is a result of strategic racism. Not having the information and not having the data to actually prove what we already know is happening in our communities because we see them in the work that we do every day is such an act of violence. And for me, I am actually tired of talking about race-based data in a certain way. I was I was getting tired of talking to mainstream organizations and folks in the media about it. And that’s why I’m launching a Black Health Matters COVID-19 project.
VS: So tell me about that. Tell me about Black Health Matters COVID-19.
RT: So this project is a local and global project and it’s basically taking the power back in terms of getting our voices and our own research in this area. We’re creating our own database. The first thing we’re doing is launching a national survey about the impact of COVID-19 on Black folks in Canada and also how people are resisting because fighting back and resistance is really critical to our healing and to the work that we do. We do fight back and we do continue on and it’s really important to understand that. And also talking about intervention strategies, to share the intervention strategies that are working and also to create other ones. I’m really fortunate to be able to be doing a project that actually is based on resistance and based on giving voice to our communities. And this is also a global project because we come from transnational places. So I want to know what’s also happening in U.K. We’re talking with the U.S. We’re talking about the continent, which is huge, but we’re going to certain places and spaces, the Caribbean and Latin America, and that’s going to be the second phase. And we’re also going to be doing focus groups.
VS: You say you are working with a collective, obviously.
RT: Yes, I have a community advisory committee, a national one. We’re creating a global one. And these are amazing mostly Black community members or racialized members who are supporting Black health initiatives. And, you know, it’s such an empowerment centred experience and model that we’re using to create our own data. We have to collect our own data for ourselves in a particular way so that we can actually create the resources, which we’re already doing to deal with this crisis. And the crisis is not only COVID-19, the crisis of anti-Black racism, crisis of intersectional violence and the crisis of continued colonization. I don’t say post-colonial when the impact of being a Black person in this country and this world still, you know, still results in health disparities. You know, high Black maternal health rates, high COVID rates, high chance of being killed by the police or being racially profiled in a store anywhere we go. So this all connects to me to grief and also dealing within grief through empowerment. Does grief exist? Yeah, we have grief. We have a lot of grief in this community. Are we fighting and trying to survive it? A hundred per cent. Because you know what? That’s what we have to do, that’s our gift to ourselves and to the next generation is to continue forward and through.
VS: Roberta, I’ve heard you say this a couple of times, but I really want you to see if you can expand on it for me, was one of the things I’ve heard you say is resistance, not resilience.
RT: Yes, I have said that. So resiliency means that something is happening and you are trying to survive it. Right? It’s like you have experienced housing insecurities. You just lost your job based on a racist employer. Your blood pressure is kind of high based on the result. And you know what, how much resilience can one person or one community or one racial group have? It is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not how much stuff we can take, how much violence we can choke off of, it is has to be about how can we resist this, how do we dismantle this, how do we fight back and how do we make ourselves and other generations not have to be impacted by that? You have that strength and there’s a need to actually create hope for you to actually dismantle systems. I have to believe that I can consciously do things differently to upset a system that is violating myself and my community and taking the risk to not only care about yourself, but caring about yourself as a part of it and care about your community, but also act on that risk in a safe way and a safe way for you and a way that can actually create changes for your life and for your community life. So it’s a way bigger and way more powerful thing. We need to resist these systems. These systems are not inevitable. Resistance is inevitable.
VS: There are also different ways of being resilient and there’s different ways of being resistant.
RT: I’m also learning to strategically not give my voice. And that’s an act of resistance, not giving you the information, not giving me the conversation, not giving you all of what my voice can give. And that is also part of my resistance. Silence has been a part of my resistance also. And within this research project, when I was going on this media thing and going around and people are talking about debating about race-based data, and I was kind of getting sick of the situation. That’s when I decided to go back inside and see what was happening for the community. I wasn’t doing Black health COVID research. Who was doing that? I was doing a mental health project, which obviously this connects to. But I did it because I needed to resist what people were giving me and what they were giving me was that Black health is not important and that race-based data from Black health researchers is not important and from the community is not important. And I said, you know what? It is important. And you know what? Here you go. This is what I’m going to do.
VS: And you obviously got funded for that study. You’re at the University of Toronto School of Public Health. I mean, I understand that you’re talking about resisting the institutions, but you have survived and thrived there.
RT: Yes. That’s a that’s a really important point. And I think that I have experienced a lot of anti-Black racism in institutions. I’m a working-class woman who came from poor and amazing beginnings. I grew up in a Black feminist home. I grew up in a Pan African anti-apartheid movement, anti-violence movement in the woman abuse shelter. So I grew up with amazing Black, Indigenous and racialized women. I mean, that’s my first piece. And I struggled with the notion of academia, particularly in a colonized state that we live in. And I have been there for now a year, Dalla, and I also was at York recently. But Dalla — when I asked for support and funding, because it’s very hard for Black-led research, particularly with particular consciousness, to get funded in this country. My project was not funded from a Canadian research agency. It wasn’t only me, it was a lot of Black-led researchers nationally were not funded on COVID. So we’re saying race-based matters. They’re saying no, we’re saying, OK, can we get funding to do projects? This is like five different research projects that I know of in this one funding call and nobody got funding. And I was just so — you talk about grief, you’re seeing people dying, right? You know, you’re seeing people dying. You’re enraged with anger because of the pain. And, you know, for me, it’s always about how do I deal with this pain. When I was seeing the bodies in the states and I was seeing the numbers in Canada and U.K. and globally happening and looking at Black, Indigenous and racialized folks just being killed and just not being even cared for. And then I’m hearing that this race-based data is not important. And all of these other things, I was just I was so much in rage. And that’s where this project came from, from the pain and the hope of doing this work. And I went to my dean and said that you want to do resisting anti-Black racism work? This is an opportunity to do so in supporting this project. And the Institute for Pandemics, a new project at Dalla supported my work. And also another funder, a private funder, also recently has supported the work. So it’s really great that, you know, this is happening. And I think it shows that people are putting some money to their statements because there’s a lot of resisting anti-Black racism statements going around and people are not putting resources to it. So if you really want to help and support our communities to really do emancipatory and decolonizing work, put resources to your statements that you’re putting in, as I call it, from the the summer of wokeness, put your resources where it’s needed and give it in the hands of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities so that we can do our own work. We’re doing it anyways. So give us the money so we can continue on. I am reclaiming money for not only myself, but for our community and for the work and the living that we need to do and the healing that we need to do in our community.
VS: Beautiful, beautiful. Roberta, it’s beautiful to hear you speak.
RT: Thank you, Vinita. And it’s beautiful to speak with you. You’re a sister who has been doing the work in the community. And it should be noted that journalism is notoriously white supremacist in this country and many other places and spaces. And you have been giving the voice to Black, Indigenous, South Asian, racialized, purposefully marginalized people. And by doing so that is an act of resistance.
VS: Oh, for sure. But it doesn’t come without its grief. I got to tell you, there are so many days where I just sit down and cry. Taking in the stories and then just the personal cost of resisting every day. Resist the narrative every single day.
RT: Yeah, but resisting doesn’t mean that we don’t cry. I cry a lot. I’m the I’m a town crier. I would say. I think you could probably hire me out. I’m not even joking.
RT: I also want to be able to celebrate resistance and celebrate the life that I’m living, even though there is so much challenges and so much pain and so much loss happening. It’s kind of like a dance of how you do that. And so, yeah, just want to share that with you.
VS: Oh, that’s beautiful. Makes sense.
That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. Thanks for listening. Let us know what you’re thinking. Just tag me at @WriteVinita and @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #Don'tCallMeResilient. If you’d like to read more about social justice as a health issue, go to theconversation.com/ca. It’s also where you’ll find our show notes with links to stories and research connected to our conversation with Roberta. You can find her study at Blackhealthmatterscovid19.ca.
Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producers are Nahid Buie, Nehal El-Hadi and Vicky Mochama. With additional editorial help from our intern Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our technical producer and sound guru. Anowa Quarcoo is in charge of marketing and production design. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. Special thanks also to Jennifer Moroz for her indispensable help on this project. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.
Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until next time I am Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.