feature: brown, black, and fierce – unapologetically claiming their space in edmonton’s arts scene
November 6, 2015
There’s a sore spot for many IPOC (Indigenous, People of Colour) in Canada. While outsiders have long looked at the country as being an inclusive and welcoming nation – a reputation that was unraveled by the fear-mongering that overshadowed the last Federal election – there has been a continuous and deliberate attempt at systematically erasing Canada’s dark history in order to preserve it’s image. Schools offer watered down lessons on the contribution and stories of IPOC, if any at all, leaving a substantial void on a population that has grown more and more unaware of significant parts of the country’s past. With the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluding this past June – a report that documented Canada’s horrendous abuse and mistreatment of First Nations people – it seemed like the start at a real attempt to bring parts of Canada’s history out from under the rug; many IPOC, however, feel like the progress has been much too slow, and the effects way heavy on those same marginalized groups on a local level.
“As racialized peoples, and as queer folks, all of us organizers have struggled to make ourselves small enough, palatable enough, and quiet enough for our own survival in [Edmonton],” says Ruby Diaz Smith, a founding member of Brown, Black, and Fierce – a group dedicated to creating a safe space and open dialogue for IPOC, with an emphasis on queer, trans, gender diverse, and two-spirit communities. Along with Alex Felicitas, Leila Sidi, Jenni Roberts and Aurélie Lesueur, this small project has struck a chord amongst a demographic that feels grossly underrepresented in their city.
By Brnesh Berhe, AFROPUNK Contributor
“We have all had to swallow our pride one too many times”, adds Smith. “We have all had to cater to white fragility, and create art, music, and resistance for white consumption. We need this change to be inclusive for the complexities of our identities; we need this change for our survival.”
According to the last official long-form census – a practice that was stopped in 2010 by former Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper – visible minorities made up 30% of the population in Edmonton, while Indigenous people accounted for about 5%. This demographics’ presence in the city’s arts, music, and literary scenes is significantly less and, depending on the scene, run the risk of being “tokenized”.
“Without a ‘hub’, it’s hard to see other people like us on a daily basis,” says Smith, “and when we do, many of us have been subconsciously taught to not acknowledge each other, or to not bring up any issues that may ‘rock the boat’ and potentially threaten our cultural assimilation into the ‘Canadian fabric’.” She adds, “To bring this up can sometimes stir up discomfort [and] isolation in our communities.”
As Edmonton undergoes major development, the city’s reputation is growing along with it; with countless nationally and internationally recognized festivals, and various art and DIY projects popping up each year, Edmonton’s art scene is as vibrant as it’s ever been. Along with startup hubs that have nurtured a growth in small tech businesses over the last few years, the city’s entrepreneurial spirit garnered praise last year from current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as a city that “turns resource opportunities into economic realities”. Many IPOC, however, still feel like it doesn’t truly value diversity.
Part of the argument is not so much about why there isn’t enough diversity in Edmonton’s arts, music, and literary scenes, but what people’s definition of “diversity” actually means within those scenes. While genres and art styles are varied and well represented in Edmonton, the demographic at shows and events is not always as varied as the styles being offered.
“I’ve had a dream for several years to form a ‘diaspora band’”, says Roberts, a local musician who has been a staple in the Edmonton music scene for a number of years. “I play in a bunch of [bands] in an extremely white scene. Basically I wanted a QTIBPOC space where we could form supports, share experiences and learn about ourselves through art in small groups. The dream has been simmering because Edmonton is flooded with appropriation (white drum circles) and tokenization (Heritage Days and Folk Fest). I didn’t know where I could participate in legit African/diaspora cultures while feeling safe as a queer woman.”
The on-going denial in Canada as a country that doesn’t have a problem with race can be partly attributed to how some of the population chooses to justify their blatantly racist and islamophobic mindsets, masking their intentions behind concerns for “national security” and “public safety” as a means to validate their feelings towards refugees and IPOC. Add to that a lack of knowledge on the country’s history, and the denial, for many, just seems like completely justified thinking.
“[One] experience that is unique to us north of the border is that we don’t talk about having a ‘race problem’”, says Smith. “From my experience, many people here are quick to either think of racism as something that ended with the civil rights movement, or as something that only happens in the US. People here [find it] easy to point fingers elsewhere, but [don’t] examine the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that this country was founded upon, and their place within it.”
For newcomers like Lesueur, an international grad student from Paris studying at the University of Alberta, the feeling of being a minority was never a major issue until she came to Edmonton, where her new surroundings highlighted differences that she had otherwise never paid much attention to.
“I had a conversation with a friend some time before receiving the invite [for BB&F] talking about how everything here feels so white to me, because as someone who grew up in the non-touristy, unmarketable parts of Paris, I am so used to being constantly surrounded by mostly black and brown folks.” She adds, “I could go on for hours about how messed up it is over there, [but] I never had the feeling of actually being a ‘minority’ before coming here, so I was really excited to help create something that would take up space, [and] make us visible on our own terms.”
Critics of the group have stated that their approach and stance on these matters is too extreme, and have even garnered criticism from other IPOC for not addressing these issues in a more palatable way. For artists like Smith who have found it difficult to create art in Edmonton, she outlined two key factors that she feels are crucial for her and others like her to succeed in the scene:
Free time & Wealth – Free time has to exist where my basic physical needs are being met, whether that’s through a social safety net, or through enough accumulated wealth to not have to worry about where my meals are coming from, or having a stable place to live.
The Absence of White Fragility – While this country has profited from building the myth of a multicultural mosaic, it has struck me that the vast majority of non-Indigenous and non-racialized people seem very interested in consuming the performative aspects of our cultures and identities, but at no moment are interested in engaging in tangible ally-ship or questioning their own place in a white supremacist system. They want our cultures, but they don’t want us.
(Photo credits: VSM Photo)
While BB&F was hoping for about 50 likeminded allies to come out to their first event, the response has been overwhelming since their call for submissions this past summer. The success of similar inaugural events in Edmonton this year (The Come Up – a conference by and for black diaspora youth, and Not Enough Fest Edmonton, an all-ages festival for women, queer, trans, and non-binary people) has shown that these conversations and spaces are much needed. While it’s too early to say what the response and progress of these initiatives will look like in Edmonton, groups like BB&F will continue to make themselves heard.
* Brnesh Berhe is a writer and graphic designer from Edmonton, Alberta, and Founding Editor of Marker Magazine.
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