Finding Common Ground and Fighting Nazis:

a blue image of nazi symbol being shattered by a nail

An Interview with Loretta Ross

By Julianah Oguntala & Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

With the rise of hate crimes and the lack of preventative strategies government are adopting to prevent the radicalization of white supremacists, it can be to easy to feel helpless. In times like these, it can be so important to turn to our elders to help in our fight justice

Recently, I was given the opportunity to interview one of my heros, internationally-acclaimed author, activist and feminist, Loretta Ross, about her work dismantling hate groups. Loretta was the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history. She holds an immense wealth of knowledge and decades of experience I think many of us could learn from.

Shabina: I’d like to thank you for taking you time to speak with me today. I first wanted to ask you about some of the struggles and challenges you faced when you led your organizing efforts.

Loretta Ross: Well, the biggest struggle, of course, is that when you are doing anti-fascist work, you have to get fascist, which is not always pleasant work and you are not necessarily hanging out with the right people. I was the only woman who ran a research department studying hate groups at the time and I was the only Black person to do it. And so, there was a lot of embedded misogyny and surprisingly, racism amongst the anti-racist movement .

S: Do you feel that has changed over time?

LR: Well, there is certainly more diversity in the people doing the work. Whether or not there is still misogyny or racism in the movement, since I don’t do the work anymore, I can’t say that the organizations are less racist or misogynist. But there are certainly more women writing about fascism. I organized a retreat last year on women and fascism and was able to bring together almost 15-20 people who do that research now and they were all women.

S:Can you talk a bit about the difference in terms of the approach in women-centered anti-fascist organizing vs. the former circles you were running with?

LR: Well, one of the things that men consistently doing the work fail to do is integrate an analysis of gender and so they weren’t intersectional. They usually only talked about racism and sometimes anti-semitism. They rarely talked about homophobia, and never, none of us talked about transphobia, to be honest. I means we weren’t that far ahead of the curve.

But they didn’t integrate gender to my satisfaction. For example, I thought that the violence against abortion providers by the violent vigilante subculture was connected to racist violence and to homophobic and anti-immigrant violence. I thought the walls between what looked like separate movements were in fact right polarists, and people were crossing over. If we are able to be intersectional in their hatred and that was very hard to persuade my male colleagues to give as much attention to misogynist violence as they gave to racist, anti-semitic and occasionally anti-Indian and anti-Immigrant violence.

S: Thanks. Did you want to chat a bit about what you did or what your role was, what were some of the goals of your organization at that time?

LR: Well, the Center for Democratic Renewal National Anti-klan network was the first group to monitor hate groups like that. We started in 1979, two years before the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was started by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, Black and White veterans of the movement. And so, our first goal was to identify people and organizations in the hate movement and our second goal was to publish reports about them to warn people of their potential for violence and therefore potential for affecting the discourse on civil rights, hate, and anti-semitism in the United States. And our third goal was to organize effective responses to them and that meant working with the affected communities. Let’s say when the Klan decided to have a march, to help people come up with effective non-violent responses − because the tendency was for people to want to bury their heads in the sands, hoping that they would go away. Or you had the other extreme response which was the response of violence with violence and we didn’t want either of those responses because they were less than helpful. I started as their program director and my job, at the beginning, was on the community responses. When our research director Leonard Zeskind retired after he got the MacArthur Genius Award, I became the research and program director. And so then my job was monitoring the preparation of reports and dealing with the media.

S: What was your experience working with ex-Klan Members like?  I have read that you have done some rehabilitation with people who had left the Klan. Did you find their ideologies changed when they were working with you?

LR: I don’t think I was responsible at all for their change in ideology because usually they had left the organizations before they contacted the centre and there were a variety of reasons for why they left. Probably the largest single impulse to leave was to avoid being liable, or at least being held responsible, for the criminal activities of the groups of which they were associated. One particular person, Floyd Cochrane, said he left because his second son had been born with a cleft palate and his Nazi buddies said the Aryan Nations told him that his son was a genetic defect who needed to be eliminated; so he had quite a personal reason for re-evaluating the company that he kept. One family, Kian and Carol Peterson, left the KKK because of criminal activities that they didn’t want to held accountable for. So, there were a variety of reasons. The impact that we would have, first of all, was to help them get out of danger. Quite often, they would leave these organizations secretly, sometimes not even being able to carry clothes with them or their household furnishings or anything. They snuck away because they were afraid of retribution from their former colleagues. So it was an informal underground to get them relocated to another city. Similar to a community-based witness protection program. We weren’t the state, we weren’t law enforcement, so we had limited resources. And quite often we would use churches and things as ways to provide them support while they were reorganizing their lives. We did introduce them to different concepts and very rarely was anybody in the hate groups prepared to have conversation on homophobia, for example. And one of the significant moments that I experienced was when Floyd Cochrane had to testify. – chose to testify – I should say, in support of LGBT rights at a state legislature that was trying to pass a hate crime speil.  And that was probably his first time ever really speaking up in support of gay rights. He was trying to make amends for all the wrongs that he had done so he was willing to have his mind expanded.

S: You have been involved with a wide range of social justice fights and activisms. From the founding of the National Center for Human Rights and Education to being their program and research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/ the national Anti-Klan Network. What motivates you to keep going and to keep the fight going?

LR: Well, I think my biggest motivation is my passion for human rights, which of course evolved over the decade. This wasn’t what I immediately started with. I was a rape and incest survivor and that led me to the anti-violence movement. It was there that I learned to teach Black feminist theory to Black men who were incarcerated, who were rapists themselves. What I learned about myself was that I could have very insightful, passionate conversations with people I wouldn’t necessarily bring home for coffee. And so when you are a survivor, you do the things that help you survive and eventually I developed a passion for social justice and dealt with the assassination of a political colleague in 1980 which frightened a lot of people because we were doing only legal activities so we never thought that the state would move so aggressively against us. Somewhat naively, we didn’t believe that. After Yolanda Ward was assassinated, I had to make a decision. I either had to recommit myself to being in the struggle or do like the majority of my colleagues did and go back into their regular lives. And so that was the point, 1980 was the year I decided that I was going to be a social justice activist for the rest of my life, however long that life was.

S: In terms of the current movement to end race-based violence, what kind of advice do you have for activists and organizers?

LR: Well, I can only pass on the same advice that was offered to me. As I said, my mentor was Leonard Zeskind, and he once told me to lighten up because I was taking the work entirely too seriously. And he said fighting Nazis should be fun, it’s being a Nazi that sucks. And I have always taken that to heart that we can do this work for human rights without sacrificing our joie de vivre and we really can see the world as a wonderful place full of promise and opportunities even as we deal with this netherworld of cynicism and hate. And to not descend into being cynical or hateful ourselves.

S: Right now, you are working on a book, Calling In the Calling Out Culture. Did you want to give a brief description of what the book will be about?

LR: Yes, It’s called Calling In the Calling out Culture and it actually was inspired by a fellow Canadian, Asam Ahmad. He and I spoke on a program together at the University of Massachusetts and I actually was perturbed in the early 2000’s by the vitriol of the internet culture. I was actually surprised by it because I’m fairly elderly, so I wasn’t aware of how much shade was being thrown, how much calling out was being done over the internet. And so when I observed this phenomenon and spoke about it, this young woman told me that this was part of the call out culture and of course young people had named it. And so this caused me to do an internet search and that was when I encountered Asam’s writing on the topic. And so, I began to read a lot on it. And then I figured I had something minor to contribute to trying to change this call out culture, since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done that reprogramming of people in hate groups and things like that. That’s just decades working with problematic allies, in the predominantly white women’s movement. I thought I had learned some lessons that I would like to share about working with people without indulging in the call out culture. And so that’s what I tried to package up in my book. One of my life lessons about dealing with people you don’t agree with is also that you don’t use tactical calling them out as a way of building movements.

S: What are you hoping that the book can incite in terms of impacting call out culture?

LR: Well, the book is primarily on skills building as a pathway for building a more unified human rights movement and so, it’s about self-forgiveness, so that you can then forgive others for the mistakes that they make. It’s about how you can actually go through steps of listening to diverse points of views that you don’t necessarily agree with but still keep the conversation ball rolling. It’s about showing people that it’s possible to do activism in a lot of different ways without doing it in a way that violates people’s human rights.

S: Over your work doing rehabilitative work and working with people who have done some pretty awful things, how do you feel about people’s ability to transform? Do you have hope that we can get through this?

LR: I think the majority of people are just good people who do bad things. And I think that the majority of humanity, if we are honest with ourselves, we are all victimized violators capable of having our human rights violated, and at the same time capable of violating someone else’s human rights. And so that’s kind of how I see the world. I tend to really focus on forgiving others and start from forgiving myself. And trying to find that common ground where we can have discourse, where we can have conversation not with the goal of persuading people to agree with me or believe me. But with the goal of persuading them to work with me so we that can build a human rights movement.

S: Thanks so much, Loretta.

Loretta Ross is the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and co-organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history.

Black and white picture of shabina hand picking dandelions

Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.

Julianah Oguntala is a second year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Guelph. She hopes to pursue a long career as a physician, providing compassionate care to those who need it the most. She loves to read and spend time with her family.

The Damages of Microagressions: How to Prevent and Heal

by Tina Zafreen Alam

While most of the literature on microaggressions discusses how to manage them in the moment, and what kinds of responses might communicate the inappropriateness of the behavior, few are devoted to the question of reversing the damage from stress that results from them. Chronic (ongoing) stress devastates wellness. It’s also cumulative in that the damage worsens with every microaggressive blow. Constant put downs, ridicule and denigrations, intended or not, have measurable adverse effects on your body, mind and self-definition.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions1 as the “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Microaggressions can be racial, gender-based, hetero-patriarchal, religious, fat phobic, ageist, ableist or any other dynamic that marginalizes.

Microaggressions can invoke the stress reaction for those of us on the butt end of them. Hence I approach the question of healing and preventing them as primarily a matter of building resiliency. That is what this short article will focus on as I share some key ideas from my self-healing workshops.

In my framework of knowing, social justice and equity struggles benefit when every one of us is well, although not in the sense of some static state of perfect health where you can live forever. Healing is about the capacity to adjust, learn and grow in response to the ebb and flow of your dynamic relationships with the world. Your body, for example, is never static. If it were you’d be dead. In a healthy (or even unhealthy) body there are ongoing activities of self-regulation and self-repair in a process called homeostasis, which is the body’s tendency to maintain optimal functioning. Healing and wellness in this article are essentially about self-love, self-compassion, and cultivating meaningful, fulfilling relationships rather than obtaining perfection in any form. From this perspective acceptance, inner peace, fulfillment and a sense of purpose are intrinsic to wellbeing.

Most folks know from high school science or popular culture that stress is at the root of many illnesses. Instead of glossing over the impact of microaggressive stress, here are some facts you might like to be aware of:

  • When you are upset by a microaggression, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline flood your bloodstream, increasing your respiration and blood pressure.
  • Oxygen and blood are directed to your large muscles and physical senses (sight, hearing, etc.).
  • Digestive organs slow down their activities. Nutrients don’t get into the bloodstream and toxins don’t get out of the body at optimum speeds.
  • The immune reaction is put on hold.
  • Your cells and the DNA within them contract, making them less able to absorb nutrients and perform all their functions.
  • Your blood flow is diverted to the limbic/instinctive brain. The brain areas responsible for higher thinking get less blood, oxygen and nutrients. Your body does this as part of a stress reaction because you don’t need to be philosophizing or contemplating your next art project when you’re in a crisis or life-threatening situation.

This fight or flight state is exactly what you need if you’re in a situation where your life or the wellbeing of a loved one is at risk. You don’t, however, want to live in this state. Here are some other effects of chronic (long term) stress, which repeated exposure to microaggressions provokes:

  • Your body doesn’t care whether the experience is life-threatening or mildly annoying. Whether you have a gun pointed at you or your coworker uttered a careless remark, your body reacts the same way.
  • Furthermore, your body doesn’t care whether your stress is life-threatening at that moment, you are remembering stressful events from the past or imagining them in the future.
  • The more often or more prolonged the microaggression, the more your brain will physically restructure itself to accommodate the biochemistry and neural activity of chronic stress. For example, blood vessels, cellular growth and synaptic (communication) pathways in the brain will develop in ways that help you shift into the stress reaction quicker and allow you to stay there longer.
  • High levels of cortisol will dissolve connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage. Cortisol will also contribute to the accumulation of belly fat.
  • The adrenal gland will get tired of pumping adrenaline into your system. Adrenal exhaustion will set in and you will likely feel a sense of numbness and resignation to stressful events because you won’t have enough adrenaline in your system to generate useful responses. So when you’re faced with a real crisis you won’t have the juice to react appropriately.
  • Over the long term, stress makes you more sensitive to physical pain.
  • Your mental capacities will be compromised – particularly memory, learning, creativity and problem solving. Anyone who spends a lot of time in a context where microaggressions are rampant will have a brain that is very good at directing the biochemistry of stress; your thoughts become distrustful, self-involved, fearful, anxious and intolerant.
  • Your brain changes even further to accommodate what you think, say and do. If your attention remains on the multitude of microaggressions to which you are daily exposed your brain will accommodate and heighten the stress they cause.

The long-term effects of chronic and cumulative stress are not pretty. The Institute of HeartMath finds that a mere five minutes of being in a stressful state catalyzes six hours of depressed immunity, impaired healing and constrained mental capacity.

Microaggressions are potentially life-threatening because they produce the stress that causes illness and shortens lifespans.This is why educational and awareness-raising strategies are important to prevent them. However, these are not the only strategies that contribute to prevention.

The literature on countering or preventing harmful stress often focuses on how individuals can build resiliency to offset the negative health effects. Most of this is aimed at helping you transform your behaviours and thinking patterns; modifying your reaction to stressful events in a process of building resiliency. This works because it reshapes your body into a more expansive state (literally).

While social justice emphasizes working collectively to promote social change, there is still a role for building individual (and group) resilience. In fact, they are interdependent. Building resiliency is personally empowering, is the most effective method for transforming the impact of stress on your body, and enhances your capacity to sustain your participation in social change activities.

Resilient people are less likely to experience burnout, compassion fatigue or chronic stress symptoms. Obviously, social justice movements can benefit from resilient activists. That’s why I emphasize building resiliency in my work.

Briefly, here’s what happens to your body when you’re resilient; when you’re enjoying expansive states of love, compassion, generosity, gratitude and optimism.

  • The higher thinking parts of your brain get an optimal amount of blood supply, oxygen and nutrients. There are more cell growth and synaptic activity. Consequently, your memory, learning, problem-solving and creative abilities expand.
  • Biochemicals like DHEA, serotonin, oxytocin and nitrous oxide pour into your bloodstream. Combined these biochemicals promote feelings of connection, joy, openness, optimism, empathy, compassion, gratitude, generosity and a sense of peace. At their height, you experience wonder and awe.
  • These expansive states promote pro-social behaviours like cooperation, sharing, kindness, volunteering, giving and uplifting others. They fuel a thirst for social justice and equity.
  • The longer you’re in an expansive state, the more you produce biochemicals that heighten the effect and you can go into an upward spiral.
  • As an added bonus, some of the biochemicals produced in expansive states lower cortisol levels, reversing the stress reaction.
  • Your immune response becomes more efficient and tissue repair is accelerated. You also experience less physical pain.
  • Organs, cells and DNA expand and become optimized for their functions, including taking in and metabolizing nutrients.

The HeartMath on expansive states? Five minutes buys you five hours of all these positive mental and physical benefits. When you cultivate expansive feelings you take advantage of your body’s ability to restructure itself in the direction of building resiliency. This means you are less likely to be impacted by stressful events like microaggressions and, when you are, you can bounce back quicker.

Building resilience involves developing a daily practice of cultivating expansive mind, body and emotional states. This involves deliberately allocating time to focus on whatever puts you into an expansive mindset. Fortunately, as noted before your body doesn’t care whether you’re actually lying on that beach, remembering or fantasizing about it. The benefits are the same.

The most effective way to build resilience is to strengthen your internal resources. While there’s nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure from external sources, and these activities can definitely be fun, research increasingly shows they are not the most effective forms of building resiliency. Activities that help us feel connected, or provide opportunities to nurture life have deeper more lasting benefits than spa days, shopping sprees or getting that promotion. Do you want your happiness to depend on weather conditions, other people’s moods or stuff you can’t control? For Tips on Building Resiliency check out my website.

A note of caution on building resiliency to heal and prevent the stress of microaggressions: expecting to remain in a blissful state 24/7 is neither possible nor desirable. Anger, fear and grief, for instance, are appropriate responses to some life events. Ignoring, denying or suppressing them is as stressful as the event itself. Feel your feelings, explore and let them go. It’s a refusal to process uncomfortable emotions that contribute to illness and mental contractiveness. When you notice, accept and explore your feelings they eventually fade and you can shift your attention to something more expansive. Yes, contractive feelings will return because you’re interacting with life and challenge is part of the deal. However, resiliency will allow you to manage life’s challenges in a way that doesn’t compromise your wellness.

Since community wellness and social justice depend on the contributions of resilient individuals, it’s really about time that our movements, organizations and communities recognized resiliency-building as socially significant work. You might start out building resiliency for the sake of your own wellbeing but it will be the collective “us” that benefits.


Zainab Amadahy
Based in peri-apocalyptic Toronto, Zainab Amadahy is an author, screenwriter, self-empowerment facilitator, professional development consultant, researcher and educator. Her background in medical and photovoltaic technologies, as well as community service in the areas of Indigenous knowledge reclamation, curanderismo, non-profit housing, women’s services, migrant settlement and community arts, inform her work. Links to Zainab’s articles, essays and other literary work can be found on her website: www.swallowsongs.com.

The Digital Mirror: Why Gamers of Colour Demand Representation in Gaming

Two people holding hands with their back turned. One is an adily with a raised fist on his back and an afro the other is a young boy with a gaming controller in his other hand his shirt reads "black gamer excellence"
by Andray Domise

A few years ago, a friend and I founded a program called TXDL to teach youth of diverse backgrounds how to make video games. As part of our pilot program, we asked students to send us character reference sheets, visual and written summaries of the characters the students wanted to create.

While combing through the student e-mails, one of the submissions caught me off-guard. The character, Samuel, should be typical as far as action game heroes go. Tall, muscular, arched eyebrows, clever grin. But this character description was far from typical. Sporting an afro and thick sideburns, armed with a sword strapped to his back, Samuel was far from a trope or a sidekick.

According to his creator, Samuel was to be:

  • African American, a martial arts expert, and a weapons specialist
  • The leader of a resistance movement seeking to liberate the world from the evil organization’s clutches
  • Strong-willed, fierce, and courageous. Willing to risk some things to achieve victory in battles
  • Compassionate towards his people

It might not seem like much, but for a gamer like myself, raised to expect either no Black characters or bizarre caricatures of blackness in the games I play, it was a lot. When I talked to the creator about his character, and what he hoped to accomplish with his adventure game, his answer was “I want to play the hero and feel like this is someone I could actually be. Not a thug, or an athlete or something.” Hearing his answer gave me one of the proudest moments I’d had in years. As someone who grew up unused to seeing people like me represented in video games, I’d finally helped a budding gamer become self-actualized in the medium.

I was a minority gamer growing up. By “minority,” I don’t just mean a gamer of colour, although I was (and am) that too. What I mean is, I was in the minority of console owners. Just about every kid in my elementary school with a video game console was an NES gamer, but I owned a Sega Master System. Which meant there was exactly two other kids in my entire school to trade cartridges with. And this was okay by us; in a way, we were our own little fan club and trading hub. We’d read Electronic Gaming Monthly religiously, making note of release dates so we could coordinate our game purchases. If one of them put Phantasy Star on his birthday wish list, I scribbled Ys on mine. If one of us asked Santa for Wonder Boy, someone else was guaranteed to find Zillion under the Christmas tree.

It was a pretty good system we had going. In the dozens of games we played and traded while I owned that ugly red and black Sega box, I felt connected to a small and exclusive group. In the fourth grade, I smuggled the plastic cartridge cases for my Master System games along with my school books when I went to school. During lunch time in the cafeteria, I’d leave the cases out next to my lunch tray. Sure enough, other Master System owners would show up to ask if I’d beaten the games, and if I’d maybe like to trade games with them for a week. My love for Sega and its brand helped me build a social circle.

But it wasn’t until I owned a Sega Genesis, just before middle school, that I truly understood what representation meant. Up to that point, I’d never played a single Sega game that featured a Black character who wasn’t a celebrity or an athlete. By that time, the absence of Black people not only in games, but in nerd culture and mass media at large, was background noise. Always present, but only an irritant if one stopped and paid attention. In 1991, the Genesis game Streets of Rage arrived, and one of the three playable lead characters was Adam, a Black former boxer and police officer helping to rid his city of a ruthless crime syndicate. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a controller and played as an imaginary Black protagonist.

Up to that point, the paltry amount of Black representation in gaming was stereotypical and derivative to the point where creators should have been embarrassed. In every fighting game franchise up to that point, just about every Black character was a boxer. In every other genre, Black characters were either savages or gang members. There was no role for us, outside of the narrow categories that western media, steeped as it was in white supremacy, had allowed us to occupy. Playing Axel for the first time felt like a minor breakthrough. Even though his backstory, of course, had to mention his past as a boxer, for the first time in my life I could see myself in a game’s protagonist.

Unfortunately, the gaming industry still had a long way to go.

In 2007, Capcom released the first trailer for Resident Evil 5 (RE5), the hotly anticipated latest entry in the survival horror series. The trailer was immediately lambasted .1. for its use of racial tropes, and mired the game in controversy over the two years leading up to its release. In that trailer, the camera follows burly white protagonist Chris Redfield as he kicks, punches, and shoots his way through wave after wave of Africans infected with a zombie virus. The backlash to the imagery of the trailer – nondescript poverty-stricken African country, western colonizers plundering the land and people, a white saviour venturing into the darkest heart of Africa to inflict violence – was met with a secondary backlash from gamers who believed those disturbed by it were the real racists. 

Well-known game critic Jim Sterling, writing for Destructoid.com 2 at the time in response to a blogger post about RE5, said “It does, however, take a really self-centered, perhaps even racist individual, to see it as “the white man killing MY people.” Wesley Yin-Poole at videogamer.com contacted “leading racism expert” Glenn Bowman, at the time a senior Anthropology lecturer at the University of Kent, to ask whether the game was, in fact, racist. 

 


1.John, Tracey (17 August 2009). “Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal on the Resident Evil 5 Trailer: This Imagery Has a History” www.mtv.com/news/2456617/newsweeks-ngai-croal-on-the-resident-evil-5-trailer-this-imagery-has-a-history/

2. Sterling, Jim (1 August 2007). “Resident Evil 5 is SO RACIST: The idiocy begins.” https://www.destructoid.com/resident-evil-5-is-so-racist-the-idiocy-begins-37196.phtml 


Bowman answered that the imagery of “black faces and…motifs of African masks and the like,” were not racist; the game had to be set somewhere, and since its setting was in Africa, African imagery was part and parcel. It later turned out that Bowman, whose areas of expertise were in Palestinian and Yugoslavian political anthropology, was not, in fact a “leading racism expert;” he asked to not be identified as such. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, motion actors Karen Dyer and T.J. Storm, both of whom identify as Black, explained in an AP interview that there was nothing racist about the “It’s in Africa! It’s been in Africa, it’s been in Spain, it’s been in the midwest (United States),” said Storm, in one segment. “It wasn’t racist then, why should it be racist now? It’s in Africa. Have fun with the game! Play the game!”

 What Dyer, Storm, and game critics back then missed (and have plenty of company in gaming industry types who miss the point now), was that, regardless of whether any harm was intended, video game narratives are not exempt from history and political context. While many were caught up in the images of, for example, infected African men dragging a white woman into a house to infect her with the virus, it doesn’t seem that many bothered to examine what it meant to take the zombie trope to Africa.

The zombie legend itself originated from Haitian folklore, in the blood-soaked sugar cane fields of St. Domingue – the name of the French colony prior to the Haitian slave rebellion. The vodun beliefs of West Africa – transported to St. Domingue in the minds and bodies of a kidnapped people – held that the spirits of slaves who died in bondage were returned to Guinée (or Guinea). By being converted into a zombie, the spirit was held captive for eternity. What then to make of the idea that a nondescript and monolithic Africa could be overrun by horrific creatures that people casually call “zombies?”

What began as a dream of release from the horrors of slavery became twisted the 20th century as the zombie trope that undergirds the Resident Evil franchise. Worse, subverted in such a way that West African spirituality was denatured and reflected back to Western audiences as the ultimate degeneration into colonial stereotypes of Africa itself: savagery, disease, and cannibalism.

In the ten years since the release of Resident Evil 5’s trailer, progress in the industry has been rather rocky. Tropes which should have died a long time ago, including the crude and sassy Black woman, and the hypermasculine Black male, still persist. Fictional worlds heavily influenced by Western European folklore dominate the RPG landscape, yet the rich, bizarre, and at times psychedelic folklore of sub-Saharan and eastern Africa have yet to be explored.

On the other hand, there has been much progress. Multiple studies show that young Black people not only spend more time on video games than their peers, but that Black millennials exert an outsized influence on social media. Game companies seem to be tuned into this fact. Over the last few years, Black characters are not only being explored more fully as human beings with diverse interests and personalities, they’re being placed front and centre. Mafia III, for example, set in the Vietnam-era South, follows a Black protagonist on a revenge journey against the mob and the KKK alike. Watch Dogs 2 is led by Marcus Halloway, a Black hacker, and the game’s sense of humour is heavily steeped in the code-switching reality of Black people who exist in tech spaces.

There’s obviously much more work to be done, which is why TXDL exists to help nudge forward the goal of inclusive tech spaces. But reading that character reference sheet, and speaking with the student who produced it, I was struck by the difference in the landscape for Black people in gaming now, versus the environment in which I cut my teeth. At least we now have the platform to demand visibility, and to cause disruption when game companies get it wrong. I look forward to one day picking up a controller and playing as Samuel, as well as mailing the pre-written thank-you note to the student who created him.

I plan on putting it in the mail, the day when people of colour have achieved true representation in the video game industry, and organizations like TXDL will no longer be necessary.


 

Andray Domise
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and the co-founder of TXDL, a tech skills development program for youth. 

A History of Anti-Racist Organizing at the University of Guelph

by Mina Ramos

In the summer of 2017, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) – Guelph  launched the People’s History Project with the goal of creating a digital archive that holds the history of social movement building in Guelph, Ontario (Dish With One Spoon / Mississauga of the New Credit traditional territories). To start off the project, I decided to begin to document racial justice organizing carried out by and for racialized students at the University of Guelph, a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white community.

It comes as no surprise that the rich history of anti-racist student organizing is largely unacknowledged. 

Above: Protest in the UC for the National Day of Divestment in South Africa on March 21st, 1979

As an institution that ranks fourth on Maclean’s magazine’s list of top universities and boasts “Changing Lives, Improving Lives” as its slogan, it certainly doesn’t benefit the University for racialized students to know the history of ongoing racial discrimination and administration’s broken promises, or the successes of student organizing and the erosion of some of those gains over time. 

What follows is a timeline of racial justice organizing at the University of Guelph in recent decades. Though currently incomplete, it is my hope that this ongoing project can offer racialized students a resource that can inform future organizing.

It’s important to note that though I use the term “racialized students,” the majority of the organizing documented here has been led by or involved Black students. Additionally, I have yet to research or conduct interviews with regards to Indigenous students’ organizing, so that critically important history is missing from this timeline.

Timeline

1977 – Michael Clarke, a white university student, returns from 3 years in Sierra Leone where he worked as a teacher through an NGO called CUSO. He is moved by his development work in Africa and is appalled by the South African Apartheid Regime and Canada’s involvement in this regime. Although South African Apartheid has been in legislation since 1948, organizing against South African Apartheid in Canada only begins to gain traction in the mid-1960’s.

Michael wants to demonstrate to Canadians how Canada is implicit in this regime. He also wants to organize to disrupt the Canadian and South African economy, who are both benefiting from South African Apartheid. He researches the concept of divestment and contacts the African National Congress (ANC).

Alongside his life partner Suzanne and a colleague at the university, they align themselves with the ideologies of the African National Congress and begin to organize an event in Peter Clark Hall, with speaker John Saul from York University, to talk about South African Apartheid. They make a sign at the event which reads “Guelph Campaign for Divestment in South Africa”, and have a sign-up sheet for people interested in getting involved.

November 11th thru 15th 1978 – The African Student Association (ASA) hosts a week long conference called “Africa Week” which highlights the resistance to South-African Apartheid amongst a series of other topics involving African empowerment, economics, autonomy and self-representation. The “Guelph Campaign for Divestment in South Africa” is officially formed after the conversations that come out of the conference. The newly founded organization is made up of white students, who work very closely with the African Student Association. This is largely attributed to the fact that all of the ASA students are international students who do not want to put their status at jeopardy, as well as the fact that the majority of these students are in mathematics or science and cannot contribute the same amount of time to the campaign. The campaign joins OPIRG Guelph as a working group and sets out the following goals:

  • Put on a series of events which raise awareness on the regime of apartheid
  • Educate Canadians on how they and the government of Canada are implicit in apartheid
  • Finding ways to assist in the process of change ie. raising funds, divestment…etc
  • Getting individuals to join the movement

A National Day of Action for divestment is set for March 21st which the campaign plans to take part in. Members of the campaign plan to call on students and organizations to withdraw from the 5 banks involved in lending money to the South African government ie. CIBC, TD Canada Trust, RBC, Scotiabank and BMO. The date of March 21st is chosen because it is symbolic to when the Sharpeville Massacre occurred in 1960 in South Africa.

From January leading up to the Day of Action, the campaign calls bank managers and trust company managers to get their positions regarding investment in South Africa, they create informational posters and pamphlets, begin circulating a petition for disinvestment of the university, hold information tables, show movie screenings, and host fundraisers.

During this time, Michael Clarke joins the Senate as a representative of the Graduate Students Association with the sole purpose and strategy to bring up a motion for the university to endorse divestment as a means to urge the Board of Governors of the university to divest.

March 20th 1979 – The University of Guelph  student senate passes a motion that endorses divestment and recommends to the Board of Governors that the university should divest. The amount of money held by the university in banks is around $85-$90 Million at this time.

March 21st 1979 – The National Day of Action for Divestment takes place. There is a march organized in the University Centre (UC) and student activist Ben Loevenstein chains himself to the front door of the CIBC located in the UC. Over 250 students withdraw funds, and organizations including the African Student Association, the Photo Arts Club, the Biological Science Student Council, CUSO, OPIRG, the politics club, and the West Indian Student Association all withdraw. In total $180,000 is divested on that day. The National day of Action is seen as a wide success.

April 26th and 27th, 1979 – The Board of Governors is set to vote on whether or not to divest the University of Guelph’s funds. The Board of Governors votes to not divest despite the huge amount of pressure from the campaign. Organizers are crushed. Many stop organizing, get back to school and/or graduate and the movement dies down.

Early 1980s – A new wave of students are on campus and after taking classes led by Professor Clarence J Munford on Black History, Precolonial Africa, African politics…etc,. They want to get involved in organizing in some way (1.)

 Among them is a student named Gayle Valeriote who approaches OPIRG and begins organizing against South African Apartheid as an OPIRG working group under a new name: the South African Interest Group (SAIJ). The new group is again a predominantly white group who continues to work very closely with the African Students Association. At this time the tactic of organizing changes. The group, who is taking action under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) moves away from divestment and towards boycotting South African products instead; primarily wine. They host boycotts and pickets, and organize anti-apartheid awareness events and fundraisers.


1. Although this is the first time Clarence J Munford is mentioned, it is important to note that Munford is a bit of a legend at the university. At this time and until he leaves the University of Guelph, Clarence J Munford is widely regarded as the go-to for black students on campus to express concerns and to voice frustration about racism on campus. He is the only one at this time teaching classes relating to Black History and radical African politics.

Among them is a student named Gayle Valeriote who approaches OPIRG and begins organizing against South African Apartheid as an OPIRG working group under a new name: the South African Interest Group (SAIJ). The new group is again a predominantly white group who continues to work very closely with the African Students Association. At this time the tactic of organizing changes. The group, who is taking action under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) moves away from divestment and towards boycotting South African products instead; primarily wine. They host boycotts and pickets, and organize anti-apartheid awareness events and fundraisers.

1981 – The Latin American Solidarity Group is formed as a working group of OPIRG by two chilean political refugees, Augustine Lobos and Goly Medina, who are living in Guelph. At the time, there are civil wars and dictatorships all across Latin America. They want to raise awareness about the human rights violations and repression occurring in Chile and in the rest of Latin America. They also want to fundraise and send donations to communities that need them. They operate for 13 years and in that time organize music shows, coffee houses, speaking panels, attend protests and also work in solidarity with other groups and raise many issues affecting other countries and communities through their group. They also work very closely with the African Students Association and the South African Interest Group.

1982 – Students from the of the South African Interest Group approach the administration asking to confer an honourary degree to Nelson Mandela for his work with the African National Congress in fighting against South African Apartheid. Although this is largely a symbolic gesture, they want the university to take a formal stance against South African Apartheid through this action. The university administration denies the request saying that they cannot confer an honourary degree to someone who is in prison.

June 4th 1986 – After a lack of support fro the university to confer an honourary degree to Nelson Mandela, SAIG takes matters into their own hands and organizes an alternative convocation which will take place the same day as the regular convocation on the other side of Johnston Green. They decide that they will create their own honourary degrees and give them to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Nyembe and Ahmed Kathrada. Over 100 students attend the alternative convocation and members of the ANC accept the degrees on behalf of these individuals.

1990 – The Race Relations Association (formerly the multicultural club) is created by a faculty member named Leon Hall. The group is open to all racialized students, faculty members and administration who want to discuss and raise issues related to racism on campus, visibility, representation, policy and space. They try to bring attention to issues happening outside of campus as well and connect them to the racism occurring on campus and in Guelph generally. The Oka crisis and killing of Dudley George spurs conversation around colonization and racism against Indigenous people in Canada. They also begin acknowledging police brutality towards Black Canadians and anti-black racism occurring in different parts of Southwestern Ontario.

Members of the group also attend actions outside of Guelph. One former member recounts how members of the association attended the Yonge Street Riots in 1992 in Toronto, as well as the protests that came afterwards.

During this time Clarence J Munford is also working with the Race Relations Association, and independently to bring speakers to give lectures on campus. One of the biggest speakers Clarence J Munford brings is Stokely Carmichael, a Trinidadian born civil rights activist from the US.

It is important to note that during this time there is an exceptional amount of Trinidadian students studying at the University of Guelph, and as a result, this time is seen as the height of the West Indian Students Association. However, one past student that I interviewed highlighted the distinction that it was often students born in Canada who were engaging in critical discussions on race and racism in Canada, while international studen were more focused on hosting cultural events and parties and did not necessarily engage in this dialogue as much.

During this time the Black Women’s Society is also created and serves as an open space for black students to specifically talk about issues affecting black women in Canada.

March 6th 1990 – Students protest the speaking event of widely known white supremacist Paul Fromm, whose right wing organization C-FAR (Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform) booked the space called The Albion under false pretenses. They find out about the event after a student places an unclassified ad in the Ontarion the week before. The Albion denounces the event, but under the guidance of student activists, the Albion gives away all of the tickets so that student organizers can take up all of the seats during the event. As Fromm is speaking the students unanimously turn the chairs around and turn their backs on him. Things get heated but there is no physical violence. Students from OPIRG, the Race Relations Association and the Guelph International Resource Centre all attend and the protest is seen as a widespread success to curbing racism in the city. As a result, the Albion issues an official statement stating that they are against all forms of racial discrimination.

An Anti- Apartheid picket in Guelph in the 1980s

Above: An Anti- Apartheid picket in Guelph in the 1980s

June 1990 – Members of SAIJ travel to Toronto to meet with Nelson Mandela during his cross Canada speaking tour, after his release in February. During this month, community members and students at the University of Guelph also travel to Ottawa to protest South African Apartheid by calling for the closing of the South African embassy in solidarity with Black South Africans fighting for their right to vote.

1992 – A subcommittee of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Educational Equity begins discussing a race relations policy for the university. At this point, there is a Human Rights Advisor named Indira Ganase Lall working at the university, but no human rights policy exists at the university.

During this time, a Canadian Graduate Educational Equity Survey demonstrates that in Canadian universities 30% of students of colour are discriminated against based on their skin colour, 51% based on their race, and 46% based on their ethnicity.

Out of this growing awareness of racism on campuses across Canada, the Presidential Task Force on Human Rights is created in Guelph. Clarence J Munford is accredited to being one of the strongest backers of this policy and sits on the Task Force. There are also members of the Race Relations Association on the Task Force as well and old members of the South African Interest Group.

In 1993, the Task Force is renamed to the Presidential Task Force on Anti-Racism and Race Relations. They meet once a week from January to May, and realize that is crucial to not only create a policy but release a report on the realities of racism on campus and to highlight the experiences of students of colour on campus. Many students are pushing for this taskforce and one former member jokes that they would have people knocking on the door wondering when it would be released. She adds that the process took such a long time because they wanted to make sure they had covered all of their tracks and created a useful document for the university to actually implement changes.

When the report is finished, it is dense and breaks down understandings of race, racism, and how it plays out in universities. It outlines that these issues are the result of systemic racism, white privilege, and eurocentrism at all levels of the university. It also gives a historical timeline that demonstrates the different racist laws that have shaped Canadian policies, economy, culture, society…etc. It is the first document ever created at the university that demonstrates how racism plays out in universities, and shares specifical in-depth examples of the racism students have experienced on the University of Guelph campus.

Many recommendations are made and go into great detail as to how these recommendations can be implemented. Some main recommendations are:

  • The formation of an overall human rights office
  • That at least one counsellor of colour is hired and one Indigenous counsellor is hired
  • That enrollment must reflect the racial diversity of the country and that the recruitment system is monitored to eliminate systemic barriers to accessing university
  • That the admissions Committee members be required to attend seminars on racism, systemic racism and inclusivity
  • That space and funding be allocated to the Race Relations Commission for the creation of a Student Resource Centre for racialized and Indigenous students and that funding should allow for a permanent paid employee to coordinate the Centre
  • That a core course be developed on human rights issues as soon as possible to become a permanent course offering
  • To assess the curriculum in different departments in regards to racism, as well as having the curriculum reviewed with input from students of colour and Indigenous students so that there is a wider range of racial and cultural issues covered in class.
  • That all course descriptions should be reviewed for accuracy. If the course doesn’t match its description it should be renamed ie. Topics in the History of Women should be renamed Topics in the History of Western white Women if it is only about white women to be consistent.
  • Creating a monitoring system to track employment equity and that the practices are actually being followed, evaluate the ability of candidates for faculty positions to teach courses on the basis on anti-racism and in a cross-cultural context
  • To ensure that representation of people of colour and Indigenous people does not fall below current levels; vacancies should be filled by a qualified person of colour or Indigenous person
  • That one full-time-equivalent Advisor be appointed to assist the current Human Rights Advisor in dealing with complaints of a racial nature
  • A guideline for a systemic review of all of the University’s services and programs and a ten year implementation plan
  • That the following groups attend an anti-racist training annually: President, Vice-President, Deans, Academic Advisors, Board of Governors, Academic Councils, Management Advisory Groups, Program Counsellors and Departmental Faculty Advisors, Graduate Coordinators, Student Housing Administration and University College Project

In order to have accountability with the report, the Task Force asserts that a follow up report be made in 1995 to assess the completion of the suggestions. 

They want this report to be made accessible to all students, faculty and administration (2.)


2. At this point in my own research I am unsure if this follow up report was made

July 1993 – The Anti-Racism and Race Relations Task Force report is published. It is printed in the Ontarion and individually, and is distributed all over campus. Many former students comment that this Task Force causes an uproar in dialogue and a denial of racism on campus from the campus administration, including the university president of the time, William Winegard.

1994 – As a result of the recommendations of the taskforce, the race relations association is given a space and is transformed into the CJ Munford Center (named after Clarence J Munford). However there is no paid employee for the space and instead a collective is formed for the center.

October 18th 1995 -University of Guelph Human Rights Advisor Indira Ganese Lall and Human Rights Assistant Sharon Harris, quit after only being offered month-to month-contracts instead of permanent position. Lall, who amassed most of the personal stories of racism on campus for the Taskforce, finds the offer offensive in light of her contributions. Both staff also leave as a result of their frustration with how human rights policies are being carried out/not being carried out on campus.

1996 – The Human Rights and Equity Office opens. Although students and faculty have been pushing for an office like this, they are outraged that an individual by the name of Ralph Agard has been hired following the departure of Indira Ganase Lall and Sharon Harris. Ralph Agard is widely known in Toronto as a perpetrator of sexual assault and students feel that it is an insult to what they have worked for to have him placed as the director of the office. A huge expose is written about Agard in the Ontarion and the ribbon cutting is protested by several racialized students. A sit-in at the Human Rights and Equity Office is planned but Ralph Agard is quietly dismissed before this ever happens. Ralph Agard is replaced by the current Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education, Patrick Case.

February 1997 – The President’s office is occupied for a week by students seeking justice for cutbacks to education. This action is part of a wave of student activism against cutbacks, and similar occupations occur at the University of Toronto and York University. At this time groups of colour get involved in the occupation and join up with other organizations that are predominantly white. Both groups address racism on campus and connect this to the cutbacks and how they affect people of colour.

Mid 2000’s to late 2000’s – Rose Mcleod is hired by counselling services to give counselling support for black students. She works out of the CJ Munford centre and provides informal counselling support. Her hiring is also a result of the Taskforce on anti-racism. One former student describes that Rose Mcleod was instrumental to the functioning of the CJ Munford Centre and its growth at that time. Not only did she provide counselling support, she helped to direct students to appropriate offices depending on what services they were seeking, set up weekly discussions at the Centre and helped to facilitate collective meetings.

Despite being the heart of the Centre, the university does not take appropriate steps to secure funding for her position and organizations like GRCGED, the CJ Munford Centre and counselling services are left to seek out grants to pay for her position. Eventually the university administration decides that her position is not justified because of the informality of her work. Students at the CJ Munford centre organize to keep her position and go through all of the official channels including setting up a meeting with student affairs and more specifically the Associate Vice President Brenda Whiteside to convince the administration to find funding for her position to continue. There is also talk about reviving the Taskforce and creating an up to date report; however this is not followed through with. Despite their countless meetings and efforts, Rose’s contract is not renewed and in 2013 she leaves the university and the CJ Munford Center is again functioning without a paid staff.

Black On Campus march across campus on 2015
Black On Campus banner drop in the UC, 2015

Above: Black On Campus march across campus and banner drop in the UC, 2015 

Nov.18th 2015 – Along with 3 other universities, Black students at the University of Guelph hold an action in solidarity with Black students protesting at the University of Missouri and Yale University in the United States. With less than 24 hours’ notice, student organizers Galme Mumed, Savannah Clarke and George Umeh bring together over 100 students to stage a campus wide march. This is the first time in the history of the university that a march organized and attended by mainly Black students addressing anti-black racism has ever taken place. The majority of the Black students in attendance are from the CJ Munford Centre. Black students are encouraged to write out their experiences of racism on placards and share their ,m before the march. The march takes place through the entire campus and ends in the Office of Student Affairs where protestors confront Brenda Whiteside for her complacency in dealing with systemic anti-black racism at the university. Although the action is initially seen as a solidarity event, organizers realize that the demands put forth by students in Missouri are similar to what is needed at the University of Guelph.

Overnight this action becomes the talk of the entire university. Extreme racist backlash is received online through facebook pages like “Overheard Guelph”. The students who organized the initial action secure funds from on-campus organizations and hire an informal counsellor to help with the stress that Black students are dealing with post-action. In the midst of this, organizers also roll out their own set of demands which they present to the University president Franco Vaccarino, Brenda Whiteside and the assistant vice-president Jane Ngobia. The demands are as follows:

  1. Discuss and change the underrepresentation of Black administrators, faculty and teaching staff with the goal of increasing the percentage of black faculty and staff members.
  2. Address the underrepresentation of Black students in all programs.
  3. Establish mandatory equity training for all faculties, students, governors, and all other administrative bodies. This entails mandatory anti-oppression training for all persons employed by the University, and an equity breadth requirement for all students.
  4. Increase the number of scholarships and funding resources available to black and Indigenous students.
  5. Establish counseling and mental health services on the U of G campus that are culturally appropriate and representative for addressing the mental, emotional, and psychological needs of black students. At the U of G, there is only one Black counselor available that understands the mental health needs of Black students.
  6. That the administration take leadership under the CJ Munford Centre in order to properly support them in implementing the anti-racism taskforce. In addition funding a full time position under the taskforce that is created and overseen by the CJ Munford Centre students.
  7. Develop a plan to establish, adequately fund and support a standalone Black, African & Caribbean Studies Department.
  8. Implement free education for Black and Indigenous students.

The demands set out in 2015 are strikingly similar to those of the anti-racism taskforce which the University administration itself asked for yet did very little to implement any of the recommendations.

Instead of addressing these demands head on or revisiting the taskforce (which goes into great details as to how the administration can implement changes), the university administration decides to have their own discussions with Black students and holds 40 interviews with Black identified students. Through this, they create their own report which highlights what students organizers have already said and come up with broad strategic plans with lots of fluff to make the university more inclusive. There are very little tangible goals. Most of the demands initially set out by Black students are not acknowledged at all, including those centered on more scholarships, mandatory anti-oppression training, free education and actually paying someone to implement the anti-racism taskforce of the 1990’s. Instead, they create a full-time position in support of cultural diversity which will be held within the Office of Intercultural Affairs in Student Life. It is interesting to note that there was never funding made available for Rose Mcleod during her stay at the university but funding is immediately made available for another administrative staff outside of the CJ Munford Centre.

During this time the CJ Munford Centre change their name to the Guelph Black Students Association to be more visible on campus.

This is presently where the timeline ends. However there is so much work to be done to not only fill in the blanks on the resilience and organizing of racialized students as well as the intricacies of how the administration has managed to escape responsibilities.

Currently, the funding has run dry for this project; however the aim is for it to be an accessible multi-media digital archive that will serve as a tool and guide for future generations of racialized students looking to organize at the University of Guelph.


Mina Ramos
Mina is a mixed race queer who is based out of Brampton ON. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues grounded in resistance movements of all kinds and the intricate connection to spirituality but specifically organizes in the realm of migrant justice.