As Joan walks down the store aisle, an employee follows her, although she has done nothing to attract such attention.
There is no offer of service – just peering eyes.
Joan knows why it is happening; it is nothing new to her.
She said it is often assumed – because of her skin colour and that she is toting a backpack – she is not there “to shop or check out prices,” but to steal something.
As she unpacks such a scenario, while sitting on the fourth floor of St. F.X.’s Bloomfield Centre with her friends, they nod in agreement.
They have experienced that ‘subtle racism,’ whether it is here or in other places they have lived.
There are also the stares, which for Jane even take place while at the hospital.
“I just stare back,” she said, as the group laughed.
That collective mirth is not meant to – or shouldn’t – minimize the effect of that type of experience, one that they and their friends experience every day.
“You are not born with these ideas,” Jessie said of stereotypes and biases they face.
She suggested one way of dealing with changing that mindset is through the implementation of cultural days and related events at schools, providing that learning opportunity to students at a young age.
“It is often driven by ignorance,” Jessie added of the attitudes.
Jill said it about the need “to continue to make the push for change.”
“It is not meant as an attack because we love it here [in Antigonish], but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem and change has to be made,” Joyce added.
These women are not only friends, but also members of the B.L.A.C.C. (Bi-racial Latin American African Caribbean Canadian) Students Society at St. F.X., which is dedicated to providing a safe space for students of African descent and allies.
More than 100 students are part of the group, which focuses on that ‘push for change.’
Most recently, their efforts helped affect policy with a national retail giant.
A couple weeks ago, after she was informed about a Halloween ‘hippie’ costume being sold at Walmart, Jane visited the Antigonish location.
The package included a dashiki, a traditional piece of West African clothing.
“And then I saw the wig, which really threw me off,” she said of her reaction of discovering the costume also included an afro-style hairpiece.
“For me, it wasn’t OK in anyway,” Jane added.
Deeply troubled by what she saw, she knew that something had to be done, so Jane turned to her fellow collective (executive) members of the B.L.A.C.C. society.
They decided to take action and push for the removal of the culturally appropriated costume from store shelves.
“It is meant to be funny, but it is not funny – at all,” Joyce said.
Jessie added “using identities as a costume is not a joke.”
“It reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes and contributes to the violence towards marginalized and racialized communities,” she said.
The women credited the fast reaction of Antigonish store management; not only the quick removal of the costumes from shelves, but also by taking their message to Walmart’s corporate office.
“We were really surprised with how responsive Walmart was and I think it is a really big step in the right direction and, hopefully, next year there won’t be an issue like this again,” Jessie added.
Describing their response, including removing the costumes from all Canadian stores, as “satisfying,” they also applauded their decision to do the same for a handful of others, including ones related to stereotypes of Indigenous peoples.
Nevertheless, as one of the women put it, to have a large company making such decisions – when it comes to selecting costumes for sale, in 2019 – “speaks volumes.”
‘Not a joke’
As for those who have said to them – mostly through social media – that it is ‘just a costume,’ the women said that reflects a lack of understanding of cultural appropriation and its effects.
“Using identities as a costume is not a joke,” Kelsey Jones, St. F.X. African Descent Student Affairs Coordinator, said.
“It reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes and contributes to the violence towards marginal and racialized communities.”
Megan Fogarty, St. F.X. Human Rights and Equity Advisor, agreed.
“Essentially, appropriation is taking elements of people’s culture that have a deep, deep meaning and reducing them to a meaningless costume for someone else’s enjoyment,” she said, referencing the Halloween costume example.
“It is really harmful because it is an extension of racism and stereotyping oppression.
“It treats these minoritized and racialized cultures as if these are just elements that are free for the taking and our amusement,” Fogarty added.
Again, it is more than ‘just a costume.’
“It is just another obstacle that racialized and minoritized students have to overcome in a predominantly white culture,” Fogarty said.
She noted the importance of being “aware of other cultures.”
“I think, instead of cultural appropriation, we need to be looking at cultural appreciation, which is looking at – being curious about – other cultures and learning from people of those cultures,” Fogarty said.
“Not only the beauty, but also how it relates to our colonial history and recognizing the impact the colonialism has had on other cultures and our culture as well.”
Jones said she is “extremely proud” of the group’s effort in tackling the issue.
Nevertheless, as the students noted, there is “a lot more to do.”
Although the response to their push for the costume removal has been mostly positive – both in the St. F.X. and broader community – there has been some push back, particularly online.
For them, it is another indication that there is ‘work to do,’ when it comes to these issues.
“Go back to Africa,” Jane said repeating one of the messages, which also included offensive language, she received after a story appeared from another media outlet.
She laughed when noting another message said, ‘get a life,’ pointing out the irony of that person taking the time to track her down on social media, just to be venomous.
Because of those threats, the women declined to have a photo taken, or use their names, for this story.
Despite those attacks, they said they would not change anything, while reflecting on the importance of what Joyce described as “small victories.”
“It all makes so much difference,” she said.
They noted ‘we’ need to reach a place where there aren’t repercussions or fear of “showing support.”