race and space

Black in Vancouver: City vs. Suburb

The Henry Angus building at the University of British Columbia, where the Society for Socialist Studies within the Congress for the Humanities 2019 was held.

As a Black woman, I have learned to be very careful about where I go not because I am physically unable, but because there is emotional duress in places where people do not expect to see Black people, as carefully documented by…everyone. Going to Vancouver this time, I was not prepared to experience the same demographics as Austin, Texas, although I have seen “Love It, or List It, Too” on HGTV, and I have seen very few Black people who own homes. My first time going to the city had been in the center of the city, and while there were definitely tourists, Black people were more visible, which always helps me feel safe. The campus of the university for the conference was urban, meaning that it was blended into the buildings. Jamie and I had even been able to find poorer people after walking a mile in one direction, which we attempt based on Decipher City’s stated mission.

Well, this time, we were clearly in the suburbs. This university was more like what one would expect of a university in the States: more spread out, surrounded by forest and expensive housing, very little integration between business and residents. While I saw more Black people on campus–later discovering that there was a conference for the Black Canadian Students Association–there were almost no Black students in the immediate off campus area. Before we arrived, we heard that a Black student had been harassed and detained by the police, and neither the university nor the conference organizers had apologized for such behavior. Being part of an independent research organization was considered rogue, and I could tell that there were people who were appraising our participation from the position of being well-funded. I was the only Black person at the hostel where we stayed until Thursday evening, a position I work very hard to avoid due to “misunderstandings.”

The group of people that I engaged with culturally, however, made me happy we went, proving that the tried-and-true method of “standing still until someone approaches you” works better as a Black woman in predominantly White spaces. I can also attest to the convenience of traveling with a White person, which leads to fewer questions. My assessment? Canadian suburbs are like suburbs everywhere, but with a land acknowledgement; in this case, the Musqueam. If people decide that certain people look “out of place,” those people will feel subtle eyes on them, or they will be excessively visible, unable to hide in the anonymity of the masses. Going to a conference either as a university affiliate or an independent scholar is no guarantee that others will not decide that “you don’t belong here.” However, I will say that Jamie and I went to an Asian dessert restaurant and like a true international establishment, no one blinked.

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