Blackness at UBC in the 21st Century

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell and numerous others, anti-Black racism has been brought to the forefront of society. Police have attacked protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, there has been equivocation on Canadian systemic racism by the RCMP and elected officials, as well as lukewarm statements and controversial black squares flooding Instagram.

At UBC, a second-year graduate student at the Social Justice Institute, Savoy Williams, brought forward an allegation of racial profiling by a security guard, raising questions about the role of policing here in Vancouver. Two years ago, former UBC Thunderbirds football player, Jamiel Moore-Williams was tackled and repeatedly tasered by seven police officers from the Vancouver Police Department for a jaywalking violation.

Recently, former Board of Governors Chair Michael Korenberg resigned after receiving backlash for liking anti-Black tweets.

Despite this, the Black community at UBC is fighting. Not just for survival or acknowledgement, but the right to thrive: to partake in a freedom that celebrates and foregrounds all Black lives. Black people at UBC and in Vancouver are turning community into a verb, giving it pride of place in the current revolution.

Black people are no monolith, and Blackness — the highs and lows, the triumphs and challenges of living in a racist society — is similarly diverse.

Various faculties and organizations across UBC have issued statements on past anti-Blackness and future endeavours to dismantle it, from The Ubyssey itself to the AMS and President Santa Ono.

But change takes time.


At UBC, being the only Black person in the room is not uncommon.

Last year, Abigail Namusia was 1 of 3 Black students in her cohort of 200 people at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. Namusia attended UBC for part of her undergraduate degree but left in part due to not feeling like she had a place.

Her return to law school did not put these questions to rest.

“Being Black in law school makes you feel really Black. You feel like Rosa Parks. You’re Martin Luther King, Jr. And you’re just trying to navigate law school and no one else is doing this work because law school is hard,” said Namusia.

While commuting from Point Grey, her car broke down. Instead of someone offering to jump the car, she waited for half an hour as people passed.

“And it makes you wonder, is it because I am Black?” she said.

But for Namusia, who served as co-president of the UBC Black Law Students Association, lessening the hardship for future Black students is worth the weight.

“Now I have to do the side work of trying to make sure that the next Black girl who came wouldn’t have to deal with these things, like a picture being taken of you and now it’s on the website.

“It’s such a weird feeling to just know you’re Black, and to know it means something different.”

This was the case for Diane Mutabaruka, often known by her stage name Missy D. She attended UBC from 2010 to 2015 after growing up in Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. When she came to Vancouver, she quickly found herself to be a visible minority.

“Although I had lived in different places in Africa, I had never stood out for my skin colour,” Mutabaruka said.

The shift from simply existing to being observed propelled Mutabaruka to use her platforms to highlight issues in her community.

“Wherever I am — the office, the stage — being a visible minority, I know I represent something,” she said.

Adeerya Johnson moved from Atlanta to attend UBC and noticed a tangible shift in culture.

“I feel like at UBC, I have to be so careful with my movements. And I’m always thinking about what people are thinking about me, how people are reacting to me,” she said.

“I just know, my mobilization on campus, people are feeling some type of way about it.”

Even for students who were familiar with being the only Black person in the room, being Black at UBC still had its challenges. Cicely Blain was involved with Black Lives Matter Vancouver at the end of their time at UBC. Their UBC experience was filled with mixed experiences after being very excited to come to Canada from the United Kingdom.

“Very quickly [the] hopeful illusion was shattered a little bit by being ... one of the only Black Queer people in pretty much any space that I went to,” they said.

This was the case even in the identity clubs that they were a part of, such as the UBC Caribbean African Association, a club at the time when they attended.

“I think there’s this binary of you’re either in [a] Pride Club or you’re in the Black Club ... nobody really perceived that you can potentially be in both,” they said.

For Blain, UBC is a place of both invisibility and hypervisibility, especially in the classroom. “I think the majority of people just don’t understand the experience of isolation,” they said. “I don’t think there is anywhere near enough integration of Black writers, scholars and thinkers in every course, in every curriculum.”

This invisibility is also a reality for Black students outside of the classroom as much as it is inside.

Only four Black people have held executive positions in the AMS’s history — Jairus Mutambikwa, Brenda Ogembo, Kuol Akuebenchy and Sylvester Mensah, Jr. with the last being elected VP administration this year. Mutambikwa served as vice president in 1958-‘59, Akuechbeny held the position of VP finance from 2018 to 2019 and Ogembo was the vice-chair of the AMS University Commission and VP academic and university affairs and from 2004 to 2005.

Ogembo received UBC’s Mary M. Young Global Citizen Award in 2000. In 2004, she was reprimanded by Quinn Omori, the then-chair of the AMS Code and Policy Commission, for missing a submission date for her quarterly report while taking a trip to Kenya for a Rhodes Scholarship interview. Ogembo returned from Kenya to face accusations of wrongdoing, lack of transparency and insinuations that she was regularly difficult to work with. A source alleged she was “not doing the job well.” During Ogembo’s time, she also worked with the AMS Africa Awareness club.

The AMS archives had no information on anything related to the Black community and leadership from 2005–2015.

When asked to speak on his experiences during his year as an AMS executive, Akuechbeny declined to comment.


When Savannah Sutherland first arrived at UBC, she noticed there were no events for Black students on campus. Gavin Gordon, a fourth-year student in the Sauder School of Business, described a similar experience, was surprised by the lack of Black students, staff or faculty. It was “very discouraging, walking into a building for four years and not seeing a single Black professor or teaching advisor in my entire faculty,” said Gordon.

“If I wanted more of a Black community around me, especially in Vancouver, I would actively have to work towards that,” Gordon told The Ubyssey. This lack of consideration for Black students and their experiences on campus was not only disheartening but exasperating. Rather than focusing on their studies, like other students on campus are able to do, “we had to do the work,” said Sutherland.

In 2018, through a discussion with some friends, Sutherland and Gordon decided to create the Black Student Union (BSU). Their main objective was to show the diversity and wide range of experiences of Blackness on campus.

Sutherland noted that the BSU was based on the foundation that “Blackness is not monolithic.” This recognition of diversity became central in her organizing. It was important for her to create a student organization that was inclusive of all the experiences of Blackness. Black students were able to meet others who “shared similar experiences and similar problems,” according to Gordon.

In the creation of the BSU, both Gordon and Sutherland were prompted to examine their consciousness of Blackness.

“I’ve learned so much about Blackness and everyone’s Black experiences ... It’s just through BSU. There’s no way we would have those conversations anywhere else,” said Sutherland. The community and space that the BSU provides has become a lifeline for the Black students at UBC.

Lillian Atieno, who recently graduated from the Faculty of Arts, benefited from the hard-to-come-by student community at UBC.

“I think one of the first things I

heard was that there were no Black people in Vancouver, but it only turns out that that was not the whole truth. There are Black people, they just happen to be a very, very, small population,” said Atieno.

“But when I actually actively seek out the community that I wanted to be a part of. I do find that they exist.”

Dr. Sara Ghebremusse became an professor to help dismantle anti-Black racism within academia, after similarly having very few experiences with Black professors. In 2018, she came to UBC as an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. To date, she has been in academia for 17 years. Throughout that time, she has not seen much change in the way Black people are viewed or involved in universities.

“Law schools and the legal profession in Canada are not very diverse spaces. And so it was important for me as a law student to make the presence of Black Canadians in the legal profession more well known and to raise awareness and respond to concerns related to anti-Black racism in Canadian legal education,” she told The Ubyssey.

When she began working for UBC, Ghebremusse’s desire to advocate only increased as she now had the resources and title to make a greater impact. But this came without tangible support from UBC.

“If you want me to publish and research and teach at the same level and reach as [far as] some of my other racialized and non-racialized colleagues, then you’re going to have to provide certain accommodations ... because I can’t do it all,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, Ghebremusse meets with racialized students both prospective and current on top of general expectations. While she is passionate about helping students in whichever ways they may need, she recognizes that non-Black professors need to be involved in this work.

“We can say all we want. We can write letters. We can protest all we want. But until those who are in positions of power can admit to themselves that there’s work that needs to be done, then this battle and struggle for reform is just going to be even longer.”


With historic global changes, Black students, faculty and staff are hoping that UBC will use this moment to reflect on its own anti-Blackness.

“These institutions are very unequal. They’re steeped in inequality, [which] is grounded in so many different barriers ... that inhibit these institutions from becoming more equitable places to work and just exist in,” said Ghebremusse.

“They throw up these concepts like merit to say ‘Well, in fact, we are equal because those who are most meritorious enough will reach these institutions and will function well and succeed in these institutions.’”

UBC knows it has not done enough.

On June 2, President Santa Ono released a statement in response to the global activism against anti-Black racism.

“UBC itself is not immune to racism and injustice,” said Ono.

In this statement, he committed to meeting with the Black Caucus and the Asian Canadian Community Engagement Group and “ensur[ing] that all public safety officers and other authority figures are adequately trained to eliminate any unconscious or implicit bias.”

UBC Equity & Inclusion Office and the AMS have also released statements.

According to Sutherland, “UBC needs to do a better job at taking responsibility,” as performativity may address the symptoms of anti-Black racism but not the cause. Sutherland proclaims a call to action for the university, as it is a necessity that UBC is “more proactive about anti-Black racism.”

Earlier this year, the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs hosted a speaker series called Thinking While Black as part of the Phil Lind Initiative. The series hosted Black thinkers and writers, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxanne Gay. While the series was cut short due to COVID-19, many of the speaking engagements sold out.

For Blain, Thinking While Black brought about mixed feelings about the conversations that UBC facilitated around Blackness.

“It’s weird because it’s this sort of juxtaposition, [the Lind initiative] had big Black names come and [it] was so incredible to see how many people came to the Chan Centre, people [were] actually interested. But [at the same time] we don’t actually pay attention to the Black voices of students and teachers on campus,” they said.

Looking to the future, Blain is hoping that UBC will understand the isolation that the Black community experiences.

“Especially now [people], even non-Black people, are actually interested in the content. But also Black folks are expected to only talk about race and only talk about Black issues, whatever that means.

So, yeah, they have work to do.”

Danni Olusanya was the co-president of the Black Student Union from 2019 to 2020 and currently sits on the interim executive of the Black Caucus of which Sara Ghebrumusse and Adeerya Johnson are members. Olusanya had no part in writing or interviewing those sections.