A conversation with Milan Singh (she/her), Director, Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression Office and Nikitha Fester (she/her), Assistant Director, Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression Office
The newly established Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression Office (ARAOO) at the BCTF was created in recognition of structural and systemic discrimination within society and our organization. The office is currently leading a systemic review of racism designed to begin dismantling systemic racism and advancing racial justice across the Federation’s structures, practices, and policies. This project will be informed by a review of existing policies and projects, a series of dialogues with members, and a questionnaire.
Through the Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression Office, the BCTF has both the opportunity and the responsibility to go beyond responding to incidents of racism and to dive into the deeper work of systemic, foundational change.
ARAOO is led by a small team of three women who each identify as either Black, Indigenous, or racialized. Our inter-sections bring a unique lens to how we go about our work.
Why is it important to focus on anti-racism and racial justice, and what does it mean to be anti-racist?
Nikitha: This question is interesting to me because I feel like so much information has been given to us around anti-racism.
Milan: Absolutely! Scholarship related to race, culture, and identity—especially feminist scholarship in this area—helps us understand how lived experiences at the intersections of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, ancestry, gender expression, sexuality, disability, class, caste, age, and other social conditions are central to understanding forms of systemic racism.
To focus on anti-racism and racial justice means to identify and dismantle systemic barriers that prevent equal access and participation for racialized and other marginalized groups. To be an anti-racist, then, requires us to take the actions needed to achieve this goal.
Nikitha: I agree with that last point you said about taking action. When I think about racial justice, for me, it implies an action and change. It’s no longer enough to have the knowledge, but to make these understandings practicable. This also requires a bit of our imagination, so that we can operate differently.
Milan: For sure, being an anti-racist involves a reimagining of new systems and processes to remove the barriers that cause harm. Understanding experiences of racism and other forms of marginalization are key to creating systems, processes, and organizations that not only include every person, but also allow us to thrive as our full, diverse selves.
Nikitha: If being anti-racist means you are bringing your full self, your skill set, and your understandings to improve the experience of others, then it should also mean that when you enter a space (or an organization) and you feel comfortable, you should endeavour to make others feel comfortable as well.
Milan: If I can share, an additional point for us to think about is that actions toward racial justice require us to think about equitable processes and equitable outcomes. The work not only involves creating pathways for action, but also the need to maintain an urgency for change.
What language do we use to speak about racism and systemic racism, and why is it important for this language to keep evolving?
Milan: For this question, I would like to rely on the amazing work of Stuart Hall, who describes race as something that is given meaning through language; he suggests that the language of race and racism is used to create and maintain categories of difference that organize us in the societies we live in. This framing has been really profound for me because if language has been used to create and maintain race and racism, then language can also be used to challenge it. In other words, Aboriginal or Indigenous, Black, and other racialized communities can (and are!) deliberately using language that shows their agency and power through their lived experiences.
Nikitha: The question around language reminds me of a discussion that happened in my classroom. When participating in a student workshop put on by Out in Schools, a student asked why the acronym LGBTQ+ (at the time) kept changing. The presenter asked my student what their favourite colour was; the student said blue. The presenter pressed, “Specifically, what is your favorite colour?” The student replied, “Well I guess violet blue, kinda light, but not too violet…like periwinkle, I think.” The presenter responded, “So blue isn’t your favourite colour. Your favourite colour is actually quite specific: it’s periwinkle. If you can understand why it’s important to be specific about your favourite colour, can you understand why it’s equally important to be specific about your identity?”
Milan: This example is helpful because current terminology around racism is doing this very thing. For example, anti-Indigenous or anti-Aboriginal racism helps us identify how colonization has resulted in current forms of systemic racism, while language that describes anti-Black racism draws attention to specific forms of systemic harm that may disproportionately affect Black people. The intent here isn’t to create a hierarchy, rather a way to recognize and name the distinctions about how racism manifests around us. These distinctions help us work in solidarity with one another.
Nikitha: The under-standing and nuance around the language we use and the labels we choose to carry, or discard, is a small but empowering way for folks to tap into their agency and work to disrupt those structures you mentioned. Further, taking the time to understand the etymology of the words we use equally helps us understand how language is connected to our rights. Specific language is embedded within the legal apparatus, and therefore the explicit use of certain terms guarantees access to rights and services. I think sometimes we take language for granted, but as you’ve pointed out, Milan, intentional word use can have very meaningful consequences.
How do we move the anti-racism dial forward?
Milan: I see the act of dismantling systemic racism as collaborative. Here’s what I mean by this: while the voices and actions of those affected by racism should be elevated and empowered to drive change, the work to achieve this is required by everyone.
With that said, I see our role at the Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression Office as a place that helps create the conditions and environment for members to move racial justice work forward in ways that are impactful to them. It’s also a place that can help elevate members voices in ongoing, consistent, and meaningful ways.
Nikitha: To build off your ideas, I feel like we all have a role to play, not only in stepping up and contributing, but also empowering those who are doing so within their capacity. Just a second ago, we were talking about the importance of words, and I think one word that is important to our union is solidarity. Solidarity is defined as “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples, etc.”1 Thus, as an office our goal is to act in fellowship to the Federation, which means empowering the members and leadership to make positive change within the organization.
About the authors
Milan Singh has a PhD in communication studies with a focus on systemic discrimination, policy, and cultural identity.
Nikitha Fester’s undergraduate studies focused on public policy and community services, and she is currently completing her master’s in diversity, equity, and social justice education.