Pundits have labelled the National Arts Centre Black Out event as segregation, but SHIFTER’s Kevin Bourne says it’s about representation and providing well-needed infrastructure for Black creators.
Canada’s National Arts Centre recently added a new event series to their programming calendar. Black Out night is a series of theatre productions geared towards Black audiences; a group that is underrepresented in Canadian theatre. It’s a rather bold vision for a Canadian institution that I’m sure is welcomed by many in the Black community.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with this move. The Ottawa Sun’s Brian Lilley recently wrote an article blasting the decision, labelling it as “segregation”, as did Jonathan Kay. Others have taken to social media to label the initiative as “racist”, a knee-jerk reaction that is common among some right leaning individuals. As a former Conservative Parliament Hill staffer, it is perspectives like these that cause someone like me to question my conservatism.
While the wording surrounding the NAC’s event could’ve been better, the underlying themes are representation and community, and representation matters.
At SHIFTER, we’ve partnered with some of the biggest organizations in Canada on Black content and other projects for the Black community. Even when the language is warm, fluffy and inclusive, people still have a problem with it. In fact, any attempt at carving out a dedicated space for racialized communities is often labelled by some as “racist” and counterproductive to this Utopian kumbaya idea of all people getting along (despite the fact many individuals still don’t like Black people; even among people of colour).
Meanwhile, elected officials at all levels of government, as well as boards of directors and management teams of the largest companies in Canada being predominantly white are somehow not racist. Many of these spaces are predominantly for white people; they just don’t come out and say it. Does that make it any less racist? These individuals labelling this event as racist don’t know how many times we as Black people go to an event only to feel like we aren’t welcome. People not wanting to shake our hand. People looking at us as if to say, “What are you doing here?”. What’s wrong with providing Black people with a space where we can feel welcome and at home?
Lilley went on to write about Martin Luther King Jr’s. dream but has no idea what it’s like to be a Black person in Canada today. While things have admittedly improved since the 1960’s, including after the murder of George Floyd, we still have a long way to go when it comes to representation. Perhaps those who oppose the event should practice empathy by sitting back and asking themselves, “What’s going on in the Black community that they feel this is needed? What are they experiencing?”
The reason why initiatives like Black Out are important is because King’s dream of equality still isn’t a reality. It’s the reason why initiatives like Black History Month and Women in Film and Television still exist. It’s the reason why funders have grants specifically for women, the disabled, and BIPOC communities; because some groups in Canada are still underserved.
Black people in Canada and the United States are in completely different places when it comes to achieving Martin Luther King Jr’s dream. In the United States, it is common to see Black CEOs and politicians at all levels of political office. There are pockets of Black affluence. There are hotbeds of Black culture, from Washington DC to Atlanta where Black creators are making a living through their craft. There are go-to spaces, from art galleries to theatres, where Black art can be expressed and consumed. Where are those spaces in Canada? In some regards, the United States is further along in fulfilling King’s dream than we are.
If you look at England, there are just over 2.3 million Black people, accounting for 4.2% percent of the population. They have radio stations dedicated to Black music, including BBC Radio 1xtra which airs nationally across the UK. Black TV productions like Top Boy and Small Axe have gained international acclaim. Some of the most successful Black actors in Hollywood today are from the UK. Black creators in the UK can make a living at home without ever having to go overseas. Although Black people make up a small percentage of their population, Black culture is one of the more visible expressions of British culture today.
Canada has similar numbers. There are just over 1.5 million Black people in Canada, accounting for 4.3% of the population. Whereas Black creators in the UK can have success at home and make a living through their craft, Black creators in Canada are still flocking to Los Angeles in order to make it. Why? Because Canada has a creative infrastructure problem, especially when it comes to Black creators.
Despite touting similar Black population numbers to England, there’s no national Black radio station. There is only one local Black commercial radio station in Canada—Flow 98.7 in Toronto. CBC just launched an all Black music radio show called The Block in February 2021.
The United States has a dozen Black TV networks and streaming services to which Black TV and film producers can sell their work. Here in Canada, the only place where a budding Black film and TV producer can showcase or sell their work is on CBC Gem. In talking to a representative from the Black Screen Office, Black producers receive a very small percentage of the Telefilm funds earmarked for people of colour.
You would be hard pressed to name a Black talent, or any talent of colour, who Canada has developed and exported beyond our borders. Drake, The Weeknd, Russell Peters, and Lilly Singh all had to leave Canada in order to find success. Formerly Alberta-based comedian Trixx recently left Canada and moved to Las Vegas. Rising comedian Hoodo Hersi left Toronto for New York as well for the same reasons. You would be also hard pressed to name a Black talent who is really making a good living through their craft if they do decide to stay in Canada.
This is why initiatives like the National Arts Centre’s Black Out night are important. For Black audiences at-large they provide representation; the feeling that we are seen and that we matter. These individuals crying racism will never know the feeling of looking out into Canadian society and not feeling seen or represented.
But beyond Black audiences, initiatives like Black Out provide important infrastructure for Black creators in a country that is sorely lacking it. This is why cries of racism are laughable. If people think events like Black Out are the problem, they’re out of touch with the current landscape in Canada. Initiatives like this are, in fact, the solution.
While some may not agree with the exact wording surrounding the initiative, the National Arts Centre should be commended for putting its money where its mouth is and making investments in the Black community when other organizations have made the easy and convenient decision to stay silent and do nothing. Following the murder of George Floyd, many organizations came out with diversity statements and posted Black squares on Instagram to advocate for increased representation in the music industry, but such platitudes have been all but forgotten as organizations have gone back to business as usual.
The underlying message here is “We’re making space for you” and that is appreciated. I would hope that more organizations would take cues from the NAC and follow suit.