On the morning of January 14th, when I arrived at the office, I had a flashback…
In the last week of September 2020, I was rushing from store to store in a Vancouver shopping centre. It was near closing time, and I was struggling to find one item: an orange shirt. I had only recently made the move to the city, and hadn’t brought all of my clothes from home. So there I was, on the eve of Orange Shirt Day, searching for one. Just in time, I found a shirt I thought would be suitable for the office and the virtual meetings I had scheduled for September 30th. Following one of my virtual meetings, a colleague questioned the colour of my shirt, noting it must be a very subtle shade of orange. Because I had agreed to join a school event combining a Terry Fox Run with the acknowledgment of Orange Shirt Day the next morning, I once more went shopping. On October 1st, in the school yard, there was no mistaking the colour of my shirt. There was nothing subtle about it.
This particular memory surfaced for me this day because I did not wear my black shirt to the office, or anywhere else, on January 14th.
Perhaps like yourself, my wardrobe includes many colourful shirts. I have a pink shirt that I will wear in February. If I wish, I can also wear a white shirt in February to honour workers in the auto industry. In March, to demonstrate my support for those who work in the aid of children, and for families who live with epilepsy, and for LGBTQ+ communities in Australia, I can wear my purple shirt. Come April, I can wear my green shirt to show support for organ donation; and, my tie dye shirt to celebrate expression, individuality, and improvisation. To make a statement in support of accessibility and inclusion, I can wear my red shirt in June. And my blue shirt will speak out against bullying in October.
Know that I am not making light of these visual declarations of support. Each serves a critical purpose for their respective communities. They stand as symbols, bold strokes that engage people to literally don awareness and seek understanding, which hopefully leads to action. I list them because these calendar dates of colourful observation are much more than the shirts, and their impact has been profound.
Now, due in part to a Proclamation that states “Black Excellence Day in British Columbia is a step towards reconciliation and recognition of the ongoing civil rights struggles of Black British Columbians and encourages everyone to learn more about the history and contributions of Black British Columbians”, and due in part to the reconsideration of a symbol and its power, I can retire one of the colours.
On January 14th, I joined the many students, educators, school staff, and guests who participated in a virtual Black Excellence Day event. This event was co-hosted by Beth Applewhite, Burnaby District Principal of Equity, Diversity and inclusion, and Kenneth Headley, Maple Ridge District Vice-Principal of Racial Inclusivity and Equity. Among the many powerful voices in this program, Giorgia Ricciardi of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre shared a history of the symbolic black shirt. This offered a deeper context for the decision to move “away from Black Shirt Day”, as explained by Kamika Williams, President of the Ninandotoo Society. In her address, Williams reinforced that the “meaning of Black Excellence Day remains the same: acknowledging the on-going civil rights struggle of Black and Racialized Canadians and fighting for mandatory curriculum on Black history.”
The program also included Dr. Kelisha Graves of the MLK Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who expanded on the UN Decade for People of African Descent and the important role of educational leaders: “The purpose of this UN decade is to elevate the contribution and representation of African descended people all over the world… all history must be remembered… Teaching a balanced history helps to elevate the consciousness of all students… [who] would come to an appreciation of the worth of all cultures and cultures that are different from their own.” Dr. Graves speaks of hope in our courage to “face and teach the past”, to take action to bring about a better future. While not among the speakers, themes of Black Excellence Day can be found in the words of Dr. Funké Aladejebi, lecturer for Historical, Systemic and Intersectional Anti-Racism: From Awareness to Action. Dr. Aladejebi speaks of decolonization not as a metaphor, an “empty signifier, but rather a collective responsibility we all have in dismantling structures that create inequity.” She, too, speaks of the courage to ask hard questions about the past.
The Black Excellence Day program also included the voices of youth who are living the realities of our schools. It is perhaps their voices which are most compelling, inspiring meaningful action that is more than performance, more than the shirt. Martin Luther King Jr. is noted to have said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” If we fold up our black shirts and put them away, we must commit in our daily lives to the modern cause for which they stood; we must commit to doing.
I look forward to a day when we may consider retiring more colours, to a day when awareness and understanding no longer rely upon annual signals to spur our awareness and action. But in a time when there are elected officials who make public statements that divorce cultural reconciliation from education, I think I shall keep a colourful and unsubtle supply of shirts on hand.