By Bana Yirgalem
Trigger Warning: This story mentions police brutality, death, racism and racial discrimination
As Black History Month rolled in last week, I reflected on what being a Black woman means to me. I could say the culture, the food or the creativity Black people possess. If I’m being honest, I could say a lot. But it feels as though I don’t know the right words to describe my personal experiences. Are there really enough words to describe being Black?
Over the last five years of my life, I’ve had multiple experiences that have made me think, ‘What does being Black mean to Bana?’
Last year, when I received the call telling me I’d been elected to be the communities editor at The Eyeopener, I was overwhelmed with emotions. The first was disbelief, the second was confusion and the third was happiness. As soon as I felt the third emotion, I bursted into tears while one of my friends hugged me as they said, “I knew you could do it.” But did I know I could do it? I didn’t believe I was a strong enough writer or editor. Heck, I felt like my work was mediocre at best.
But, I knew what it meant to me to be a Black female editor at the school’s largest, independent, student-run newspaper and what it would mean for other Black student journalists at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
I remember when George Floyd was brutally murdered in 2020 and how that affected me mentally. According to a New York Times article, George Floyd was an innocent Black man who was killed by a white police officer. Seeing people constantly repost the video of him on the ground, crying for his mother as he took his last breath, was not something any Black person wanted to see. It was like a broken record I wish I could’ve stopped playing. But I couldn’t. Why? Because it was constantly surrounding me—whether on social media or daily news reports.
Accusations from people I knew saying he was a thug or he got what he deserved weren’t the ideal thing I wanted to hear from people I knew. It was like falling into a black hole with no ending. However, I decided to sit on my laptop and write a piece on why Black lives matter and my experiences with racism growing up. I sat at my computer for several hours, deleting and rewriting to describe my feelings without coming off as aggressive or harmful.
Anyone who knows me now knows I’m not afraid to speak my mind. But, at the time, 17-year-old me wasn’t quite like that yet. I was scared of what people thought of me. I didn’t want people to think I was ‘an aggressive Black woman’ due to some of the words I was using and writing from a place of hurt and frustration.
Tears after tears would flow out of my eyes and fall onto my keyboard as I felt emotionally drained. Yet, I still kept writing. I finally finished the piece at 1 a.m. and decided to publish it on some random website I made from Wix. I then hesitated to press the “post” button because I didn’t know what comments or feedback I would get. But I still published it anyway because I knew my words were more important than that fear. I knew it was a perfect time for me to use my ability to write and express my emotions on something that affects millions of people across the globe and me.
Once I published and shared the link around, the immense amount of love and support I got wasn’t something I was expecting. It was a weird, foreign feeling I couldn’t quite recognize. But despite the support and love, I did receive backlash to the point where some people I went to school with said, “You never experienced any of this,” or, “No one is going to believe you.” The one thing I feared most was the invalidation of my feelings, which is quite common for Black women and Black people in general. Although it did get to me, I know this is an everyday reality: if I speak up about things, I am bound to have a small group of people who will find any chance to criticize me. That article helped me realize that accepting my journalism offer at TMU was the right decision.
When I came into the journalism program, I didn’t realize I would be one of the few Black students in my year. I quickly learned being a racial minority was a norm in this program and this field at large. As much as I want to say my experience in the program was a positive one, it unfortunately wasn’t.
There was a time when an instructor dismissed an idea I wanted to pursue for an assignment. While other students were given a fair opportunity to defend their topics—mine were just shut down.
I can recall another time when a guest speaker, with no warning, talked about a young Black child who was put on death row and explained the details of it without remorse. The invalidation and trauma I felt from these experiences were embedded into my brain, making me think that it was something I was expected to deal with.
In my third year, I enrolled in a new class called Reporting on Race—which the school implemented after the death of George Floyd—where I felt seen and heard for the first time in a long time. Having a Black professor and seeing Black students wasn’t something I thought would be important. But it was. In that class, I was finally able to see reflections of those who may have had similar experiences to mine. It was the first time in a long time that I felt safe in a school setting.
I had an experience last year where I was a victim of racial discrimination. I won’t get into too much detail, but I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with anything like this in university. Yet, I was wrong. It was to the point where my character was being questioned and someone was threatening me, all because I spoke up for myself and others. You would think that being in Canada, you would have freedom of speech, but for a Black woman whose every word is often picked apart, this isn’t the case. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2022, 49 per cent of Black women had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past five years in the country.
This incident happened while I was writing a feature piece for The Eye on Black students at TMU and their journeys with their hair. Writing that piece took an emotional toll on me. While I was writing about my lived experiences and the similar occurrences my sources had, I was simultaneously dealing with, yet again, another never-ending incident. I also wrote another piece for The Eye on how to reshape feminism to centre Black women.
I regularly found myself writing sports stories throughout university and never thought I could write such important stories like these. However, I underestimated myself because something about writing stories regarding the Black community and being a voice for those who may not have one, is something I always hoped to do in this field.
I never like to brag about my work or showcase it everywhere because of the fear of backlash. Yet, I’ve never felt such a reward than to have Black journalism students come up to me saying that my piece made them feel appreciated and a sense of importance.
For my 21st birthday, one of my best friends, Mariyah Salhia, got me a book titled Black Writers Matter by Whitney French, which has helped me realize my worth not only as a writer but also as a Black writer.
In the introduction of the book, French says it’s an “invitation to read, share, and tell stories of Black narratives that are close to the bone.” This hits home for me because each time I read a page, I felt a parallel between the written stories and my own—something that isn’t common to see nowadays.
The book in itself was beautiful and opened my eyes. However, it was the note my friend wrote inside one of the first pages that got me.
“Black writers matter, including the one reading this,” she wrote.
Whenever I feel like my work isn’t good enough or doesn’t matter enough, I reread that line to remind myself of my worth.
As I get older, the question I asked myself at the beginning of this personal essay might have different answers as I go through various points of my life. The countless experiences that Black people go through in life, good or bad, continue to shape us to become resilient and powerful in every aspect.
Being Black doesn’t have anything to do with my skin. It’s the lived experiences that I have faced that I use to fuel myself every day to become better. It’s me becoming a positive influence for those in my community and an opportunity for other Black people to see that my experiences are just a small part of me.
Against all odds, I hope that other Black people, young or old, can see and know that our experiences don’t define us at all—but they do shape us.