Black death has been used to make statements from the moment our bodies touched the shores of the Americas. And despite what carefully curated Canadian history books have told you, those deaths oftentimes happened on our side of the border.
Canada as a whole has done an excellent job at spinning a narrative that it is a safe haven for those of African descent. The last stop on the underground railroad and the home to one of Harriet Tubman’s houses, we are the real land of the free. What they won’t tell you is that we have our own history of slavery, segregation, anti-Blackness and police brutality against Black bodies.
Long before Kendall Jenner handed a Pepsi can to a cop during an imaginary riot, Canada had mastered the art of “cloutavism.”
Cloutavism is a term coined by Black Twitter to describe a phenomenon plaguing the civil rights movement. A combination of the words “clout” and “activism,” it describes a certain type of advocacy done solely for attention or recognition. The word clout, in its modern adaptation, originated in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s to talk about the influence or connections a person had. Through Chicago drill rap in the ’90s, and more recently hip hop and social media, the term has been reframed as having a more negative connotation.
A music video, a carefully curated photo, and that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. What do these three things have in common? Activism. At least that is what each staged moment would like you to believe.
Cloutavism is on the rise, and with protests and actions taking place globally, we’re starting to see more and more people take to the streets or social media to show just how “down with the cause” they really are.
So what does clout have to do with activism? It is something many have wondered as more and more people take to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to share their protest photos, their black squares and “Black Lives Matter” posts. The conversation has been reignited since the death of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests, vigils, marches and rallies that have erupted over his murder.
In the wake of this has also come a wave of “support,” from some unlikely people, who in the past, have had little to say around Black death.
So how has Canada participated in cloutavism both in the past and now?
Canada has continuously taken a moral high ground when it comes to our southern counterpart. While Canada was positioning itself as a country vehemently opposed to slavery, it too was partaking in the slave trade. Though the buying of slaves over the age of 25 became illegal in what is now Ontario in 1793, persons under 25 could still be owned.
It wasn’t until 1825 that it was banned altogether in the province of P.E.I. And during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Canada too was dealing with its own segregation issues. The Separate Schools Act allowing school trustees to segregate Black students from the larger population wasn’t amended in Ontario until 1964. The last segregated school in Canada closed in Nova Scotia in 1983.
Canada has continuously used the global outrage of Black death and state-sanctioned violence as an opportunity. The opportunity being to publicly denounce the actions of other countries while privately contributing to Black pain on their own lands.
In a country that has a city where Black people are 20 times more likely to die at the hand of police, you would think that the conversations and outcry around police brutality would be more prevalent in society. And no, I’m not talking about the United States. With 37 police-involved deaths of Black people, we have a problem of our own.
Canada has already had three police-involved deaths just this year. Regis Korchinski-Paquet (May 27, 2020), D’Andre Campbell (April 7, 2020) and Jamal Francique (January 9, 2020). Despite that there has been little to no recognition from politicians, celebrities or even the country. Campbell and Francique have been almost missing entirely in all of this. While a march was organized in Regis’s honor, her name was often overshadowed by George Floyd’s. Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders participated in his own version of cloutavism by kneeling at a vigil for a young woman his own police force is accused of killing.
With the polarity George Floyd’s murder has caused globally, individuals who previously stayed silent on Black death are using this moment to share photos, posts and attend protests in the hopes to be seen as “woke” or not “anti-Black.”
Most recently, at a march held in Ottawa, we saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau show up and take a knee for the death of Floyd. While a great photo-op for the prime minister, it was just that. A photo-op. Barely past his use of blackface and Canada’s continued exploitation of Africa and migrant workers from the Caribbean, Trudeau’s presence and kneeling simply highlight that he knows the world is watching, but that he isn’t actually listening to what Black people are saying.
This is made even more evident when we are reminded of his silence during the case of Abdirahman Abdi, a Black Somali man murdered at the hands of the Ottawa police, essentially in his own backyard. Trudeau has yet to kneel for the 40 known Black people who have been murdered by police. When will they get their moment?
Throughout the last two weeks my timeline has been filled with two forms of cloutavism. One is the staged photo-op where someone is at a protest. They’ve clearly asked a friend to take a photo of them and the “cool” sign they’ve created. You can tell they’re posing, that they showed up to get in a quick photo, tweet “#Blacklivesmatter” and talk about how much they stand with us.
The other is carefully constructed solidarity posts by organizations like Lush or the NFL. Both of which have been criticized for anti-Blackness and support of police. During #Blackouttuesday, people who I had never seen say a single thing about Black people were posting black squares. This recent inception of the movement has taken over the globe like wildfire. Everyone seems to be taking notice, making statements and taking photos.
But we’ve been here before. Apartheid, civil rights, Toronto’s ’90s race riots, Ferguson and now George Floyd. I’m watching people become famous off of the deaths of Black people, their “commitment” to equality carrying more weight than our right to live. So, I wonder if our right to live will get just as much clout as those who are using it to build their careers?
Shanese Steele is a 27 year-old, fat, queer, Mukaade Anishinaabe Kwe (Afro-Indigenous person), published writer, activist and community organizer. Shanese works to highlight voices not always heard by the larger society.
Image: Screenshot of Instagram #Blackouttuesday
Editor’s note, June 8, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Kendall Jenner. She is Kendall, not Kendell.