It is common for people to approach Selma Babiker and ask her questions.
Where is she from or what is she mixed with, are two of the most common.
Once someone told her she is really pretty for a dark skinned girl.
Even her peers will say things like “I’m almost as tan as you,” or “You get really dark in the summer.”
These are the subtle comments that perpetuate colourism, explained the Grade 12 student at Thomas Haney Secondary, who was one of nine panelists from the Lower Mainland who spoke at the Lifting Black Voices Youth Conference last month.
Colourism, clarified the 18-year-old, is a discrimination or prejudice against people with darker skin tones.
At the conference she told the 3,000 delegates, how colourism has affected her personally along with her mental health.
“The reason why I chose colourism as a topic is because a lot of people don’t know that colourism is just about as big of a problem as racism,” said the Thomas Haney student who will be graduating at the end of this school year.
Colourism, she said, is a lot harder to point out than racism, because it is more subtle. Like, the way light-skinned people are portrayed in the media versus darker skinned people, explained Babiker, or how some darker skinned people receive longer prison sentences that lighter skinned people who have been found guilty of similar crimes.
“Colourism is one of my biggest insecurities,” she admitted.
“It’s deprecated my self image at times, it’s made me feel anxious, lonely and nervous and I didn’t have any self confidence,” said Babiker, because, she added, she was surrounded by the idea that the lighter a person is, the brighter they are.
Babiker has since realized that “beauty is fluid”.
Speaking at the conference was important for her because she had the opportunity to share her story with other racialized students.
“These are real experiences that are happening to people of colour,” noted Babiker.
“(It) made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my struggles,” she said.
Ken Headley, vice principal of Maple Ridge Secondary and one of the organizers of the Lifting Black Voices conference, believes people in Canada feel racism is an American issue.
“We as Canadians believe because we are nice and polite that racism doesn’t exist here,” he said.
That is why it was important for students to share their voices and experiences at this conference, in order to make positive changes in schools so students feel safe and connected to their environment and communities, he said.
Headley has been organizing anti-racism and Black History Month symposiums over the last six years along with Beth Applewhite, district vice principal of Equity Diversity and Inclusion, and James Morton, vice-principal of the Burnaby School District.
“I’m a young black educator as well and my experience from my formal education from K-12 made me feel like I needed to help create safer spaces for students who looked like me or shared my same lived experience,” said Headley about why he takes part in the symposiums.
What the 38-year-old realized from this conference, though, is that not much has changed since he was in school.
“We still have a lot of work to do to make sure all our students feel included and that they have a voice in their schools,” said Headley.
Thomas Haney Secondary principal Grant Friend put Babiker’s name forward as a panelist because of her Capstone project in which she talked about her experiences as a young, black, female student. She also started a club at her high school called Diversify Your Narrative: for racialized students at the school to talk about their experiences and struggles.
Babiker found the conference not only made her feel happy because of the support she felt from her peers, but that issues of racism and colourism were finally being addressed.
Another panelist talked about their struggles being biracial, which resonated with Babiker because it showed her that all people of colour face some type of oppression in their lives.
“I realized that everyone goes through their own struggles.”
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