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Power, resilience and courage: Admiring black women

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Being a woman in a society that is still very sexist is no easy task, but being a black woman brings even more obstacles on the road to success. However, Dr. Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor at X University, is one of the names that stands out among black women who have a really important impact on the world today, even as she suffers from the unfortunate lack of equality – both gender and race.

She is the author of “Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty” (2021) and “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture” (2019). Dr. Thompson is currently working on her third book on Canada’s history of blackface as performance and anti-Black racism. We have been privileged to hear her experiences and realize that life has a sad tendency to be much harder and challenging to black women, yet this is one of those cases where determination and perseverance excels and wins out.

milenio stadiu - Dr. Cheryl ThompsonMilénio Stadium: It only takes a few minutes of reading your bio to understand that you are a very successful woman—there is no doubt about that. But did you find it harder, as a woman, to pursue your goals? Do you think men have more doors open? Do we, women, have to try different keys until we get in?
Dr. Cheryl Thompson: Thank you. I don’t know if it was harder for me, as a woman, to pursue my goals because I have pursued them. What I can say is that has been harder is the limitations that others place onto me. For example, I think women are often told to “slow down” or “don’t take on too much” whereas men are still encouraged to “go for it” and to “challenge themselves.” So as women we find ourselves having to navigate the external worlds expectations about who we are, in addition to our own ambitions to achieve goals that we have set for ourselves.

MS: We can’t ignore the fact that for you, unfortunately, the path to success must have been even longer, not only because you’re a woman, but because you are a black woman. Did you feel or do you still feel there are no equal opportunities between men and women, and even worse when we talk about including black people in top tier positions?
CT: I don’t know if my path has necessarily been “longer”, but it has been rife with a lot of challenges that I do not think white women or men have had to face. Like, for example, the constant microaggressions that happens when, as a Black woman, you ask particular kinds of questions that your white colleagues might not be used to hearing around equity or inclusion. I think there are equal opportunities, but the management of those opportunities remain unequal. Meaning, we can be put up for the same job, so we have the same opportunities to apply for it, but the validation process too often continues to privilege Eurocentric names and/or particular kinds of experiences that reflect one’s social and cultural capital that exclude Black people on the basis of just not walking in the same circles as our white colleagues.

MS: Did you ever feel any difference in treatment from colleagues, not only because you are a woman, but also because you are black?
CT: As per above, yes I am constantly dealing with slights, undercuts, misinformation, forgetfulness from those in leadership positions when it comes to my promotion, and just a general lack of excitement from white colleagues, especially white male colleagues, about my work and accomplishments. I would call the treatment a deafening silence. Though, there are also those folks who have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. True allies do exist. They are just few and far between in academic spaces, in my experiences.

MS: You are a recognized author that touches very important subjects such as race and black culture, and you’re currently working on a third book about Canada’s history of blackface as a performance and anti-black racism. Do you believe Canada still has a long road ahead when it comes to racism?
CT: Yes, I do. Like all Western nations, Canada has yet to fully come to terms with its colonial history and histories of oppression exercised against not only Black people but also Indigenous people, as well. Further, other racialized groups such as Asians and South Asians have also encountered Canadian racism over the decades. I think things are improving, conversations are taking place, but there are structural and institutional forms of racism that are deeply embedded and will require decades of work to begin to truly dismantle.

MS: Do you hope that through your storytelling we can eventually shape future generations so they can innately respect and understand different races and cultures?
CT: Absolutely. This is one of the drivers of my work. I truly believe that when you know better you do better but it’s a choice. The information is out there, many people who remain racist or ignorant choose to not engage or challenge their worldview because of fear. They fear losing their sense of self; a sense of self they have always known so for them, racism is a comfort, it is not a problem. However, through storytelling and interacting with different types of people, you really do have an opportunity to open someone’s mind at a moment when they might be receptive to it. It really is about that individual choice, at the end of the day. But, I would like to think my work is playing a part.

MS: Who are the women you admire the most?
CT: I admire my mother. My grandmother. My sister. People who I know and have had an opportunity to see grow and mature. I don’t tend to look outside my inner circle too much when it comes to admiration because the reality is, we don’t know the public person. We only know their persona. And that could be a mirage. So I admire Black women, in particular, whom I’ve seen persevere thorough challenges and come out the other end a better person. I find that story inspirational.

MS: What would you say to all the women, especially the ones from the black community, trying to follow in your steps? Any advice?
CT: Figure out who you are and nurture that person. While it is great to look to me or others for inspiration, we all need inspiration, the best advice I can give is to see yourself as the hero in your own story. Use others as a guide, but you’re the ultimate person in the driver’s seat of your life so why not make the most of that power. When you realize that you are the only person who can determine your future, that is the moment you start living your best life.

Catarina Balça/MS


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