Living and breathing while Black: Racial profiling and other acts of violence

Recently, Shelby McPhee, a young Black male graduate student presenting at the largest Canadian academic gathering, the 88th annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and held at the University of British Columbia, was stopped by two white delegates and accused of stealing a laptop. He was photographed and followed. Congress volunteers called the police; both UBC campus police and the RCMP arrived on the scene.

McPhee adamantly refuted the charges but said he was silenced, detained and interrogated by police after the two accusers gave their testimony.

I attended Congress as a York University scholar of global health, ethics and human rights and a member of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) founded in 2009. The Congress “brings together academics, researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.”

This act of racial profiling sadly reminded me that African/Black and Indigenous peoples are often policed and surveilled in traumatic and violent ways, in not only public spaces but also in what should have been a safe scholarly space.

Defending oneself against this type of racist profiling and surveillance is an act of resistance. As a health scholar, political scientist and psychotherapist working in racialized communities, I can attest to the detrimental impact this fight for survival has on our health.

Shelby McPhee. Provided by Shelby McPhee



More and more cases of racial profiling or “living and breathing while Black” are being shared in both mainstream and social media. Recently, individual cases of racial profiling have been reported: Running while Black; Shopping while Black, Skateboarding while Black, Shopping for food while Cree, to name a few.

And the news media has reported McPhee’s story. But the story is told of him as an individual and not identified as systemic. What happens when media is no longer interested? Individualizing racial profiling in media misses the point of systemic violence.

The humiliation, embarrassment and trauma experienced by this blatant act of racial profiling, however, is not solely about these individual incidents. Rather, it is part of an intensified daily experience of systemic racist and intersectional violence that impacts our health and tries to dictate and incarcerate, the spaces and places we occupy.

The impact that racial profiling has had on this young Black scholar and so many of us in the African/Black community on a daily basis is insidious and systemic.

The constant fight to be treated humanely; the battle to prove ourselves innocent when always accused first as guilty, and the resistance and collective mobilization needed, shows our dedication and aptitude to survive in a world where we are continuously restricted and publicly violated.

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