Chapter 2: What it Means to be Black

What it Means to be Black

In 2013, world-famous Oprah Winfrey talked about an experience she had when she was shopping in Europe. Oprah recounts being in a luxury shop and asking a salesperson to show her an expensive purse. But, not recognizing Oprah, the salesperson refused to show her the purse, telling her that she could not afford it. Oprah left the shop, and the incident sparked public interest in what it means to be Black (Gabbatt, 2013). Have you ever really thought about what it means to be Black?

Imagine our world is about to end and you are about to be transported to another world exactly like ours but with one difference: you can choose your race. What race would you choose to be? Imagine that during transport to the new world, the flight attendant hands out everyone’s race assignment, but by the time they come to you, only Black is still available. How would you feel? Think about it: for the rest of your life, you will be labeled as Black. How do you feel? Try this activity with a friend or family member and explore their thoughts. 

The label Black often has a negative meaning – think about old beliefs like a black cat being a bad omen. This kind of belief has also been linked with people and has led to the unfair treatment of people just because they were labeled Black (Hall et al., 2021). As we discussed in Chapter 1, being Black has far-reaching outcomes that impact everyday life and treatment in education, health, and criminal justice systems. 

The negativity linked with Blackness has been used in policies, procedures, and practices to justify the inequitable treatment of Black people. These policies and practices have been challenged by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and in recent global protests of the Black Lives Matter Movement where people came together to speak out against racism. This recent widespread solidarity with Black people has also led corporate organizations such as Nike to denounce racism (Ebrahimji, 2020). 

Within nursing, several organizations including the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO, 2022) are trying to tackle the systemic nature of anti-Black racism in Canadian nursing. Toronto Metropolitan University’s (2020) Campus Climate Report on anti-Black racism provides an example of an institution dedicated to eliminating racism on an institutional level. But the social injustices experienced by Black people remain widespread, including in the education system where Black students are at greater risk of suspension and expulsion (Public Health Agency of Canada [PHAC], 2021). 

To be Black can be described as an invisible wall that prevents Black people from moving into positions of leadership, including within nursing (Statistics Canada, 2022; Jefferies et al., 2018; PHAC, 2021). It’s important to remember that none of this is related to their skills or qualifications – it is racism. Behind the invisible wall erected by racism, Black people continue to unify into dynamic communities and resist the negative connotations given to them by reframing, refashioning, and reorienting how Black people are perceived. This kind of positive resistance is called anti-Black racism resistance, and it has a long history in North America, including the early Black Power Movement in the 1960s, which worked to protect the Black community and also inspire pride in being Black. This work continues today: Black Girls Rock fosters the identity and empowerment of Black girls and women, and the epic Black Panther movie franchise is promoting positive images of what it means to be Black. Overall, anti-Black racism resistance efforts demonstrate that Black lives do matter and have made many positive contributions. These contributions have been recognized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by dedicating a decade to Black communities (Bachelet, n.d.)

Watch the video below: you will hear firsthand the experiences of people sharing what it means to be Black and the strategies they use to reject stereotypes and biases while celebrating their identity by resisting anti-Black racism.


Video: What it means to be Black [34:52]

As nurses, we need to understand what it means to be Black. An anti-Black racism framework can help us understand the various ways Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people experience discrimination and how it goes unnoticed by broader society (Statistics Canada, 2022; Government of Canada, 2022). This will improve our communication skills: we need to listen carefully to the experiences of all clients and communities and effectively and competently engage with those who live the Black experience as well as others who experience racial and other forms of discrimination. Returning to our story about travelling to another world, have your thoughts and beliefs changed? How would you feel if the flight attendant assigned you the only race available – Black?


Bachelet, M. (n.d.). OHCHR and the international decade for people of African descent 2015-2024. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.

Statistics Canada. (2022). Experiences of discrimination among the Black and Indigenous populations in Canada, 2019. [Data set].

Ebrahimji, A. (2020, May 30). Nike is saying ‘don’t do it’ in a message about racism in America. CNN Business.

Gabbatt A. (2013, August 14). Oprah Winfrey given Swiss apology for ‘racist treatment’ over handbag. The Guardian.

Government of Ontario (2022). Data standards for the identification and monitoring of systemic racism: Glossary.

Hall, E. V., Townsend, S. S. M., & Carter, J. T. (2021). What’s in a name? The hidden historical ideologies embedded in the Black and African American racial labels. Psychological Science, 32(11), 1720–1730.

Jefferies, K., Aston, M., & Murphy, G. T. (2018). Black nurse leaders in the Canadian healthcare system. Nursing Leadership, 31(4), 50–56.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2021). Social determinants and inequities in health for Black Canadians: A snapshot.

Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (2022). Black nurses taskforce report.

Toronto Metropolitan University. (2020, July). Anti-Black racism campus climate report.

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