When Habiba Cooper Diallo reflects on her high school experience in Halifax, she realizes not much has changed in terms of anti-Black racism. Now in her mid-20s, she’s noticed how institutions like the educational system have failed to improve the negative experiences that several Black students face daily—and it’s a change she believes many institutions are still reluctant to effectuate.
“This is the issue I’m seeing with a lot of schools, companies,” she says. “I don’t know that they really want to do it; they say they want to, but they don’t believe they want to. They’ve been saying they want to for a long time and still nothing is happening.”
“I speak to people who are in their 40s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and then some who are in school now—the generation younger than I am—say not much has changed. There has to be a desire. Once there’s a strong desire to really want to, they will mobilize resources, they will move mountains to make it happen.”
Sparking that change is one goal she hopes her new book, #BlackInSchool, helps achieve. Published this fall, Cooper-Diallo’s “memoir-style expose” is a curated, chronological collection of journal entries she wrote during her Grade 11 and 12 high school years. In it, she provides a firsthand account of the racism that so many Black students experience in the Canadian school system.
“My objective in writing this book is that it can be part of the project, part of the tools used to end anti-Black racism altogether and really make this world a more harmonious and peaceful world—not just for Black people but for everyone,” she says. “I read once that to really know the condition of a society, you have to look at the lowest people, you have to look at the least privileged in that society. I think it’s quite true because we can’t live in a truly peaceful world when so many people have grievances.”
#BlackInSchool offers a high school experience through the eyes of a Black teenage girl, following some of the day-to-day microaggressions, stereotypes and alienation that remains relentless across the country. A few of Cooper Diallo’s journal entries explore her thoughts on the performative nature of schools offering the Kente sash to Black students at graduation, how “Africa” is often used as punctuation when people try to express empathy and how others hypersexualize the Black body after seeing cultural dances.
When putting together her book, Cooper Diallo looked to some of Canada’s top Black scholars including the University of Ottawa’s Awad Ibrahim, who wrote the book’s foreword. She says academics such as her mother, Afua Cooper, University of Toronto professor George Dei and Brock University professor Dolana Mogadime are some of the best experts on anti-Black racism.
Going forward, Cooper Diallo hopes to see #BlackInSchool implemented in classrooms across the country, both in high schools and universities. While she wants youth to read the book to understand what other students go through, she also wants the book to reach educators so adults can understand what Black students experience in classrooms.
On top of her activism in women’s rights (she founded the internationally-recognized Women’s Health Organization International in 2012), Cooper Diallo is focusing on her literary career where she’ll soon release a new project. While she’ll continue expressing the multitude of issues Black people face, she’s currently focusing more on sharing Black experiences through fictional stories.
“It’s much easier that way, and it’s much lighter,” she says. “It takes less of a toll on you emotionally as someone who has to interact in this society daily. These are some of the potential, very heavy, burdensome experiences with anti-Black racism that can occur once you step outside your home.
“You don’t want to have to consider these things on a day-to-day when you go out. But sometimes, you’re forced to consider them.”