Confronting racism on the job

Filmmaker Fateh Ahmed (right) recently teamed up with writer Sarah Kiros to document systemic racism in Nova Scotia.

A local writer and documentary filmmaker team up to explore the experiences of Black workers

Writer Sarah Kiros didn’t have to try hard to convince Fateh Ahmed to direct her documentary Working While Black.

“I was researching a similar topic and that was a perfect opportunity for the two of us to discuss the documentary further and see how we could better tell a Canadian story,” Ahmed says.

The collaboration resulted in a documentary sharing stories from Black Canadians in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Halifax about their work experiences. Self-employed people, white-collar workers, and labourers all describe systemic racism and constant stress.

“Why does every Black person have to develop a strong sense of independence?” he asks. “Why do they have to work multiple jobs? Why can’t they rely on the system?”

He adds that the documentary’s goal is to find solutions, not just share horror stories. “It also addresses the systemic racism at the workplace, for example, being deprived of opportunities, the lack of access to mentorship, promotions being passed by … even lack of access to capital,” he says. “These are systems that are put in place to exclude, harm, and keep you at a certain level.”

Ahmed attributes many of the issues Black workers encounter in Nova Scotia to the educational system. 

“The vast majority of the Black community are taught their histories as being in the slave ship,” he says. “The history that’s being taught in Nova Scotia’s public schools is white.”

And that feeds denial and unconscious bias, which employers could (but usually don’t) redress with training. 

“You are making an assessment on the person walking through the door based on their appearance and treating them accordingly, so a decision has already been made before you even enter the room,” he says. “Many Black workers struggle with the double identities — how do I behave and act in relation to (white) Canadians, and how do I act and behave in relation to … the Black community? Quite often, those two identities are in conflict.”

He hopes the documentary will make audiences more aware and empathetic.

“Treat people with respect, love and dignity: that’s all I am hoping for by the end of watching this documentary,” he says. “Being able to see beyond race and be able not necessarily to sympathize, but mostly to become human, realizing that treating someone differently based on their race does have consequences.”

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