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Experiencing segregation in the 1960s

When I was a child in the 1960s, I travelled with my parents and younger sister to spend summer holidays with our US family in Hampton, Virginia. My uncle and aunt worked at the Black College; one was a French teacher and the other the librarian. They were happy to have found employment there after fleeing Papa Doc’s Haiti. They lived in a pretty house in a neighbourhood where only Blacks and a few poor white families lived. I loved the big fig trees, the hot summer nights, the southern accent I had trouble understanding, the US traditions and customs, like cheerleading, that seemed puzzling. I remember vividly one of the little white boys telling me I was pretty, something I had never heard from a boy in Canada.

One summer, the adults decided to take us to Richmond, Virginia, and show us their beautiful state capital with its historic buildings and Confederate statues. The wanted to impress the shy and well-behaved little Canadian girls. And the city was indeed impressive, but as the day wore on, the trip morphed into one of those nightmares where you know something is lurking in the darkness but can’t see it; you expect it to grab you at any moment.

The adults acted in odd ways. They pushed us to the back of the bus. They said we had to wait until we reached the coloured bathrooms to relieve ourselves. When we looked at white people in the face they apologized to them, saying not to mind us, we came from Canada. They ceded the passage, always, lowering their eyes, apologizing, turning down the volume of their voices and removing any sign of pride.

I was suffocating and couldn’t wait to get back to my aunt’s house in the ghetto.

Was Canada really any better?

After this experience in the US, I came back to Canada thinking that maybe we were better off here. But my parents started speaking to us more openly about what we were experiencing in grade school and on the way to and from school in our predominantly white neighbourhood. They insisted that we do well in class and carry our heads high even while subjected to name-calling and taunts. Excelling was not an option in that environment.

On Sunday nights, we would see the pictures on our black-and-white television and hear the adults share news they received from our American family about the race riots, the lynchings, the KKK, the March on Washington, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Strangely, we knew nothing of the events closer to home in Halifax, at Sir George Williams in Montreal, in southern Ontario, and at home in Ottawa. It seems our eyes were always on the big bad neighbour to the south of us.

I went to high school and then university, where I remember refusing to eat grapes that came from South Africa because of apartheid. But we were marching against apartheid while continuing to experience the super polite discrimination and racism most Canadians refuse to call by name. Canadians believed “multiculturalism” exempted an entire country from racism, that racism was for other countries and not our own. (This while residential schools were still in operation!)

Sometimes it would infuriate me to the point where I wanted to move south of the border, where at least you knew where you stood.

Witnessing the violence

In the ’80s and ’90s, my siblings left Canada one by one to study and live in the States. There they started families and raised American children. We heard about a constant stream of what were called “incidents” in which the victim of brutality, always Black, was somehow to blame. And then, as technology advanced, we began to see more and more videotapes showing the assault and killing of Black men and women and exposing the lynchings for what they were. The videotape of Rodney King’s assault at the hands of police raised hopes that justice would finally be served, but in that case and subsequent ones, there were never any consequences for the perpetrators. Later, as social media eventually exploded, the ugly underbelly of racism was even more exposed for the world to see.

But racism in Canada was more subtle. It wasn’t all on the streets, and it wasn’t all about physical violence. The discrimination I experienced didn’t stop when I entered the workplace as a professional. I would wage some battles and avoid others I knew I couldn’t win. I left a piece of myself behind every time I didn’t speak up.

Over the years, I stepped away from repressive organizational structures to work as an independent consultant. Even in that capacity I was expected to deliver more than others and justify my worth and fees over and over again.

As I enter the last phase of my career, I have found ways to adapt to life and work in a racist society without losing my self-esteem and sanity. But it takes its toll.

George Floyd and the pain of Black people

Fast forward to today and the recent killings in the US, and particularly the killing of George Floyd. My heart is aching for Floyd and his violent death. I am so deeply saddened for his family, his friends, his community.

He was murdered in cold blood, by a law enforcement officer with a knee on the victim’s neck, feeling smug, a hand in his pocket as if showing off a trophy, trusting there would be no real repercussion. By his side, two other officers holding down an unarmed unresisting Black man and a third one standing guard. It’s a familiar scene of state-sanctioned brutality to keep Blacks in their place in a repressive regime designed to ensure white privilege remains untouched.

This time, the image is stuck in my retina. I close my eyes and there it is again on another social media feed. I turn away and there it is again on the news. I shut down everything and there it is again in my mind’s eye, reminding me that there is no hiding from this senseless murder by those who are charged with upholding the laws of the land. Police murder of Black people is not as dissonant as many white people seem to think. These laws were never meant to protect Black people in a land that feasts on our dead bodies.

For the last week, images of other killings like those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Tylor are replayed on social media in a graphic reality show that runs non-stop. Many of us are experiencing an unbearable feeling of déjà vu and a recurring traumatic nightmare. I can only imagine the impact on the generation before mine, who risked their lives fighting for their rights, who bent their heads, toiling, accepting the unacceptable so that their children could go to school, their grandchildren could get good jobs and live in a country where they would be free and equal. All this sacrifice, only to see their hopes shattered as the state-backed police arrest, brutalize, and gas their babies as they did them.

White Canadians need to act now

Meanwhile in Canada, the elite is quick to point out the failings of America, while dancing around the topic of our own racism towards Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour. There has been mild acknowledgement of the impact of racism and the role it played in the senseless death of so many. Like the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women, like the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Abdirahman Abdi, to name just a few. Maybe now that we can’t turn away from the images showing up everywhere, we can finally stop the denial and lose our made-in-Canada halo.

Today I say to all the organizations who are still on the fence about whether to denounce racism and actually say the words Black Lives Matter; it’s time. To all the white “allies” standing on the sidelines while mouthing conciliatory words, I say it’s time. Choose your side. For all of us, I say we must denounce and dismantle these structures that dehumanize and oppress us. Otherwise we are condemned to experience déjà vu for years and years to come.

For Black people

If you are feeling overwhelmed right now, and you want to take a step back or need more resources, here are some resources.

I am also inviting any of my Black readers to contact me directly for support and solidarity.

For white people ready for change

It’s time. You already know this can’t wait. The good news is that you can do the work to be actively anti-racist, not just “not racist.” Not “colour blind.” Not just an “ally.” Being anti-racist means acknowledging that our systems are racist and that racism is everywhere, including in you, and to work continuously to get rid of it. Here’s a to-do list:

  1. Instead of defending Canada’s record, you can get educated. We know that “We’re better than the USA” is not a valid defense of Canada’s atrocious track record with regard to racism. We tell a pretty story about how Black Loyalists found freedom here—do we talk about how many of them were so poorly treated that they opted to leave for Sierra Leone? Do we admit to our own history with slavery and how even our oldest Black communities in Nova Scotia are treated as Other? We talk about our Indigenous peoples as though they are in the past—as though there are not communities without safe drinking water or education, communities fighting to maintain their ancestral and sacred lands. These are just a few examples of racist systems here at home that continue to oppress people—and benefit you, whether you’ve realized it or not. You can be an encouraging, helpful, educated partner to the people oppressed by these systems.

Essential Canadian reading:

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, by Robyn Maynard

The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, by Desmond Cole

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

  1. Be humble, open your ears and heart, and try not to take things personally other than the work before you. Listen to and learn from Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour in Canada about our experiences. When feminists talk to men about misogyny, we often hear a lot of defensiveness and the phrase “Not all men.” Make sure that you’re not “Not all white people”-ing instead of actually listening to suffering racialized people. Racism is systemic and we’re all steeped in it; this is not just about your individual actions. This is about responding to a huge, devastating violence perpetrated systemically, daily.

For white feminists, it can be hard to accept that the very system that oppresses you also benefits you in some ways by granting you privilege based on your skin colour. It’s an uncomfortable reality that has white women allies skirting around the issue of racism in their workplaces and lives.

To be a true ally, to be truly anti-racist, is to recognize these dynamics, try to listen with an open mind (by putting your own discomfort and defensiveness aside—no “Not all white people”!) and then engage in genuine dialogue about changes, small or big, that will begin to right these wrongs and ultimately benefit us all.

  1. As you do this work, you will inevitably feel sadness, anger, confusion, and a lot of discomfort and questions. Make sure that when you turn to friends for support and information, you’re turning to other white people. Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour have been processing our own pain around all of these events, often all our lives, and we might not have the energy to support you at the beginning of your journey of awakening. This isn’t meant to be harsh. It’s just true. Get support from your other anti-racist white friends.

Make sure you also give energy and strength to your BIPOC friends. Check in and see how they’re doing. Let them lean on you knowing you’re as educated as possible and aware of their pain right now. Accept their anger and tears. Hold space for their grief and pain.

  1. Take action. What can you do to support or defend your neighbour or colleague and challenge the status quo? Taking action might mean you lose some of your privileges and all of your innocence, but in exchange you’ll become a better human being. Donate, of course, to the US right now to help with bailouts and legal protection for protestors; look for local organizations working for racial justice in your area. There are people all over social media compiling organizations that need support. There are lists of ways you can support this movement (here’s a good Canada-specific one).

I have faith that you can get uncomfortable. You can get involved. And we can all get better.