As a black woman who grew up in Canada I am all too familiar with the many kinds of racism that exist in this country. From systemic racism within the education system and the justice system to individual acts of racism, I have experienced it, witnessed it and heard about it from family and friends. Growing up in Toronto, considered to be the most multicultural city in the world, I was one of maybe 10 black students in a high school of over 2000 students. I remember noticing that the only two black male students in the grade ahead of me both left the school suddenly and I heard rumours that they had been expelled. Whether or not that was true I never confirmed, but I remember wondering whether it was a coincidence that they had both left.It was hard to point to systemic racism in a school where there were so few racialized students, easier to just assume that they had done something to deserve being expelled or perhaps that they had simply chosen to leave. I never discussed this with anyone, I didn’t know either of them very well, and yet something about the situation bothered me enough that I still remember it now, almost 20 years later. In a way, this is what racism in Canada has always been like for me. An incident occurs, something about it just doesn’t sit right, but there is not enough evidence to call it racism, so I (and everyone else) just let it go. I spent most of my teen and early adult years wondering why I was so sensitive, why these things bothered me so much when it was clear that I must be imagining it. Because if it really was racism, why would everyone else be so comfortable to simply ignore it?
Recently I have begun to understand that I am not alone. That many other racialized folk living and experiencing these same things, also feel that racism is alive in Canada. And I have also begun to understand why we are so hesitant to name it, and why it is so easy for these incidents to be ignored. As I have become more vocal about racism, I have begun to see that most Canadians are in denial that racism exists here in the 21st century. As a society we believe that racism is an American problem, or that it is something for the history books. Even worse, attempts to discuss racism are often treated as the problem. I have had many experiences of pointing out racist behaviour, language or systems only to be told that I am being divisive, or being asked to prove that race is a factor.
As I watched the BlackLivesMatterTO movement in the past few weeks, I began to recognize these same responses on a larger scale. I watched the media completely ignore the protesters gathered outside police headquarters until they found a story which vilified one of the founders of the movement. I heard colleagues and acquaintances dismiss the concerns of the protesters claiming that we have no proof that the incidents they wanted examined (such as the death of Andrew Loku at the hands of police) had anything to do with race. I read articles questioning Premier Kathleen Wynne’s statement that systemic racism exists in Ontario. And I participated in online conversations where those of us who attempted to describe the racism we had experienced be reprimanded for the way we were talking or being asked to provide evidence that race was a motivating factor.
I realize now that racism in Canada is so pervasive and systemic that it is easier to ignore it then to attempt to confront it or change it. But I also recognize that living with racism is detrimental to the health of racialized folk, and until we begin to have conversations about how racism and race impact our lives, we will continue to see higher rates of incarceration, death and illness among our communities. It is for this reason that I decided to start this blog and begin this discussion in whatever way I can. My hope is that if we can begin to have these difficult conversations now, if we can begin to work towards changing the racist systems within which we exist, perhaps my children will be able to experience a Canada which is truly free of racism. Or at the very least, they will know that it is okay to name their pain and their experiences so that they do not have to bear the burden silently as so many of us have done for too long.