History Repeats – Canada’s Racism Problem
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of FOCUS.
Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the world. – William Faulkner.
Growing up on the east coast of Jamaica during the first ten and most tender years of my life, I was not exposed to racism. Nor did I know that it was an issue of gross magnitude that affected millions of people. Born in Canada to Jamaican parents, my mother brought me back to Jamaica at three months old. For eight years I lived in Portland, Jamaica and later moved to Clarendon, Jamaica where I spent two more years before returning to my “home” country, Canada. It was not that I had not been taught that racism and discrimination existed in “foreign”, as most Jamaicans would call it. It was rather that I was of the opinion that racism was an issue of the past or happened only in the United States. But Canada – no way it happened there.
I was both naive and anxious upon my arrival in Pickering, ON in 2003. The earliest and most vivid memory I have of an instance of intentional, overt racism was when I was walking home with my cousin. My cousin, like me, had been born in Canada, but unlike me, she had lived all her 11 years in Canada. Walking home from school, we were approached by three Caucasian teenagers who crossed our path and began clapping and chanting: “If you’re white and you know it clap your hands, if you’re white and you know it clap your hands.” Before they could finish, my cousin, in a manner that was both defensive and gracious, helped them finish by singing, “If you’re black and you know it and you really want to show it, clap your hands”, ending with her hands on her hips and smiling while walking away. These boys were teenagers that attended the local high school. I remember trying to sing and clap with her, my innocent way of standing in solidarity. I remember feeling startled, but once I got home and into my bed, I reflected on the incident. My feelings were like an open wound that was exposed to the elements. I felt violated and hurt. Young minds are under constant development and the experience of trauma can have negative implications that opens doors to struggles and obstacles.
Skipping forward over half a decade, I graduated high school as an Ontario Scholar, a title earned by having an 80% overall average. At the time I was six months pregnant. With my entrance letter to Saint Francis Xavier University in hand, I moved to Nova Scotia in 2011 to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. It was not my dream career, but it was one that I knew would provide a good quality of life for myself and my unborn child. Nova Scotia, from the moment I relocated, was not the most welcoming or the most diverse, least of all the rural hub of New Glasgow, NS. It seemed like even in simple conversations, I was made aware that I did not belong in New Glasgow or the community at large. I was called a CFA – come from away – on a regular basis. This phrase and other terms like it were both pervasive and othering and these often left me feeling discouraged.
The university population was more diverse, but lacked representation in places where representation would have made a significant difference. We had a black student society, but as a student body, representation on campus was relegated to cultural days or sports events. This brought forward many concerns, that we as a population were as engaged as the majority white student population, but our leadership, expertise, and voices were not invited into crucial decision-making groups that had the ability to make changes. We needed an environment that was not only welcoming, but also inclusive and reflective of us. As a black woman, I knew that in order for my university experience to be one where I would carry fond memories of it for the rest of my life, it would require my intervention. I started participating heavily in debates, lectures, seminars, series, and groups to ensure a diversity of voices were heard. In these years, I came up with strategies to mitigate real situations that were a hindrance and posed many challenges to my fellow African Canadians. I knew that showing up and participating would prove our commitment and need for inclusivity. I understood that we needed allyship for our needs to be addressed not just immediately, but in the long term. If we are not speaking for justice, we are curtailing our ability to catch up. Dr. Afua Cooper explained it best: “One wonders what African Nova Scotians might have achieved over these past 200 years if these barriers were not in place.” This question may only be answered after another 200 years if we do not take action and continue to establish and maintain allyship.
Having a voice is like having the pen, it’s among our most valued tools in combating racism, discrimination, and all systems used to oppress and shrink not only the dreams of African Canadians, but also our will to persevere. Being afforded the ability to host spaces and events to talk about racism, more specifically in the healthcare system, allows for breakthroughs and deeper understanding. Encouraging those uncomfortable conversations that are the real test of allyship work to rectify injustice and build points of access for persons of colour having a voice and using it. It is imperative that those voices are heard, echoed, and respected. This inevitably will propagate destruction in all forms of oppression. The next greatest thing to our voice is your ears. Listen to what is being shared, explained, and painfully addressed. Words possess the power to devastate and rebuild. We do not want to repeat ourselves, but we have no other choice should things remain the same or, as we saw with George Floyd, escalating and rapidly deteriorating.
Black people are silenced when white people experience too much guilt and shame when hearing the truth. How could we combat this? Listen! It is critical that African Canadian people are no longer confronted with this notion that “we” should just get over what has happened to African Canadians. How does one propose we get over something that is not taught in its entirety in institutions and spaces that offer education and history? If an accurate history barely exists for the general population, what are we just getting over? I can only imagine the answer to this question would infuriate many, but we can not just move on or get over the traumas that have happened to our ancestors causing intergenerational trauma, pain, and loss of culture, language, and identity. Rather we want to revisit it, have proper education regarding it, and moreover unravel and unearth the horrors, because as George Santayana reportedly said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It goes without saying that we did not directly experience the harsh traumas of our ancestry, but this does not deny us of traumas of our own, experienced through ongoing racism, discrimination, bullying, and basic denial of equality. The greatest lesson from the very real and public consequences of racism as experienced by people such as George Floyd, is that telling people to just get over it or move on doesn’t actually help to change the systems and structures that led to these moments. If we don’t address this issue, we will become a self-refueling, self-regenerating reality that will pose a present that looks eerily like our past.
If you were to run a marathon without all the necessary tools, training, and support, you would not be a runner who has a fair shot at equitably winning the race. This is in effect the experience of African Canadians. This lack of support needed to acheive equity began at the time of emancipation and the long term effects continue to be apparent today. Once receiving freedom, what programs, resources and supports were put in place to enhance the betterment and furthering of Africans of the diaspora? The lack of action immediately post slavery continues to have a lasting impact for African Canadians today. While generations of caucasian families built on the striving and success of their parents and grandparents, children of black men and women freed from slavery are still playing catch up! Rather than creating equity, existing systems continue to reinforce inequity. Until the government, schools, employers, and a multitude of institutions accept that the ongoing impacts of slavery continue to keep us centuries behind our counterparts, we will never attain equality, much less equity.
Beyond acknowledging and speaking about an accurate history, there is also the issue of representation. African Canadians are among the most underrepresented population in various employment sectors such as healthcare, academia, and politics. We must ask why that is the case and what can be done to mitigate this issue by both recruiting and retaining people of colour in those professions. Let us start off by emphasizing that our qualifications and degrees ought to be enough proof of our competency and ability to perform duties assigned once all mandatory training is fulfilled. One clear obstacle to retaining people within these fields is that people of colour are expected to prove that they have earned their place, regardless of their education and training. They engage in laborious and tireless efforts to prove that they are indeed competent or adequate, something their peers do not endure to the same extent. Over time, this can create burn out, resentment, and be a deterrent for persons of colour to continue to express enthusiasm and commitment.
The lack of representation in fields requiring post-secondary education is surprising, especially when addressed in context of the current statistics around education. According to Statistic Canada’s 2016 reporting on women ages 29 to 59, 31.4% of Canadian born black women have completed post-secondary education, earning a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 28.6% of non-black Canadian born women have achieved the same academic standard. There is an even more stark contrast when you look at non-black Canadian born men, of whom 21.1% have a bachelor’s degree or higher in the same age group. However, black females are seriously underrepresented in careers requiring post-secondary education. Developing and promoting an environment that protects, encourages, respects, values, and appreciates people of colour can change the very fiber of the environment in which we spend most of our days. No one, no matter their race or ethnicity wants to spend significant time and emotional labour navigating and dealing with settings that are not welcoming and inclusive.
In summary, African Canadians and other Africans of the diaspora have suffered immensely throughout the history of Canada. This has created a domino effect that has caused enduring intergenerational trauma, pain, and loss of identity and has negatively impacted not just the success, but distorted representation in mainstream environments such as politics, education, and health institutions. Black experience as a healthcare provider has been nothing short of a painful and oftentimes discouraging experience. One part of a solution is the establishment of space that allows black healthcare professionals to share their experience and to create opportunities for them to feel supported, respected, and included. It is the duty of institutions, be they political, educational, medical, or other, to ensure these spaces are free of judgement and operated by people of colour. Together we can implement strategies that can produce real change. We are reminded of the words of scripture that “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)
Over and over again, I have seen patients use racist commentary and request a healthcare provider that looks like them — and they are given what they want without any issues or consequences. This only perpetuates their behaviour and until accountability is taken, change is far behind. Please stop asking us to get over and move on from traumas that are yet to be properly unearthed, never mind reconciled. The creation of systemic and institutional resources and supports can help people of colour achieve the equity that has been lacking for centuries. I can appreciate that all of this can be a lot and many benefit from having the opportunity to listen to a person whose experience they haven’t lived. I invite each of you to always be ready to listen and to ask how you can be a support.
It goes without saying that things have happened and will continue to happen. God is the knower and Seer of all things. He knows of the trials and tribulations we will face before they occur or we are given the choice, and we choose. The things I have experienced in my life are nothing short of the mercy of God that I have not only survived but overcome, succeeded, and conquered. Experiencing homelessness at the age of 15 and living on my own since 16, becoming a mother at the age of 18, with no family support throughout my education or while caring for my children, and having to be strong and not being allowed much room for vulnerability, has revealed to me that God is more than real. The exposure to racism, discrimination, insults, stereotypes, and stigmas has left trauma, pain, and memories that are not erasable, but forgivable. Participating daily in prayer, self-praise, the counting of blessings and the acknowledgement that I know what I have lived through and what tools that I have either built or found, provide a constant reminder that you cannot change your past, but your future is at your discretion. What you choose to do with that daily life given by God is the difference between surviving or creating new paths and avenues. With each new day of life, you have the opportunity to choose: Do I make a difference, or do I just keep offering to the world a person still hurting or someone who is under construction? The latter of the two is where a lot of African Canadians are currently. Coming to terms, experiencing acceptance, and creating solutions can be done when ALL have the knowledge to make conscious, educated and tangible decisions and changes. I speak for my fellow African Canadians and Africans of the diaspora that our trauma extends back hundreds of years, but with each day of new life we are choosing construction of self, accurate historical interpretations, and relationships that ensure not only that we are heard and seen, but that we are respected, afforded opportunities, and included. Most importantly, that history can stop repeating itself.