When my child was born, my first thought was not to marvel at him – it was fear that he would be judged by his brown skin, and not by his heart. I was shocked at my own thoughts. In the infinite nights of caring for a newborn, I realized that upon meeting his pure, sweet innocence, I immediately feared for his path in this world.
I am shaken by the racist violence we are witnessing on this continent – but not surprised. Even though I’m living in a cozy situation (benefitting from unwavering support of my research communities, colleagues, students and extraordinary partner), I’ve had many experiences that explain my fears for my son.
I am Canadian. I am brown. I have been asked countless times if I have ever encountered racism. This question tires me endlessly. In my idealistic youth, I would attempt to answer – to educate – because back then I didn’t understand whose responsibility it was to change racism.
I quickly learned that my responses were met with scepticism (surely I misunderstood), defensiveness, and aggression. I have not been physically assaulted because of my skin colour, but I have been spit on twice. Very often, the other person asked me about racism (not the other way around); instead of listening, they concluded that I was somehow fragile or sensitive. All of this to say, my opinion on race was worth less than theirs. The cost-benefit ratio of providing my opinion on whether racism exists in Canada does not work out in my favour.
Why speak up now, and risk the awful backlash that works to show that I am worth less? Because silence is complicit. I am not Black or Indigenous and therefore cannot fathom their experiences, but we: 1) desperately need to hear their voices, and 2) must dispense with colour-blindness (“I don’t see race”) so that we can openly recognize that racism exists in Canada. To that end, here goes: of course I have experienced racism, in overt and ceaselessly covert ways.
- People have declined my care as a healthcare provider >3 times explicitly because of my skin.
- A sales associate has refused to give me an item from behind the case because it was “very expensive” >5 times.
- I have received the earnest, unsolicited advice not to have a child with my white partner because that mixed-race child would experience racism >5 times. One was a complete stranger that accosted us in the street.
- Hateful racial “statistics” and symbols have been written on the sidewalk in my neighbourhood and on furniture in my workplace.
- I have received racial slurs >100 times. The tempo and type change with the times (e.g., post-9/11). Some circle accurately about my ethnicity; but most don’t. I have been called the N-word more times than I can count. This strange experience makes me feel that I somehow stole something from Black Canadians. The majority of these slurs occurred when I was a child. These slurs taught a child about her value in society.
- My first invited speaker gig at an international scientific meeting almost didn’t happen because I was detained at the American border for hours (no explanation given or required), interviewed by six different border agents and searched. I missed my connecting flight. I was upset, agitated, violated, yet expected to provide my scientific address to hundreds. When I travel to the U.S. on my own, I am routinely pulled aside for the random check. I have never been pulled aside when I travel with my white husband. If you are wondering, I have paid all of my parking tickets.
- People have explained to me that I would not have earned my current position without my skin colour (implying not based on my merit) >10 times. These experiences bother me greatly because I have run fast and far on loose gravel to earn my position. I do a good job.
- In Grade 1, I asked my parents why white people wanted to tan – since they hated brown skin. I still do not have the answer.
People tell me I’m lucky that I don’t live in the U.S. They are right, I am lucky – we are all lucky to live in Canada for many reasons. The current events in the U.S. are absolutely soul-crushing. But make no mistake, we are witnessing extreme racial violence, particularly toward Black and Indigenous citizens in Canada.
These violent events represent a horrifying peak of racist experience, but the accumulation of isolated, covert incidents is also profoundly damaging to our students, colleagues and neighbours. Being colour-blind, that is, failing to “see race,” means that we: 1) fail to see the whole person and acknowledge their experiences, and 2) cannot identify (and confront) everyday race-based biases that translate into real harm. Consider: why does Canada have any missing and murdered Indigenous; why does the proportion of students in higher-level education fail to represent our population; why does COVID-19 affect people of colour more than their peers?
I now see people expressing the desire for change and I pray it is authentic but I am scared it is not – and worry the backlash might be even worse. I fear for my son. I fear that I cannot teach him how to respect authority, trust authority and fear authority at the same time. I fear his anger when he tries to reconcile it. I fear begging him to pave his own way forward instead of confronting racism because I don’t believe he will be heard and respected. I am angry that many parents do not have to teach their children these lessons – and the lessons people must teach Black and Indigenous children are even worse. I used to fear my son wouldn’t get a “fair” shake at opportunity; but with recent events, I fear his body, mind and future will be hurt. I fear my son coming home upset because someone called him a racist slur. It will happen. Unless we change.
Monica R. Maly is an associate professor of kinesiology in the faculty of applied health sciences at the University of Waterloo.