By RIMA BERNS-McGOWN
I was born in South Africa of a mixed background: three of my four grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews and my paternal grandmother was Cape Coloured as well as Afrikaner. My parents left South Africa because of Apartheid.
Growing up in Montreal I experienced both anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, including the systemic kind, from teachers at school who were harsher and more mistrusting of me than my white peers, and in stores where I was followed and regularly had store personnel insist on checking my bags in case I had stolen something.
Even today, I never know how I will be “read”: people see me as everything from white to brown to Black — and treat me according to whatever preconception of me they have.
While I’m less likely to be questioned in Toronto than small towns, I’ve had anti-Black racist slurs flung at me on the Beach while out with the dog. Not too long ago, a sales clerk rudely interrogated me, even though the box I was carrying clearly indicated a “sold” sticker that indicated I had paid for my purchase.
Black History Month is important because it provides an opportunity for Ontarians to focus both on the impressive contributions to society and culture of Black Canadians but also on the ways in which systemic anti-Black racism continues to stifle and harm Black individuals — as children or adults, at school, on the street, and at work — and Black communities.
Anti-Black racism is harmful and insidious wherever it appears — whether it is the extreme case of Dafonte Miller, whose case of losing an eye to a brutal beating, allegedly by an off-duty police officer, is currently before the courts — or a kindergarten teacher who can’t see the heart of a five-year-old boy, or Child Welfare Services who are more likely to take children from Black families than white ones.
Bullying and teacher slights leave painful scars. Lives and families are destroyed by institutional racism. Anti-Black racism increases the likelihood that Black people in Canada will experience poverty and will have worse health outcomes than white people.
That’s just wrong.
The fact that Canada is doing a relatively better job than many other countries of creating a meaningfully diverse society should never obscure what we do badly: We do a terrible job of remembering our deep history of racism and colonial genocide, and we do a terrible job of acknowledging how deeply racist attitudes, policies, and procedures are still embedded in all of our institutions, much less fixing them.
Yes, we should acknowledge and work to fix these issues throughout the year, not only in February. But February is a focal point where all of us can reflect on where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we need to go to create a society that works for all of us.
Please reach out if you’d like to talk further. I’d be happy to come and have a chat with your local organization or your neighbours around a kitchen table or at my office. I can be reached at Rberns-McGown-CO@ndp.on.ca or by calling my office at 416-690-1032.