On Race, Racism, and Being Racialized
Learning the Painful Truth That This Society Wasn’t Made for You
I’m in the metro on my way home from school after my 11 p.m. class finishes, when suddenly I notice two individuals talking very loudly behind me, two white people with dreads, two white people with dreads loudly making racist comments.
I’ve had a long day, I don’t want to hear this, I know it’s there, it’s everywhere, it’s institutionalized. I just don’t want to be exposed to it more than I am and have been my whole life. I could snap, I could yell, but I don’t, I don’t have it in me, I’ve had a long day. I still engage and maybe I shouldn’t, but I have to or feel that I have to. Anyway, I engage with them.
I tell them very calmly that what they are saying is offensive and racist and it offended me. Good, this isn’t too awful and my stop is next, I can just walk away from this, go home, make some Moroccan tea, and forget about them.
But no. They decide to insult me: “Esti de négresse!”
They are yelling now, and I can’t yell back. I am tired and they’re wrong; why are they arguing that they are not racist by using racial slurs after saying racist things?
It’s fine, I’m getting out in a second, I can still walk away and drink my tea. No. They decide that I owe them an explanation, to stay and be yelled at. That does not surprise me. I have dealt with and feel multi-generational oppression all the time. My ancestors were owned, insulted, and assaulted by their ancestors. They feel entitled to do the same to me—nothing new.
I’m finally at my stop. Everything’s not fine but will be when I won’t have to go through this violence. Everyone is watching, listening, no one is doing anything—nothing new. They follow me out. It’s not their stop. As I walk away, ignoring their shouts and insults, they demand I come back and explain: “Reviens calisse de tamul! C’est toi la raciste.”
Oh, right. I’m wearing a head wrap. They must be torn between using racial or Islamophobic slurs, and are throwing both around. They’re still following me yelling. I threaten to call the cops, knowing that I would never call the cops. The cops are the problem, I don’t trust them, they have beaten me, and have been a tool for the repression, oppression, and violence of racialized people. I don’t trust them, I fear them.
Some random person asks me if I’m ok and tells them to stop. They stop, turn around and probably catch the next metro. I guess racist white people respond better to other white people. I get home, I’m drained, I’m done.
This is just one example of the ways I experience my race in my everyday life.
I don’t remember the first time I became aware of being racialized.
I remember instances of blatant racism from a very young age, like that time, when I was nine years old in elementary school and needed urgent medical attention because of my diabetes. But instead of calling an ambulance, the teachers at school called the police.
Like that same time, when I tried to explain what was happening to the police officer, and he looked at me with a mix of disgust and wariness. Or when I tried to leave the office that I was confined in with him and he pushed my small nine-year-old body against the wall three times to keep me from leaving. Or when he told the principal of the school that “[he] knew those kids, they only want attention because they don’t get it at home.” Or when I spent the following few days in a coma because I didn’t get the medical attention I needed.
I don’t remember when I first realized I had very little agency over my own body. But I do remember specific instances of people (mostly white, mostly male) imposing their will over my body.
Like all the times Beckys grabbed my curly, unruly hair without my permission, like I was on display at a petting zoo. Like all those times I was out with (white) friends and I was singled out and expected to feel thankful for and enjoy having my ass grabbed, being touched, being cat-called, because my racialized body is less holy and worthy of respect than that of a white woman.
The meaning was, for a very long time, that for me, being racialized, that for me, not being white in a predominantly white environment, to be subordinate, lesser, unworthy—that notion only cemented itself at university.
I have spent four years at Concordia University completing my undergraduate studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science. From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2017, I have been registered in and attended 34 courses with 34 different professors.
I studied in the School of Community and Public Affairs, which means I studied a mix of sociology, history, anthropology, and political science.
Of those 34 courses, 32 were taught by white professors, and only a handful addressed in some way racialized people and Indigenous people within the course content. Most of my courses, unless reviewing historical “facts,” explored different social issues and their impact in so-called Canadian society.
So how could sociological, anthropological, historical, and political courses focusing on past and present society not address racialized people’s place, involvement, and contributions in that society?
How come, in the handful of cases where racialized people, race or racism were mentioned, they were analyzed through the lens of white writers and thinkers?
I do remember in great detail the moment I realized the uneasy, uncomfortable, and harmful feeling I had existing in this institution, as the daughter of African-Muslim immigrants, was because this university, like all universities in so-called Canada and other predominantly white countries, was not made for me.
It was not intended to welcome me, my history, my realities, and my identity the same way it was built to cater to white people, their needs, their stories and their voices.
Academia in western countries is inherently white-washed and over-represents the dominant white side of history and writers, actively devaluing racially marginalized voices and their contributions and existence in society. I was hurt by this realization and still am because this is not a singular situation which was bound to pass once I left university.
This is institutionalized racism. The university is both a way in which it manifests itself and a tool it uses to enforce and perpetuate itself. My university experience was not the start or the end of it, it was just another way in which I experienced my race.
This—institutionalized racism—is how and why Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have been forcefully put in a situation of subordination; it is how and why Black bodies are policed and criminalized. It is both the cause and the tool that ensures Black women are more likely to experience sexual assault and significantly less likely to report it, and why Black people are disproportionately killed by the police.
This is why I was never taught there were slaves in so-called Canada; this is how and why our existence has been erased, is erased; this is why my body is less holy, less deserving of respect.
This is why the cops are called when I need medical attention; this is why unnecessary force is used against my nine-year-old body seeking help.
This is why I can’t go home after my 11 p.m. class without being subjected to racist slurs, without being followed, without being scared.
That is what racism is, as author Toni Morrison puts it; it is a distraction, it keeps me from doing simple things simply, from living without my existence being questioned, without my culture being stolen, without my people being killed.
My experience as a racialized person in so-called Canada and more specifically at this university is one of institutionalized racism. It is a product of the social construct—race—created by and to preserve the dominance of white supremacy.
These experiences are personal to me, but are not particular or exclusive to me. I do not claim authority over all the ways in which racialized people experience racism, however I know my stories will be familiar to the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour with whom I share these struggles.
That is because these stories are everywhere; that is because the fact that racism is institutionalized means that it seeps through every part of life and society. Just like these stories are braided into my everyday, racism is braided into the intricate fibers of my life.
Mais le racisme au Québec, ça n’existe pas.