A Commentary on Race: Learning from past experience

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For this weeks blog post I asked my mother-in-law to write about her experiences growing up as a person of colour in South Africa during apartheid, and when she decided to move her family to Canada. I am white. I grew up in a small city in northern Ontario. While I have always known racism exists in the world, I thought my “not seeing colour” or “seeing everyone as equal” was a good thing. I liked that about myself. This past week I was on a mission to consume content that educated and inspired me to do better and to be better. The two biggest lessons I have learned this week is that (#1) not seeing colour, or being neutral, is not helping anyone. I need to see colour and understand what it means to be a person of colour. I need to be anti-racist and not just non-racist. And, (#2) racism is not just someones attitude or belief. It is a systemic issue. I need to educate myself about the systemic racism that exists in my own community and learn about what I can do to help change it. I look forward to continuing to learn as much as I can about this topic and I am happy to share what I learn with others. Thank you so much to Soma for sharing her story this week. After reading this story you will see how bad ass she is when she is faced with racism. She stands up for herself and her family.

We all need to be a little more like Soma.   

We were born into apartheid (Afrikaans term meaning ‘separate’ or ‘apartness’) in South Africa.

There were 4 distinct groups: White; Coloured; Indian, and; Black. I was deemed Indian. We were segregated communities and rarely entered each other’s geographic areas in each city or town. We had our own local schools, hospitals and places of worship. Each community had their own public transit and even bus stops, benches and entrances were labeled “Whites Only” or “Non-White”.

I only saw other race groups as a child when they would come into my community. We even had our own Indian newspapers! When we did ask questions as children, we were told not to question the way things were as it was dangerous to make waves. I was about 12 when I seriously questioned why we accepted things the way there way. I had accompanied a neighbour downtown and noticed while we waited in line at the cash that White customers walked directly to the counter ahead of everyone in line and got served first. When we reached the counter, I asked why that happened. The cashier said that company policy followed government policy and that Whites got first priority. I said the value of the money we paid with was the same so I didn’t understand that explanation.

The cashier said that company policy followed government policy and that Whites got first priority.

It was after this experience that I started more seriously questioning the status quo and finding out more. I heard about books being banned if they had any mention of the wrongness of apartheid or the resistance groups like the African National Congress. I read as much as I could about the history of other countries to figure out our own history. I was able to tap into our local resistance too and talk to people involved in the struggle and learned about detention without trial and Robben Island where all our prominent political resistance leaders like Mandela were imprisoned.

I did notice though that my community treated each of the other groups differently too. As I grew up I became convinced that wedge was encouraged by the government of the day to ensure the success of the apartheid regime. So, I did everything in my power to ensure I never contributed to that policy.

I graduated high school and joined the diagnostic radiography program at the largest non-White hospital. I went to work at an Indian hospital after training but I wanted to work in radiation therapy. Radiation Therapy training was not open to persons of colour in my province until a few years later, though. I applied and was the first student of colour to be accepted. I was doing my degree program by distance education during that time.

I didn’t know, until years later, that I was the token student that was intended to prove that opening the program to people of colour was a mistake and they wanted to ensure the training was closed again, however they could. What they didn’t figure in was that I was an ambitious learner that wouldn’t let any obstacles stop me! I wanted to prove that I was the best candidate they had and worked hard to get the best marks and clinical evaluations. They tried to get me to leave the program and I resisted their efforts and completed the program. I went on to study for the Higher Diploma Radiation Therapy credentials and achieved the best results in the country.

photo by: caroline ross photography

So, there I was, more qualified than my manager, running a department with the highest patient intake numbers for oncology, without the pay or the position that job was supposed to have, and with no promotional prospects. During this time, your pay was dependent upon the colour of your skin. A white person and a black person could have the same job title and do the same amount of work but be paid different amounts. I had a frank discussion with the professor who was head of program about my future and he was honest enough to say that there was no way forward because of government policy. Additionally, I remember having to fight for equal treatment of Black patients who took a backseat when White patients were moved ahead in the line for treatment. This would happen after the Black patients had already waited 7-8 hours and then they would miss out on that days treatment because the office would close. That drove me crazy! Radiation treatment success is based on receiving successive treatments over a certain number of days each week. But they had no compunction about canceling them for Black patients.

My husband and I had decided before we married that since we came from large families and abject poverty we would not rush having children until we established ourselves. Once we had our son, we had to think about how to bring him up in the society we lived in. We consciously policed how people talked around him when they described other race groups.

The beach opposite the cancer centre I worked at was deemed “Whites Only” so, no one of colour was allowed on the sand or in the water. Try telling a child that!

Remember I talked about the wedges between race groups? Well I had to make sure people understood I would not tolerate those making derogatory comments in front of him. He was going to learn to see no differences in people if I could help it!  And we always hoped that apartheid would end before he grew up and that he would grow up in a different society.

However, things came to a head when he was about three years old and had a melt down because he couldn’t run down to the beach while waiting for me to finish work. Our beaches were segregated too! The beach opposite my cancer centre was deemed ‘Whites Only’ so no one of colour was allowed on the sand or in the water. Try telling a child that! So, I join them at the car park which is adjacent to the beach and filled with tourists and find the kid sobbing that he wants to play in the sea. I just lost it. I loudly announced to all in earshot ‘don’t you know you can’t go down there because your colour will run in the water’! Everyone looks at us and I tell them that, ‘yes! I work across the road, we own a house and pay taxes but can’t vote and our child can’t go in the water as his colour will taint the precious water reserved for White swimmers’! Of course, an inner voice was saying ‘please God, please don’t let my child be damaged permanently by his mother’s outburst.

That was the day I decided we would get out of South Africa as soon as we could.

I had followed the news of Pierre Trudeau and his Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada beckoned. Ontario Cancer Care was recruiting therapists and I applied and was successful. I chose to go to Hamilton. I never gave a thought to whether going to a smaller blue-collar community would be better or worse. But we were welcomed into the community and cancer centre. I attained the highest position in my profession within 18 months arriving. We became Canadian citizens and we spent five happy years there without being consciously aware of our skin colour. Our son saw no differences and we were relieved.

We moved to British Columbia when a job opportunity came. Oddly enough, we had our first racial experiences in the laid-back Canadian West Coast! We heard people talk about “those” people while we were out and about and I would turn around and say to them “we speak the Queen’s English and we know our rights and responsibilities as Canadian citizens so keep your discriminatory views private”.

One Canada Day, a couple years after, we took visitors to the local park where Canada Day celebrations were going on and sat down against a fence to enjoy the music and hustle and bustle. And we heard people speaking in Afrikaans behind us. They were noting how many people of Indian origin were in the crowd and that “they seem to be everywhere”. Wow! That got my blood boiling! I turned around and said that I spoke Afrikaans and that if they were going to import their apartheid views on a day when Canadian citizens and taxpayers were celebrating the exceptionality of Canada, they needed to go somewhere else. I never saw people scurrying away so quickly! Fortunately we had mostly positive experiences after that incident.

Generally, I try not to find discrimination in attitudes but in the last few years I’ve noticed an uptick in prejudiced sentiment, mainly online but emanating from Canada too. I found that especially concerning soon after that attack in New Zealand. I wrote a piece about my fears, on my Facebook. I emailed that to the PM, leaders of the opposition parties and some MPs whose remarks over the years have made me worry about the direction some right leaning politicians want Canada to move.

I am a proud Canadian first and foremost. I want my mixed-race grandson to grow up in that Canada that Pierre Elliot Trudeau espoused – with not even a wisp of the inequality of the South African regime we left all those years ago.

***Written by: Soma

XOXO Renee Reina

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1 Comment
  • Grace
    June 10, 2020

    What a strong, remarkable woman! Your family is so blessed to have such a force and strong guiding light.

No unicorns are coming to whisk you away just because your partner is home…
A Commentary on Race: Learning from past experience