As protests continue in full steam south of the border, the number of rallies and demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have slowed down in Canada—but the conversation is nowhere near over.
For several weeks, we’ve been hearing from members of our community here in Victoria who seldom have their voices heard, particularly on a topic that still remains contentious in the 21st century.
One theme runs constant for every Black, Indigenous, and Person of Colour who reached out to share there experiences of racism in this city: that of a lack of support and tendency of white peers to be dismissive of racialized incidents and micro aggressions.
As the spotlight on protests start to wane, it’s important to remember that the issues that sparked them have not disappeared overnight.
In a continuation of our weekly series, these are the stories of three Victoria residents whose experiences in this city highlight some issues that are consistently swept under the rug.
Damineh Akhavan, 40
Most people who see Damineh Akhavan walking down the street would never know she’s a woman of colour—until they hear her speak her mother tongue.
The half-Iranian, half-white woman lived in Victoria for over 17 years before moving back to Vancouver to raise her son.
Akhavan first moved to Victoria to work on her undergraduate degree, and lived in the city’s downtown core for over a decade afterwards.
“I would go for walks around Cook Street Village and go by the water, rain, shine or snow. Sometimes I would pick up the phone and talk to my mom while walking—that’s when the comments started. People on the street would tell me to speak English,” she says.
“The one time that was really scary for me was when I was talking to my mom and a guy and a girl followed me, calling me a terrorist.”
Casual walks down the street weren’t the only times Akhavan encountered that word—it was a term often used to crack jokes about her by employees at her workplace.
“When I talk about it I still remember exactly how I felt at the time. The first time I heard it is the one that sticks out the most,” she added, her voice filled with emotion.
Things didn’t get any better in Victoria after she met her husband in 2006—a Black man originally from Jamaica.
“It’s unfortunate that I even have to describe his looks or his background, but he speaks multiple languages, and has done over 10 years of schooling,” she adds.
During their time together in Victoria, the couple experienced persistent stares, passersby crossing the street to avoid walking past them or clutching their purse, or being treated differently at local businesses when they went out as a couple.
“People would be waiting for an elevator, see me inside it and smile, then see him and not enter the elevator. I lived in an apartment and that happened a lot.”
When the couple had their son, they decided to move to Vancouver where Akhavan could feel safer due to the support system of her family.
“I just couldn’t wait to get out of Victoria and I didn’t want to raise a biracial kid in that city,” she said.
“My friends in Victoria right now are all of other backgrounds. Unfortunately maybe it’s because people are not exposed to people from other places. The white community sticks together and Victoria is very cliquey.”
Kamika Williams, 34
Kamika Williams was born and raised in Victoria, and has lived here for most of her life.
As a biracial woman—Black father, Caucasian mother—who was raised by her mother’s side of the family, Williams learned very early on what it means to look different in Victoria.
Growing up in B.C.’s capital in the early 90s, she was used to getting stared at when out and about with her mixed race family.
“My mother says I came home from school crying one day when I was five years old because someone said I look like poo,” recalls Williams.
Blatant racism was a part of everyday life in her school years, with students twisting her name into a racist slur and calling her “Ka-monkey”. Meanwhile, white peers would regularly appropriate Black music and culture as seen on television, and question Williams for listening to rock music.
In her early 20s, after dating someone for about three months, Williams remembers them commenting on her hair and telling her it looks like pubic hair.
“I’d never had someone who I thought cared about me who would say something like that… a lot of people think that if someone you date is Black, you can’t be racist, which is absolutely not true.”
While talking about her experiences with racism, Williams remembered another incident that she does not know how to place and isn’t sure if it was motivated by race.
“I was 21 and was pulled over once in Victoria for driving a car that was registered to a male. I didn’t know that was an offence,” she says.
“I have no idea why I would’ve been pulled over for that. Thankfully when it comes to police, I personally haven’t had a lot of racism. I definitely know other people that have.”
In recent months, Williams has taken to social media to try and combat commenters who post ignorant, hateful, and racist messages targeting the BIPOC community.
“I try to have conversations with people—a lot of people are actually open to learning and some people really just don’t know what they’re saying and doing but it’s not always effective,” she adds.
When the interview veered towards discussing the sheer number of people from minority groups who have stories of racist encounters and have expressed dismay at a lack of support for these issues in Victoria, Williams says she isn’t surprised.
“Growing up in Victoria, I always knew there was a lot of racism here. I’m feeling vindicated—finally, people believe me.”
Sartu Ali, 27
Sartu Ali is a visible minority who wears a hijab and has lived in Victoria her whole life. And the sheer number of hateful incidents she has encountered here are too many to list.
For the sake of this article, Ali noted some of the most serious and memorable experiences she has had, in hopes of dispelling the blasé attitude many take towards race-based issues here in the capital of B.C.
About a year and a half ago, Ali and her partner were driving to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal to pick up an acquaintance.
On the way there, they were followed by an older white male taxi driver in a Sidney Taxi vehicle. According to Ali, the man followed her all the way to the ferry terminal and started calling her the ‘N’ word.
“I got out of the car and asked him not to call me that,” says Ali.
“We were going back and forth and he proceeded to try to assault me and physically hit me with his car door until my partner came out of the car, intervened, and told him to leave.”
One of the most striking aspects of this incident is the fact that in broad daylight, in the year 2019, none of the passersby at the walk-on entrance to the ferry terminal in Victoria said or did anything to stop an old white man from hurling racial slurs at a young woman.
That same year, Ali was taking the number 2 BC Transit bus heading downtown, while talking on the phone.
A man standing behind her on the bus was uttering words like “garbage”, but Ali was on the phone and paid no attention to him, believing he may have been talking to himself or someone else.
But while he was getting off the bus, the man proceeded to spit on Ali.
“I was shaken up because I had heard him but didn’t realize—I thought it was a random person mumbling to himself,” she says, recalling the incident.
“My guards were completely down… After that happened, he gave me the finger and kept walking.”
This time, there were Good Samaritans on the bus who checked on Ali to make sure she was okay.
A student from Camosun reported the incident to police, and Victoria Police officers eventually contacted Ali after she shared her story anonymously through a Facebook group and it gained a lot of attention.
“I don’t feel like they really took me seriously. I told them that I’m taking self defence classes, and they kind of just giggled. They just really didn’t take me seriously and this isn’t the first time that I’ve had that happen with VicPD.”
On November 10, 2018, Ali, who is a nursing student at the University of Victoria, was driving home in her new car after a practicum.
“I had just turned left on Shelbourne from Bay Street and it was busy. This [older white] man whose home was on the right side of the street decided he had enough time to [turn into his driveway] in front of me before I was going left, but there wasn’t. So my car was totalled,” says Ali.
When a Victoria Police officer arrived on the scene, Ali describes her experience of feeling utterly dismissed and talked down to.
“He came to me to ask for my ID, but at that moment I couldn’t even see my purse in my car. The way that he was talking down to me was like very rude and aggressive, saying things like ‘well you should have your ID on you’. I just apologized and said I didn’t know what was happening.”
Fortunately, as many of Ali’s peers were leaving practicum at the same time, an instructor and a friend—both white women—saw how the officer was treating her and stepped in to support her.
Soon after, the officer gave Ali a $160 ticket for being an ‘N’ driver and not displaying her ‘N’ sign—even though it had just fallen off the rear windshield as a result of the accident and was later found on the floor of the vehicle.
Initially after the impact of the crash, Ali had said she felt no pain due to shock and adrenaline and therefore did not agree to assistance from paramedics. But once she had calmed down and expressed that she was hurt, the police officer continued talking down to her in an aggressive tone.
“He just said ‘well why didn’t you go with the ambulance? That’s why they’re here. Aren’t you a nursing student?’,” says Ali.
On the other hand, Ali remembers the officer addressing the other party in the accident—the older white man—with kindness and compassion.
“He talked to him nicely, went into his home and stayed in his home for a while to converse. But with me, there was no sitting down and having a conversation. No sign of empathy, kindness, care, nothing.”
As a nursing student, Ali also identified an example of the systemic racism in B.C.’s health care system that has been brought to the limelight in recent weeks.
She recalls working at Victoria General Hospital during a practicum with an older white nurse who has a stellar reputation in the community.
“All the white students that have worked with her praise her, and they really appreciate her,” says Ali. “But for me, she kept calling me by a different name and refused to learn my name. Sartu is not a hard name and for some reason she kept calling me Sarjeet.”
But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Ali describes working with this nurse in a wing of the hospital reserved for women who had just given birth. Three of the patients in their care were white, while the fourth was an East Indian woman.
“I took on two of those patients and the Indian woman was one of them. And I noticed that the nurse would go and check on the on the three white patients in the morning but never went into the Indian woman’s room.”
During her rounds, Ali checked up on the Indian woman and realized that English is not her first language. But the patient had signalled to Ali that she was experiencing pain.
When she reported this to the older nurse—who was, at this point, her supervisor—the response shocked and saddened her.
“This nurse proceeds to tell me, ‘oh, people from those cultures experience pain differently’. It made me want to cry. Is she not human? Did she not have a child just like the rest of the women on this floor?”
Fortunately Ali was able to get the patient’s husband to translate for her, and eventually the woman was given pain medication.
“It’s amazing to me that everyone else that I talk to who is white has had great experiences working alongside this person. But as a person of colour, you recognize those injustices.”
Ali reported the incident to her instructor, and pledged to watch for incidents of neglect due to racism in health care during her career as a nurse.
The identity of the supervising nurse in question has not been divulged as Ali is in the last year of her nursing program and fears repercussions.
This is the second in a multi-part series documenting racism in Victoria through personal, lived experiences as told by People of Colour.
If you’ve experienced blatant racism or discriminatory micro aggressions here in Victoria and would like to share your story, we’d like to hear from you. Send an email to email@example.com.