Over the past few weeks, much of the Western world has been embroiled in conversations surrounding racial biases held by individuals, businesses, and government entities.
These discussions were sparked by protests and riots that began in the United States earlier this month after yet another unarmed Black man was killed by police.
The movement snowballed over several days after local, state, and federal officers conducted arrests and deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and mace on peaceful protesters as well as identifiable members of the media.
Multiple similar, albeit more peaceful, protests and rallies were hosted in other countries, including Canada. Victoria saw three rallies, the largest of which saw thousands gather in Centennial Square to hear how Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour experience racism across the country.
Since these protests broke out, People of Colour have also taken to social media to relay their own accounts of experiencing racial discrimination, whether in the form of outright acts of racism in the work place or in everyday life, or through micro aggressions that stay embedded in their minds forever as symbols of oppression.
In Victoria, the Black Lives Matter movement has faced some backlash on social media, with various critics alleging that racism is an American problem, and a thing of the past in B.C.’s capital.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing stories that confirm the opposite, from members of the BIPOC community in town.
This is the first of a multi-part series documenting racism in Victoria through personal, lived experiences as told by People of Colour.
Robin Smith (alias), 24
24-year-old Robin Smith—whose name has been changed in this article to reflect her request to remain anonymous—has lived in Victoria her whole life.
As a biracial woman whose father is white and mother is Black, Robin is a visible minority still living in a city where she has experienced many micro aggressions towards herself and her mother over the years, but also faced several incidents of overt racism that have gone unnoticed by the majority white population.
“The first incident of blatant racism happened with I was 15 and going to Mount Doug Secondary School—a school with a prominent football culture where football players are put on a pedestal, even by teachers,” says Robin.
“One semester, I was in a Math class and had these two football players sit behind me. They thought it would be funny to call me a n***** every single day for an entire semester repeatedly in class.”
“They’d whisper it to me in lectures, they’d Google Black jokes and tell them to me everyday. I was the only Black kid in that class and was being ganged up on by these two guys. There was a seating arrangement so I was basically forced to sit in front of them everyday,” she continues, her voice heavy with emotion.
Robin says she did not feel safe reporting the two boys to any teachers or staff at the school because the majority of staff were white, likely to dismiss her experiences, and unlikely to take any action against football players idolized by the school.
Throughout her high school experience, Robin also had to deal with incidents where teachers and counsellors would talk down to her, assuming she didn’t understand the meaning of certain words—while the opposite treatment was reserved for her white classmates.
“It wasn’t a good experience there in terms of support for racial discrimination and also there’s just lots of racism from other students and micro aggressions from teachers.”
High school was just the tip of the ice berg.
A few years later, at the age of 20, Robin found herself working at Berwick House, a retirement home in Saanich. She was one of only two Black people on staff, the other person being a cook who was on leave for large chunks of time.
For the most part, Robin worked with her supervisor and another staff member. For several months, both individuals would taunt her by walking past her, whispering things like ‘Black Lives Matter’ or other adages associated with Black people or movements in her ear.
Finally, she sat them down and outright asked why they said things like that to her specifically.
The supervisor responded by stating that he thought the Black Lives Matter movement is “ridiculous” because “all lives matter” and stated “I don’t know why you guys have such a selfish view”.
“I watch cops, I see the way Black people act towards police and see the way Black people are,” the supervisor went on to tell Robin, implying that police brutality that has led to the death of hundreds of Black people is justified.
Robin says she felt inclined to defend herself and try to explain why the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is meant to highlight racial injustices and violence faced by Black people by virtue of their skin colour.
But in the end, as her mental health worsened due to prolonged racism, she decided to leave her position at Berwick House and transition into a new job at a different company.
“Working at an old folk’s home as a racial minority, you already have these ignorant old folks that say things to you because you’re a person of colour—they’d ask me how I got to Canada, and things like that,” says Robin.
“On top of that, to realize that I’d been working at this place for four to six months and having my supervisor say these things to me—I was shocked.”
Several months after leaving Berwick House, Robin received a message from the company that runs the retirement community asking for her feedback as a former employee.
Robin decided to report her former supervisor and outline everything he had said to her. A few months later, she found out he had been promoted to a managerial position.
Around the same time as her stint at Berwick House, Robin faced another racist encounter, this time out in public.
Robin had just picked up her father—a white man in his 60s—at the Victoria International Airport and the pair were travelling back to her residence by bus.
As her father was carrying a lot of luggage, they were sitting next to each other in the priority seating section of the number 14 bus with Robin facing the front and her father facing the interior of the bus.
“This guy comes on the bus and despite the fact that there were empty seats and I had luggage in front of me, squeezes in and sits in the seat next to me,” says Robin.
“He didn’t look at me at all but looked at my dad, and said ‘hey, what do you think about Black people?’ My dad was obviously shocked and a lot of the time, because my dad is white, people don’t register that he’s my dad.”
According to Robin, the stranger went on to comment saying he hates Black people, to which her dad pointedly responded by letting him know that he has children who are Black and does not agree with his opinion.
However the man kept going on stating that dark skin is “dirty and gross”.
“I was stunned that he felt comfortable sitting next to me and saying that stuff and assuming just because there’s a white person, that he’d take his side,” adds Robin.
These are just a few examples of incidents Robin, and others like her, have had to deal with living in Victoria.
“When me and my mother walk down the street, people stare at us. People have called my mother a monkey. It’s not a fair reality that Black people have to live with. I was born here and it just sucks because I don’t feel welcome in my own city.”
In trying to speak out about her experiences, Robin has faced backlash from white people in her life who have tried to absolve racists of their views by claiming they “must have a mental health problem” or are “just ignorant”.
“I hope hearing first hand experiences will change people’s minds.”
Shalin Gehlot, 24
Shalin Gehlot always knew he would not be settling down in Victoria.
Gehlot first came to Victoria from India as an international student at the University of Victoria back in 2014. He encountered his first experience of racism just a couple of months after arriving in the city, at the age of 18.
“I was walking past Bard and Banker downtown and there was a group of people in their 30s or 40s. One woman suddenly came out, pointed at me and said ‘Hey, you’re a Paki’,” says Gehlot.
“She was clearly drunk and kept asking me where I’m from and without waiting for a reply, kept saying ‘you’re a paki’. I didn’t register it as racism at first because I just thought it doesn’t happen in Canada.”
‘Paki’ is a derogatory slur used to refer to people of South Asian descent, and originated in the United Kingdom in the late 60s when opponents of immigration used the term during violent attacks against racial minorities of South Asian origin.
Gehlot, who was walking with a friend, decided to ignore the woman and continue on his way.
“They chased us for about a block and she kept saying ‘Paki, Paki, Paki’. At the time I was more embarrassed because it was becoming a public scene than about the racism.”
“Later on when I went home and realized what had happened, I was quite shocked. So the next couple of times I went out, I would subconsciously avoid that street.”
Fortunately for Gehlot, the rest of his time in Victoria was devoid of any further encounters with blatant racism, and he acknowledges that this could be owing to the fact that he spent most of his time in the rather insulated communities at the university.
“I didn’t tell anyone about [this incident] and I honestly don’t know why… Things like this happens here but they’re just not talked about.”
Charity Williams, 23
Olympic bronze medalist Charity Williams has lived in Victoria for eight years.
As a Black woman, she reflects on several incidents during which she faced targeted incidents of racism while out and about with other Black friends in the city.
One major incident that stands out took place at the Sticky Wicket bar in downtown Victoria about four years ago.
Williams and her friends, who all happened to be Black people, were enjoying a night out and were in the bathroom when a white woman started yelling at one of her friends during an argument.
Williams says she stepped in to tell the woman to calm down. Instead, the woman spat on her and immediately ran away. She and her friends decided to find a security guard and tell them what happened.
“The security guard, instead of caring about what we had to say, kicked us out. The other woman [who spat on me] stayed in the bar, which was super disappointing.”
This wasn’t the last time Williams and her friends were barred from enjoying a night out because of the actions of white people.
“About a year ago, a couple of my friends (all Black) were at the McDonalds on Douglas Street, sitting and eating after a night out. While we were talking, these white girls next to us kept butting into our conversation and kept responding to questions we were asking one another,” says Williams.
Twice, Williams politely asked the women to allow them the privacy to conduct their conversation.
After her second request, one of the women said “Black people are always like this, you guys are always angry,” before going on to talk about how racism exists because of how Black people act.
“We got really upset and didn’t say anything at first but she kept going. My friend finally raised her voice at the girl, to which the girl said ‘Are you going to fight me?’
Seeing this, Williams says the security guard at McDonalds came over and kicked out Williams and her friends, while the instigators of the argument—the group of white girls—were allowed to stay.
Neither staff, nor other patrons at the eatery spoke up in their defence.
“My friend filed a complaint against the McDonald’s security guard. No one followed up with us and he still works there. Nobody cared at all about how we were treated.”
Even at a major rally held specifically to address Black people’s experiences of discrimination in Victoria, Williams says she and her friends were not immune to racism.
“This guy came up to me and the organizers and started talking about how he had more issues as a white man than we have as Black people, and said there is no racism here and the fact that we’re having this event is ‘bullsh**’.”
“It was so crazy. He was getting in our face and cutting us off whenever we tried to speak. It was just before the rally and was really disappointing.”
Like Shalin Gehlot and Robin Smith, Williams expressed how she feels invalidated whenever she tries to talk about racism in the city, given the fact that these issues are never addressed in public.
“I’ve been telling my friends from Victoria who don’t realize how much micro aggressions are here in Canada and here in Victoria, and they just can’t believe the stories I tell them.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.