This opinion piece is in response to last week’s story in The Lake Report about accusations of racial profiling of migrant workers by some businesses in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Special to The Lake Report
I am a relative newcomer to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but in my six-plus years here, I have had more than my share of racially charged encounters.
I am half-black, half-German and was born and raised in Toronto, where all cultures are widely accepted and even celebrated. That is in contrast to my experience in NOTL, where, unless you are white, you stand out and in the eyes of far too many you are considered unequal to the majority of the people who live here.
Of course, not everyone in NOTL acts this way. But, for a person of colour, it happens just often enough and is prevalent enough to make it clear that we are outsiders, don’t belong, are different.
Sadly, people who are aware of this happening often tend to excuse it, ignore it, prefer that it be swept under the rug and forgotten.
I am writing this to make it clear that, while Niagara-on-the-Lake may be a beautiful, serene community, for any visible minority or person of colour, life here can be very ugly at times.
I have lived in many cities and small towns but have never witnessed nor felt such racism as I do here in NOTL.
Working in Old Town, I have heard the N-word used openly in reference to non-whites, have been called nicknames like “Buckwheat” by a colleague and have seen overt and purposeful discrimination all quietly aimed at black customers.
“THEY must be tourists because they most certainly don’t live here.” I cannot count how often I have heard variations of that line.
But it is not restricted to the quaint stores of the main tourist district. Not long after I moved to Queenston a neighbour inquired if I cleaned homes for a living. In another case, a different neighbour, a woman whom I considered a friend and whom I had helped out in a time of need, introduced me as her “housekeeper” when I attended a celebratory family function. Not “friend,” not “neighbour,” not “Yvonne.” I was just a housekeeper.
“Hey Buckwheat! Pass me that.” Excuse me? ”Hey Buckwheat, pass me that!” That was my co-worker speaking to me at my place of employment.
“Follow those ladies around the store. They only use the front changeroom!” The women my colleague was referring to were black.
When I informed the company’s human resources department, within a month I was fired.
I was let go for letting the company know I was called inappropriate names, was told to follow black women around the store (but never white women, or anyone else), and for revealing that black women were being put into specific changerooms, so store management could keep an eye on them. This is now part of an ongoing human rights racial discrimination case.
Working in NOTL, is fun, exciting and feeds my soul. The tourists are wonderful – and colour blind.
But some residents I have come across have no problem using the N-word in front of me. Or one, when commenting about their daughter using slang, suggesting, “They must be spending too much time with you.”
Or, the genteel, “You could pass for white if your hair was straightened.”
Or, “Just don’t tell people you are black.”
But I should not have to hide my heritage, be ashamed of it, or apologize for it. I am me. I am black.
It breaks my heart. In Toronto or other large cities, the variety of cultures is like spices in a very large soup. It’s aromatic, delicious, warming and inviting.
NOTL seems more like cabbage and potatoes. No spice, no aroma. Just plain cabbage and potatoes.
People like me are here to add some spice to that plain soup mix. But we are not:
We are all human, maybe a bit different on the outside, but all the same under the skin.