Nelson racism: ‘White people don’t want to accept it’

Residents share stories of schoolyard bullying, racialization and profiling.

Yolande Christelle Doe attended the dialogue on race at the youth centre yesterday

Yolande Christelle Doe attended the dialogue on race at the youth centre yesterday

Yolande Christelle Doe dreads going to the local grocery store.

She worries about the racism her daughter is routinely exposed to while playing in the park. Doe’s been racially profiled, exposed to strangers’ hatred and has even been ostracized within her own family.

All of this makes her extremely angry, and she’s not alone in feeling like Nelson has a long way to go to address ongoing racism locally. As one of the approximately 50 people that attended a dialogue on race at the youth centre Wednesday evening, she shared stories of what her day to day life is like.

“The one thing I notice that’s insidious is the glares, the weird stares from the older generation. Obviously I want to have a good day but then someone decides to stare me down for no other reason than I’m a minority in their field of view. It’s hard on me,” she said.

“When I got involved with my partner it wasn’t a wonderful meeting of culture. It wasn’t an easy blending. We had to elope to be a family. There’s the world I want to live in and want to believe in, but every day I’m being reminded constantly that I don’t live in that world.”

She’s incensed that she has to explain other people’s hatred to her eight-year-old daughter.

“I don’t want to have to explain to her this is why you’re being treated this way.”

Doe was one of several people who shared their experience of being a minority in Nelson, and her sentiments were seconded by residents Sergio Santos, Bernardo Castro, Naomi Cromwell, Nadia Abdella and Zaynab Mohammed, among others. They shared stories of racial profiling by law enforcement, fetishization and racialization in dating and social situations and the dearth of good employment opportunities for people of colour.

Cromwell shared an anecdote about a friend who casually slung her arm around her shoulder and said “thanks so much for being my token black friend.”

“Instead of being a person first, my race is first. Sometimes I want to just be a person, not a token.”

Sometimes she wonders if she’s being paranoid, if she’s imagining the sideways glances or strange behaviour of the people around her. Is it really racism, she asks herself, or is it all in her head?

“You start to think you’re going crazy. You ask yourself ‘am I being paranoid?’”

Organizer Stephanie Meitz shared her frustration with what she considers a local elementary school’s inaction surrounding an incident where students taunted a child of colour using a water fountain. According to what her daughter told her, the kids told the boy it was now “dirty”.

“The parents ended up taking him out of the school,” she said. “These children are feeling so excluded, so what are we going to do as a community to make that right? This shouldn’t have happened.”

And with Syrian refugees potentially potentially moving into the community soon, the Nelson Refugee Coalition’s Madelyn Mackay expressed concerns that they’ll be met with hostility rather than open arms.

“We need to prevent these kinds of (racist events) from happening, because they’ve been through enough already.”

Both Castro and Adbella shared stories about being racially profiled, and Castro recounted an incident in which an RCMP officer joked it was his “lucky day” that he hadn’t been arrested after a humiliating roadside search that he didn’t feel was necessary or warranted.

“I think we have a different conception of a lucky day,” he said, noting that these days when he sees cops “I feel uncomfortable” and “vulnerable” and “I get sweaty”.

“I’ve had one RCMP officer racially profile me multiple times. They’ll pull us over and search us and it’s really ****ing annoying. It really bothers me that’s okay and nobody can say anything to these people that are doing this,” said Abdella.

“I either cry about it or I’m angry, and I don’t know if that’s helpful. Being educated on these things is great, but I also want to make it better and I want to act. I’m so thankful we’re talking about this.”

Mohammed, who was raised Muslim, is best known locally for her poetry and for organizing Art Party. She said after hitch-hiking across the country she had a new concept of how much racism exists in this country.

“This country is so white and so Christian. People don’t realize it, they don’t accept it. If you talk about it they’ll say it’s all in your head,” she said.

“So many white people don’t want to accept it. People are deciding to be ignorant.”

And that ignorance manifests itself, sometimes, in slightly comical ways.

“I was in the liquor store,” Santos said. “This guy came up and said ‘a couple blacks guys, eh?’ I was like first of all: I’m a Brazilian and this is a Romanian. I would describe it as innocent racism, Nelson-style racism.”

The conversation lasted for more than three hours, and culminated in participants brainstorming ideas for how to move forward as a community. Ideas included creating a local hotline that would operate as a racism watchdog and building a social media community called True Colours.

“I feel like Nelson has an opportunity to be part of a progressive change, potentially on the forefront of it in Canada, and it starts with these conversations and bringing light to the experiences of community members who have been discriminated against and marginalized,” said Meitz.

“It is not only important that we understand the experiences of our community members but also our involvement in colonialism and its continually oppressive structures that make it difficult for certain members of our community to live freely.”

Plans are in progress for a follow-up event at 5 p.m. on August 17. They are looking for a new location to host it.

“My heart is glowing to see so many people here,” Cromwell told those gathered, thanking them for taking part in the conversation. “Thank you for engaging in this dialogue and being here to listen.”