“My grandma used to tell me that the reason why Black people exist was because God ran out of the colour pink.”
It was a co-worker’s attempt at humour just a few years after Nadia Mugeni had moved to Canada.
That wasn’t the end of jokes that fell flat while Mugeni worked toward owning her own boutique lash studio, Randee Beauty.
|‘The moment they saw my black skin and heard my thick accent they put me in a box,’ recalls Nadia Mugeni about meeting some of her coworkers at previous jobs. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)|
In another instance, she spotted three white men wearing suits going from store to store near where she worked and asked her coworkers what the men were doing.
“Oh, that’s the KKK,” one responded with a chuckle.
Mugeni didn’t even know what the Ku Klux Klan was. She moved to Canada in 2014, without knowing English. She hadn’t learned about the North American white supremacist hate group while growing up and studying in Rwanda. After her coworkers explained, she was shocked by what they found to be lighthearted and funny.
“That was one of the first times I became conscious of my black skin,” recalled Mugeni, at her studio on Fifth Street in Victoria.
“There’s a part of me that thinks I just gave them the permission to say whatever they wanted cause I was so naive. I realized that when I met people for the first time, they didn’t see the skills that I brought to the table. Instead, the moment they saw my black skin and heard my thick accent they put me in a box.”
Victoria photographer Nathan Smith was born in Canada to a white mom and black dad, but raised in Jamaica. He was working at another job once when a man told him his dreadlocks looked like “sh**” and that it wasn’t a professional hairstyle.
In another instance, Smith was speaking with a woman who appeared visibly upset about her sister’s use of the “n” word. While explaining her concern, she blatantly said the word without hesitation.
|Nathan Smith was working with a former employer in Victoria when he encountered a man who told him his dreadlocks looked like ‘sh**’ and that it wasn’t a professional hairstyle. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)|
“It’s so exhausting going into those situations because I now have to decide whether I’m going to engage and start trying to educate,” said Smith.
“I shouldn’t have to defend my experience as one that isn’t an outlier because it happens all the time in our society. Even saying that white supremacy still exists shouldn’t be anything major. There are more people out there that experience discrimination, micro-agressions and violence than we realize.”
Smith launched Profiling Black Excellence, a photography project that unveils the experiences of racism and racial profiling felt by people of colour in Victoria, Vancouver and nearby communities. Though he had a great response to a photo gallery he hosted in Chinatown in 2019, his Instagram followers on the page have multiplied two to three times in the past few weeks.
“I’m so glad that more people are joining the conversation, but I worry that … people will only give me jobs for affirmative action. I’d like to think that I’m not a pity hire or only brought on to fill their diversity goals.”
James Bowen is tired of seeing protests and peace rallies in Victoria. As an immigrant who arrived from Grenada nearly 22 years ago, he sees those with signs and chants as “weaklings.”
The owner of Caribbean Village Cafe on Quadra Street, Bowen said showing up at events doesn’t necessarily bring change.
|James Bowen, owner of Caribbean Village Cafe, moved from Grenada to Victoria nearly 22 years ago. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)|
“In fact, they [society] laugh at you. They give you time to demonstrate because they know you can’t sustain those things. We have to start from within.”
Bowen said pressure groups within government are needed to start breaking down cultural hegemony, which dictates the dominance of one social group and its ideologies over other social groups. He pointed out that educational systems need a hard look at what they’re teaching the next generation.
Bowen cited an example of a popular children’s song with deep roots in the slave trade.
“It used to be: Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, catch a n***** by the toe, if he hollers let him go, eenie, meenie, minie, mo,” he said.
“Changing it to ‘catch a tiger by the toe” doesn’t change anything. It’s still derogatory. It’s hurtful, no matter if you change a word. You don’t use it. You eradicate that nursery rhyme for what it connotes.”
When someone wrote, “Go home, n*****” on his storefront many years ago, he wasn’t surprised.
“I am more than the word they wrote on that wall. What I would’ve liked is to confront that racist in dialogue. I don’t want him or her to like me, but I want to understand where they’re coming from. When we do that, we have better protocol to understand each other going forward.”