racism is here, right in the streets of Kelowna – a personal story

Valentina R, BSC – Medical Biochemistry

This is a story about a recent personal experience, expressed mostly through the eyes of the author, shared with five other friends; all black females, including the author.

For ambitious, overstressed students, Halloweekend seemed to be a great occasion to get dressed up, have some drinks, and dance with the girls. Saturday night, we waltzed our way down to Sapphire nightclub, all full of excitement; it was bound to be a good night! Suddenly, reality ripped us back into place when a bouncer at the door was not willing to let us in. Perhaps the club was over capacity, but with some liquid courage, I blurted out: “Are you racist?” – this one question backfired like the Fort McMurray wildfire.

The bouncer immediately prevented me, as well as my six other friends, from entering the club, shouting: “You just called me racist? All of you can just leave NOW.” I felt terrible that my one comment punished all of us black females. Why would he lump us together as one, anyway? Would he have denied entry to all of us if we had been white women? At the time, I instantly regretted the words out of my mouth and tried to brush them off as merely a drunken slip up. After all, it is more than expected for people under the influence to let go of inhibition and say something considered “out of line.” This is neurological science: a few alcoholic drinks go down, GABAA receptors are blocked, and anxiety towards what people may think of our behaviour is practically out of the window, correct?

That being said, I was perhaps finally confronting a recent, yet deep-rooted, underlying issue.

Growing up with black skin in Russia and then in Canada, where I attended a Franco-Ontarian Catholic high school comprised of mainly middle class white folk, I never truly felt at home. Therefore, I have learned to sweep all incoming racist remarks under the rug, constantly trying to assimilate myself within the white culture. How proud I was to be called an “Oreo” or told that I did not “act black,” whatever that means. The truth is, I was raised to live up to white people’s standards because simply being myself in Russia would often result in violent repercussions from as early as kindergarten. Then, here in Canada, at pubescence I wanted my flaws to be noticed as little as possible to avoid other various forms of rejection (i.e. emotional abuse, losing friends over standing up for myself/others.) Therefore, as a defense mechanism, for nearly two decades, I had chosen good ol’ silence when it came to arguing – no one can use your words against you if you have none to offer, amirite or amirite? And so I was praised, as a reinforcement, by my mother as a “wisdom child,” when in truth, I had been fearful with a self-esteem so low it often pulled me six feet under.

Luckily, ever since setting foot at UBCO, where since the past three years, I have been frequently befriending humans from all over the world, experiencing different cultures at multicultural events, I am finally proud of my interracial roots. My love for having a mocha complexion is increasing as exponentially as my desperate, assignment-ridden need for dark-roasted coffee. Just this past summer, I worked outdoors and this had been the first time I was not dreading my tan. In fact, I made sure to always show my bracelet tan lines as a sign of accomplishment. However, more recently, I have been attending Intercultural Development Program workshops and hearing students share the honest, sombre side of being different, even right here in the Okanagan, in class – which broke my happy-go-lucky fantasy of Kelowna with its ‘organic’ farms and mountains. At first, these workshops made me uncomfortable because I could suddenly feel my crooked, yet seemingly satisfactory foundation begin to crumble – realizing I have no choice but to face my past demons and deal with them head on. And so here I am, finally realizing the injustice I have been silently suffering through. Today, I feel like a newborn baby – I am in the process of relearning what my role as a black female in this society entails, and it is sickening. I no longer want to stand for it because the truth is, I will never look nor feel white; therefore, I must stand my ground and demand privilege as I really am.

And so yes, one of my first addressed targets happened to be that bouncer, interestingly enough, also non-white. 

We tried to sweetly reason with the bouncer, but he kept aggressively waving us away. We realized it was pointless to reason with him, so we left the line, hopeful for another venue. Except our trouble did not stop there. One of my friends turned back to give him a piece of her mind, stating that his defensive response checked with racist behaviour. The drama only went ablaze from there, and as I turned around I saw two of my dear friends being pulled by a total of five cops, handled in an aggressive manner that did not match their petiteness. I ran back across the street, trying to understand what was happening.

I’ve spoken with a number of people to figure out exactly what happened next, and most witnesses confirmed that this minor situation rapidly escalated, when the friend who had addressed the bouncer was suddenly approached by a white, female cop, a supposed symbol of safety, asking her if she “want[ed] to fight.” Yes, those were her exact provoking words. My friend, stupefied, instinctually avoided these policemen’s reaching arms by flailing her arms, as any one of us would do. She was then handcuffed due to her body’s resistance to being grabbed. Meanwhile, my other friend could not stand to watch this and tried to actively assess the situation, by approaching and questioning the quarrel – she was then pushed to the ground, in her heels, not even being helped back up. Upon her recovery, she too was handled by police.

This is quite similar to what we have been hearing about on the American news channels, where black people are unnecessarily handled harshly. But here it was, right before my eyes. My two dear friends –so kind, only wanting the best for the world and all of mankind. One has recently successfully passed her MCAT exam and the other is constantly passionate about healing her community.

Yet, in that very moment, none of their dreams and achievements seemed to matter. They were hurt and angry and black, thus they were pinned as a threat. As a typical silent bystander, I have witnessed plenty of obnoxious bar line-up and fake ID capture incidents involving non-racialized people, yet they have never transpired quite the same. Admittedly, with a few drinks, a raised level of tone was expected. However, the extent of the police’s aggressive reaction was unnecessary.

They pulled on my friend’s hair and her wig fell off. Women of African descent treasure their hair, they work super hard for it, trying their best to fit into our “proper, cookie-cutter” society. And here was her wig, thrown on the ground like it was nothing, simply another rag. Though I’d been emotional prior to this happening, this was the pivotal moment for me. I burst into tears, stuck between wanting to help my friends but not wanting to meddle in and aggravate the situation even more. Luckily, another friend took on a more level-headed approach and made sure that no actual charges were going to be pressed against our two friends. A few of my other friends tried to hush me up, and I never felt so broken. I was basically told that I was not allowed to feel at such intensity. I had to pull myself together and keep quiet, otherwise more trouble would come our way.

But I have spent nearly two decades in agonizing silence, trying to mask the pain, my level of discomfort, when it has been through the roof on a daily basis. I went as far as trying to ignore racism, barely acknowledging its existence in order to please others, to take up as little space as possible. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet here it was, flashing right in my face.

I watched my friends get shoved into two separate police cars, knowing there was no way they were going to come back home with us and have the luxury of shrugging this off. They had to spend the night in a cold jail cell, where not even a glass of water nor blankets were provided at their request. How was I not supposed to feel for them? My darling friends, usually high-spirited despite this life’s harsh conditions, are now stuck with flashbacks, triggered by the sight of police emblems and regular thoughts.

So I ask myself and others, if my friends and I were white, would such drastic measures have been used to get rid of us?

The deeper issues at hand are: why do people (especially non-racialized folks) get extremely defensive when suspected to be racist? Why is it implied that we are not allowed to feel and most importantly express our pain? How come we have to make the extra effort to police ourselves in order to ward off police attention?