The death of George Floyd, an African-American, who was murdered by a racist European-American policeman, has brought to the fore the evil culture that is the daily experience of numerous people. The world’s eyes are currently focused on the United States, and for good reasons.
However, it would be false to pretend that destructive racism is a monopoly of the United States. Anyone who tells you that there is no systemic racism in Canada, for example, is probably the type who would also offer to sell you a Pharaoh’s Pyramid in Kigyezi. In the 39 years that I have lived in this country, I have witnessed the full spectrum of racism, albeit generally less dramatic than what we see in America.
We have the silly, irritating petty racism of name-calling; the neighbour whose attitude and refusal to acknowledge your “hello” is harmlessly annoying; the landlord who lies to you that his empty apartment has already been rented; and the job interviewer or human resource person who denies you a job without looking at your resume.
Worse still is the police officer who finds you guilty before a crime is committed; the court system that applies selective justice; the politician who campaigns for “controlled immigration,” a euphemism for “we want Europeans only;” and the policeman who kills you because of your skin colour. These are just a few examples of the protean manifestations of racism in Canada, this wonderful country of immigrants.
Our children were called black monkeys by their primary level schoolmates. When my wife and I met with the school principal, a European-Canadian, it became evident that the poor man had never given thought to the reality of racism and its impact on some of his students. He invited us to speak with the staff and students about racism.
Our children, whom we were raising to be truly proud of their race and respectful of others, subsequently received good support from the teachers as they navigated through the racist attitudes of their peers. Throughout their school years, they proudly flew the flag of their ancestry, and accepted many opportunities to showcase their culture and African identity.
However, even as adults, our children, like the majority of African-Canadians, continue to endure multiple encounters with racism. There is no reason to think that that is about to change. Happily, I am confident that they will be fine. Their experiences have strengthened their inner resolve to forge ahead in spite of the huddles posed by their skin colour. Their clear identity as Bakiga-Africans has given them a strong psychological anchor that holds them steady in the face of their foreignness in a country where they were born or raised.
We have inculcated in them the understanding that the colour that matters is that of one’s brain, one’s character, one’s soul and one’s spiritual health. They have heard it said over and over again that their parents and their parents’ friends were not welcomed to Canada because of our colour, but because of what we had to give to this country. They know that, notwithstanding our personal encounters with racism, we soldier on because we are psychologically and culturally secure.
As long as they have the right mindsight – to be confident and respectful of all, including the police and other State authorities – they will shield themselves against the toxic racist culture that is deeply ingrained in the DNA of this continent.
Our experience as immigrants does not come anywhere near the painful history of those whose identity was ripped from them, people whose forebears built these countries, but remain unwanted by their European compatriots. So, I recognise that I am supremely underqualified to describe the African-Canadian experience with racism.
The majority of my interactions with Canadians of all races, have been very pleasant, with no overt evidence of prejudice towards me. I have enjoyed excellent professional and social friendships with all kinds of people. Not once has a colleague or employee shown me disrespect on account of my colour or accent.
However, ethnic prejudice by Africans against fellow Africans is even more common than what we have just described. Descendants of slaves in North America, the Caribbean and South America view recent African immigrants through negative lenses. The feeling tends to be mutual. We need not look far beyond the Great Lakes Region. People dislike, even despise and hate fellow Africans across borders that were created by Europeans a little over a century ago.
The vast majority of families whose children I have been privileged to care for have been wonderfully friendly and respectful. Yet, even I, have had personal encounters with racism, not the silly kind in the train or a shop (these do me no harm), but systemic racism that I have had to fight on behalf of others. I have sat on interview panels where candidates have been prejudged on the basis of their “background.”
I have walked into conversations of top decision makers saying thoroughly prejudiced things about junior colleagues whom I knew were far superior to favoured ones, the latter usually because they had a more acceptable “background.”
Such uninformed prejudice is the experience of Africans in every part of the world. Stories of racist violence against Africans in Europe, China, India and the Arab world have been well chronicled. Even within Africa, overtly racist attitudes by Chinese, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Europeans towards Africans are part of the continent’s neocolonial experience.
However, ethnic prejudice by Africans against fellow Africans is even more common than what we have just described. Descendants of slaves in North America, the Caribbean and South America view recent African immigrants through negative lenses. The feeling tends to be mutual.
We need not look far beyond the Great Lakes Region. People dislike, even despise and hate fellow Africans across borders that were created by Europeans a little over a century ago. The xenophobia in South Africa has proved deadly. Within countries like Uganda and Kenya, tribal animosities, driven by deep seated historical prejudices, remain alive and well even as people have become members of one lost tribe that I like to call Pseudo-European.
By definition, the racist is an uneducated and ignorant person. I do not mean the type of education that yields certificates but leaves graduates stuck in their prejudiced bunkers. I mean the liberating education that comes from rigorous interrogation of history and other people’s traditions and stories. This education, together with the humility to recognise our mortality, enables us to embrace the equality of humanity and our individual obligation to promote and defend the rights of others.