What a Canadian Factory Floor Taught Me About Racism - Public Goods Blog

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What a Canadian Factory Floor Taught Me About Racism

Racism, People of Color, Anti-Blackness — which is which?

black man working in a factory

Yes; Black Lives Matter protests are raging next door in the U.S., and we are rightly disgusted by the manner of George Floyd´s death. However, we are not so pleasant up here in Canada. A year inside a Canadian fabrics-factory taught me there is no such thing as a single “Person of Colour” as epitomized in popular culture. What definitely exists all around is
Anti-Blackness, be it in pockets of White, Latino or Asian Canadian communities.

When I lived as a refugee in Montreal, Canada, it dawned on me via personal experiences that there are perhaps different hierarchies of “Persons of Colour” and Anti-Blackness reflected in attitudes and social mannerisms. I have come to tell myself that, atop the rankings, sits a Mixed/Latino/Asian/ Arab “Canadian Person of Colour.” Soon below comes a Black Canadian Person of Colour “born here” and “light in skin.” At the bottom lies a Black African from Africa “Person of Colour” (probably refugee).

This is the social basket I feel I belong to in Canada today. It all ties to pervasive Anti-Blackness.

I arrived in Canada in June 2018 as a refugee and soon began to work in a Montreal fabrics factory that exported upper class suits and apparel to America. This experience showed me how factory owners (mostly White men or women) acted as if they were out to stamp in my brain the notion of hierarchies of “Persons of Colour.”

I recall once an Asian-Canadian fellow laborer pretended to quit as a subtle protest for a wage raise. But as an “African from Africa Person of Colour” I couldn’t muster the courage to ask for a raise, too. My Asian and Latino Canadian workmates routinely demanded “rest days” and were easily given. They were astonished that I never requested such short off-days.

“I’m a Black African from Africa Person of Colour in Canada; it´s uneasy to ask White factory owners for days to lie low,” I told my workmates frankly.

While I say my feelings bravely, my English sounds so refined. Then Latino and Asian Canadian workmates would probe me: “Don’t get us wrong, are you born here like in Canada?”

My no was always met with baffling remarks: “Are you from Haiti?”

To them, every Black “Person of Colour” must be from supposedly chaotic Haiti if he is not “Black Born in Canada.”

In department stores, at my banks, buses or factory canteens I cannot count how many times Asian, Arab-Canadian workmates or store workers would assume, “You’re from Haiti, right?” It didn’t dawn on them that a Black “Person of Color” could hail from Africa and arrived in Canada speaking flawless English.

Now, watching the rage down in America, I can’t forget Latino women on tea breaks (who were tailors in the factory) pumped light fists on my buttocks jokingly.

“Negredo, Negro,” they would say.

Once when I was fetching tools in the factory’s unlit store rooms, Latino co-workers shouted, “Come switch the bulb on, he is too dim, we can’t see him.”

At the end of each job shift I struggled to join my Indian-Canada workers in the packed bus shelter without enduring questions like: “You´re coming from Africa — What are you running away from? Kings?”

Imagine this patronizing language from fellow “People of Color.” I was one of the only two Black people in the factory. This rarity was a spectacle at the factory’s Christmas party when an elderly Black sewing machine fixer walked to the podium to collect his food hamper gift.

“Your brother, see him,” Asian Canadian workmates would whisper, nudging me laughably.

It annoyed me. Have I ever met an Asian-Canadian born in China, Singapore or Korea and told them, “Your brother there, see him?”

Someday out of plain anger, when I couldn’t take the racist jokes from Indian-Canadian workmates, I replied and fetched up the proud memories of a gone relationship.

“Hey guys, I once dated an Indian fiancée some years ago,” I said. “It was a wonderful experience.” “No!” they shouted at once.

“Why not? Don’t you believe my experiences that I was once in love with an Indian fiancé?”

They parsed the hair on their arm skin and said plainly, “Black, dark as you are, no you can’t date an Indian fiancée. An African Black lady I think you wanted to say. There are lots of your Black sisters from Africa here in Canada. They take $50 for sex.”

I forgave their racist utterances. When people appear roundly uneducated and not aware of the implications of racist jokes, I forgive them. That’s me anyway.

What broke the straw was six months on in my new job as a fabrics-cutter machine operator. I developed a severe back pain that surged like needle piercings through my spine and ultimately disabled my shoulder for a while. I needed to see a doctor right away. I will never forget the jarring look of my employer, a tall white woman who grinned and said, “I knew you would make this illness up, I want to see all the diagnosis pages.”

This reaction was despite the fact that Asian or Latino Canadian employees could take off up to a week out of work and still get paid attendance wages. I knew I was viewed in a different category: “Black, born in Africa, refugee Persons of Color.”

Anti-Blackness prejudice in Canada appears so subtle and soft, unlike America. But make no mistake, tame Anti-Blackness in Canada makes its victims divide themselves mentally into multiple categories of “Persons of Colour” that are antagonistic to one another. No matter the country or continent, Anti-Blackness bigotry is the chief driver of racism.

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Comments (5)

  • Wow! I’ve haven’t heard a lot of conversation about anti-blackness in *all* communities, not just white! I am Nigerian-American, and I can relate to your experiences although I was born and raised in the states. This was a very honest and raw piece that was very well-written and explained. Thank you!

  • Thank you for sharing that story about your experiences. It breaks my heart that people can be so mean. But as you say, ignorance or lack of experience or lack of empathy is part of the problem. As someone who live in the USA but is looking at Canada as a departure of the deep racism here, you story showed there is no escape. It is sad that people cannot accept people are people no matter the color of their skin or background, and treat everyone how they want to be treated, with kindness and empathy. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Well that’s just horrifying! Hopefully these BLM movements can shed some light on these awful behaviors, and make people think twice about being so ugly to their fellow citizens. Your voice and your example are important to keep out there.

  • Wow, that is quite a lot of insensitivity you are up against! I can’t believe some people act that way. Well, I can, but, it seems so unreal. Thank you for your experiences and shedding light on this issue. Being friendly to our fellow man takes so much more than avoiding outright discrimination; it takes fellow feeling and understanding. I’m sure those commenters you mentioned wouldn’t like those same things being said at themselves.

  • What is ironic is God says we are all one blood. Acts 17:26. They are your cousins. Skin tone is all levels of brown. You might be interested in a series by Answers in Genesis. They track Y chromosomes and show the mixing and migration of people from the Tower of Babel to the whole world. I am red haired and blue eyes and going back a few generations I probably have a darker complexion relative. The Moguls no doubt. It’s in all of us. Let’s start making an effort to not describe each other by skin tone. I think it’s lazy. Also if I say anything hurtful let me know. We all need to improve.

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