At the climax of dramatic events that have flipped the year 2020 on its head, the inhumane killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has resurrected a new wave of anti-black racism protests in North America and other parts of the world. Amidst demands for better reforms to obliterate police brutality and anti-black racism, world leaders have been forced to take a knee and repeatedly listen to a legitimate chant: “Black Lives Matter.”
As one, who appreciates diversity in colours and opinions, I have used the past few days to reflect on my nostalgic exchange with racism at different levels. First, as a Nigerian and secondly as a Nigerian living in Canada.
While growing up, my first interaction with non-Africans was in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, in 2012 during my internship. That was when I started asking questions. I saw engineers with master’s degree reporting to foreigners with college degrees. I saw foreigners guarded day and night by paid bodyguards and security details. With a snap of fingers, they got whatever their soul desires — from exotic cuisines to expensive wines to raunchy prostitutes. That was a rude shock to me.
They had privileges written all over them, which aided their superiority status — a covering used to execute their pseudo-colonialism. When the expatriates (non-African workers) roam the corridors, I saw the terror in the eyes of my Nigerian bosses. I was raised to be fearless. So, this was strange to me. The foreigner is your manager, not your god. I conversed with Whites like ordinary people, and that was surprising to a host of my colleagues. Weirdly, at that age, I could not spot a difference between an African and an American. You are human, and that’s all that matters.
Now, to the nauseating part. I was astonished to see White men serenaded like new brides by blacks, all in the name of taking pictures fit for the “gram.” At events, some co-workers would kill for a photo with White folks than be in the same digital frame with a fellow Nigerian. A picture with a White man on a social media page connotes an elevated status. In fact, you are privy to more accolades if you are the only black in a sea of white folks. When a White man enters a mall, if he is not mobbed for pictures, he would be arrested by seraphic stares. When a White man is a first-timer in your church, your pastor with his inflated shoulder pads treats him like his soul is worth a thousand times more than that of a black man. So, he is accorded a special seat, and his introduction is often prolonged than necessary. I believe that these subtle acts make the White man think he has something that we genuinely envy. And from my experience, I believe it is true. I believe that this unsolicited recognition gives the White man the impetus to continue racist acts with impunity.
As a young man living in Nigeria, those exceptions and undue attention accorded to White people baffled me. Does it stem from the residues of colonialism left in our minds? What in the world makes us think we are inferior to Whites because of our skin colour? If any man should be respected or praised, let him earn it. But often praises and respect are placed on golden trays in front of Whites in many African communities, and this must change. When next you see a White man, treat him like your Nigerian neighbour living down the street.
So, while I packed my luggage and travelled to Canada in 2015, I thought I would get a royal entrance like the Whites I have seen in Nigeria. No! I was welcomed like every other person.
The systemic racism in Canada is endemic, perhaps the first handshake that welcomes Canadian immigrants. While settling into Canada, I noticed unscripted laws that separated black people into strata in society and limit their promotion in workplaces. Experienced black professionals — the revered expatriates — struggled to secure jobs because they were yet to undergo any form of education in Canada. I observed how black professionals in different fields that have previously worked for established multi-nationals could not get their foot in the door of most Canadian industries. And for those that have decided to build start-ups, if the executive board is not “Whitened,” it’s a hassle to get funding and necessary support. Let’s skip medical doctors in their droves who must scale systemic hurdles to prove their competence before being accepted into the system. To pay the bills, Ph.D. holders drive cabs in Toronto, expert IT professionals stock up reserves in grocery stores, and skillful engineers work at call centers. Then you see aged black managers and directors head back to school either for a diploma or a certificate course to rid themselves of “professional incompetence.” Then struggle for another two years to get a job. It’s sad. This is not an exception to blacks alone, but almost all Canadian immigrants must battle with these subtle acts of racism. But bear in mind that the unemployment rate among Black Canadians is higher than other demographics.
Over the years, Canada has milked immigrants through its educational system. Recent Canadian government research estimated that Canada makes about $22bn annually from international students. It’s an unwritten law that you will never get suitable employment that matches your qualifications until you bow your knees to its revered educational system. Many have viewed this to be a fair exchange for the friendly Canadian immigration scheme — an easy route for immigrants to become permanent residents and citizens. It sounds more like you can come in, but we must make more money off you.
The system tells you to go back to school, but it also appreciates “Canadian work experience” more than “Canadian educational qualifications.” This is logically inconsistent. So, you end up getting a Ph.D. and report to a White college degree holder. That’s because your White boss has over twenty years of experience and you should respect that. But you forget that the Ph.D. holder before migrating has more than ten years of experience in the same industry. No, that belongs to the trash can and does not count here. You are more knowledgeable, but your skin colour says you must start from the bottom. Yes, go to the end of the queue! So, the immigrant believes that advanced education is the ticket to achieving his dreams only to discover that more “Canadian education” is not a shield from the impending hammer of systemic racism.
It took me a long time to believe in racism. Every time I face a form of discrimination, I will wave it off as a form of evil resident in human hearts. But I am often angry when I step into certain places, and people are shocked to see that I am smart and intelligent. They are amazed at my mastery and eloquence. The facial reactions are often interpreted as we don’t expect a black man to be this smart. I remember once having a conversation with a black Canadian business owner, he oversees a small business enterprise with assets of about a million dollars. The last time I was in his office, all his employees were Whites. He shared with me the shock on the faces of Whites when they visit his workplace and discover that he is the CEO. No one expected the Messiah to come out of Nazareth. What do you expect from people who think Africa is a country or a village? While conversing with some Whites, it’s appalling to see that some think of Africa as a primitive continent where we ride donkeys to work and use pit latrines.
Furthermore, I am often saddened by the fact that I am not trusted to do certain things because I am black. It’s frustrating that there is an invisible ceiling hanging over my head because I am black. There is a hanging question of doubt about my competence because of my accent. My leadership skills are questioned. My foreign accent is seen as an object of comedy when co-workers are behind closed doors. There is a clever revolt against my opinions, which comes off as a placard announcing that I am not welcomed to the fold.
To end the systemic racism in Canada, we must see through the veil of deception and address the intense dislike that does not look like hate, brutality, and violence. It’s in the reluctance to embrace black Canadians into systems where they truly deserve a place. It’s in the condescending looks that question one’s competence. All of these must stop, and it goes beyond taking a knee. We must take a stand. To the soldiers on the streets of Toronto and Tulsa, demanding fairness and justice, I salute your courage and fearlessness. Black Lives Matter.