Kingston talks about race in the community

Virtual town hall discusses privilege, anti-racism, local structural changes

The town hall began with a simple question: “What does racism look like to you?”
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The community gathered in a virtual town hall on June 5 to discuss race and anti-racism in Kingston.

The town hall was organized by Aba Mortley, owner of Cher-Mère Day Spa, chair of the Tourism Kingston board, and co-chair of Queen's University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity. A recording of the event has now been made available on YouTube.  

"I remember the first time another kid called me the N-word in elementary school," said Tianna Edwards, officer of direct response appeals at Queen’s. "I think that was in grade two." 

Edwards was one of nine community leaders who participated in the town hall. The participants included Bryan Paterson, mayor of Kingston; Ted Hsu, former MP and current executive of the Chinese Canadian Association of Kingston and District; Ryan Carter, chaplain and course director at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School; Sunita Gupta, board director for the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce and employee of the Kingston Immigration Partnership; and Ekta Singh, professor at St. Lawrence College. 

The other participants included Bhavana Varma, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox & Addington (KFL&A); Jagdeep Walia, division head of medical genetics in the department of pediatrics at Kingston Health Sciences Centre and President of the Kingston Sikh Cultural Association; and Lavie Williams, inclusion and anti-racism advisor for the Human Rights and Equity Office at Queen's.

While invited to attend, Grandmother Kathy Brant, elder in residence at the Grand Theatre and Indigenous community development worker at the Kingston Community Health Centre, was not present at the town hall.  

The town hall began with a simple question: “What does racism look like to you?”

Singh described a lack of students and professors of colour during her time as a graduate student at Queen's in the mid-2000s.

"I began to feel a bit isolated, disconnected, and I was really yearning for racialized mentorship," Singh said.

Singh also pointed to more recent experiences in Kingston. A few months ago, she was told to speak English while talking to her mother in Punjabi at a grocery store.

"It made me feel like there's still a lot of work to be done here," Singh said.

Hsu faced racism growing up in Kingston in the 1970s. He noted experiences of racism vary depending on a person's privileges. 

Williams opted not to share experiences of racism.

"I’m not going to share experiences I’ve had with racism—I think if we really had to do that, we could be here all day long," she said. "In terms of the personal experiences, [we’re talking about] the individual level of racism. Racism operates on many levels, and all of these levels are interconnected." 

Privilege 

"Privilege dictates how you move through life. It's invisible," Singh said. "It's the absence of a constant deep-seated feeling and awareness of your race in almost every encounter and interaction that one moves through."

Edwards said white privilege is the ability to avoid conversations about race. 

"Silence is a form of power. It is a privilege only some people have in society," Carter added. "Silence is the quintessential feature of privilege."

Varma agreed, noting that racism grows when people collectively stay silent. Williams pointed the audience to a short video explaining what microaggressions are and the impact they have, regardless of how well-meaning the perpetrator is. 

Singh led the panel through a shortened version of the Check Your Privilege challenge, where participants are asked to hold up ten fingers and put one finger down every time a statement applies to them. Most of the statements were centered on experiencing microaggressions or having difficult discussions about race. 

"I [still] had all ten fingers up by the time we were finished," Paterson said. 

The difference between anti-racism and diversity and inclusion

The panelists then discussed the difference between anti-racism and diversity and inclusion, firmly distinguishing the two concepts.

"There is still hesitancy in using words like patriarchy or racism or ableism or sexism," Singh said. "We tend to broach words like diversity and inclusion, which seem to be better received by individuals because it's not confronting." 

"When it comes to inclusion and diversity, I think it means representation, that means bringing everybody to the table, ensuring we have diverse voices," Singh said.

Anti-racism, according to Williams, is recognizing society is racist and, therefore, something must be done to counter the racism that exists within it. 

“[I]f we're not countering it, then we are complicit in the effects that racism is built to produce," Williams said. 

Williams also said talking about diversity and inclusion is often performative and done instead of committing to countering racism.

Starting the conversation early in life

Singh shared her experience talking to her young, mixed-race children about race. She emphasized they are "absolutely not" too young to have that conversation.

"It's important for us to have dialogues with our children about racism and anti-racism so they can actively learn and take steps to become anti-racist and use that language," Singh said. 

Singh added that she makes sure her children are reading books written by authors of colour. Edwards had a similar response.

"Having something like a book by a person of colour with that experience for everyone to read, come together and have conversations about I think is the most key [for high school students]," Edwards said. "I think that people don’t realize where their biases are until they really talk it out through an example." 

Being an ally in Kingston

The panel wrapped up by talking about what comes next for Kingston. They offered suggestions for what individuals and the community can do to fight racism. 

"Recognize we all have biases and start talking about them. Have an honest conversation," Varma said. "Everyone individually should recognize not to be silent."

As for what the City of Kingston is doing to address racism, Mayor Paterson mentioned the push for participatory budgeting. 

"Going to people instead of expecting people to come to us," he said. "The key is to hear from people: what are the supports people feel are missing? What can we refocus on? The more we can hear from the community—that makes our job that much easier."

The City has also launched the #SayHello campaign, which encourages residents to interact positively with each other.

"Even if you're not a religious person, if you can just go to see the culture of the Islamic society, or gurdwara, or church, or temple, then it starts breaking those prejudices, like, ‘Oh this is the same as me, it is not different, not inferior’," Walia said.

Mortley said she believes individuals should “put [their] money where [their] mouth is” to support local Black-owned businesses. 

Furthering the idea, Edwards provided a link to a post on her Instagram account in which commenters have listed various Black-owned businesses in Kingston. 

"There's a sense of 'there aren’t very many Black people [in Kingston]', and I get the sense that that's not true," Williams said. "Kingston really needs to be invested in upholding, and creating, and helping make sure that there is space for Black people where we feel comfortable."

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