What it's like being black (or brown) in Ottawa

Wayne Hawthorne, Algonquin College professor and audio engineer reflects on what it's like to be black in Ottawa. Jean Levac / Postmedia News

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The greeter at the door doesn’t greet you. Security keeps an eye on you in the store. The bank teller questions you every time you deposit a cheque. Police follow you when you’re walking home from work, asking where you’ve been and what’s in your backpack. You always keep the receipt in case you’re accused of stealing the merchandise you just bought. 

Dealing with that sort of suspicious attitude is part of everyday life for people of colour in Ottawa, no matter what their age, demographic or economic status. If your skin is not white, you’ve undoubtedly experienced these subtle displays of racism, and probably much more blatant demonstrations as well. 

The shocking video of a Minneapolis police officer who put his knee against the neck of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, who later died has sparked widespread protests against police brutality and eye-opening discussions about anti-black racism. 

The conversation reached Ottawa’s music industry this week as people of colour shared their stories of discrimination, misunderstanding and outright hate. 

Music-industry arts professor Wayne Hawthorne poured his heart into an essay on how his life has been shaped by racism, which inspired production manager Kevin Boriel to write a piece of his own. Singer Gary Moore has been detailing his encounters with white supremacists, while singer-songwriter Kimberly Sunstrum was moved to create a powerful new video for a poignant song she wrote several years ago. 

We went to them to find out more about what it’s like to be a racialized person in the nation’s capital. 

• • •

Wayne Hawthorne Jean Levac / Postmedia News

For Algonquin College professor Hawthorne, the breaking point came when he noticed a small detail in the infamous video. 

“One moment in that video where the officer’s hand is in his pocket and he looks at the camera and there’s a slight puff of the chest: Disdain. Maybe I’m putting words in his mouth, but his body language spoke of not giving a care. That really got me,” said Hawthorne, 46, in an interview. 

The callous disregard for another man’s life bothered him for a few days until he sat down to write: “I am not OK,” he began. “This has been a very hard week. Hard month. Hard year. And I am tired. This is going to be a rare long one for me, so buckle up.” 

He went on to describe, in a little over 1,000 words, how the microaggressions of racism inform the day-to-day life of every black person. He writes about The Talk, the lecture that black youths get from their parents on exactly what to say and how to act when stopped by police (he heard it from his parents when he was 10 years old growing up in the Toronto area). He writes about what he calls his “sixth sense,” the intuition that kicks in when he realizes that someone he’s dealing with doubts his capabilities or challenges his expertise. 

“For example, I may be in a casual conversation with somebody and they find out that I’m a professor and an engineer and they say something, like ‘Good for you,’ almost as if to say, ‘Oh, you’re smart enough to do that, good for you.’ It’s extremely condescending,” Hawthorne relates.

He also writes about being offered a contract with Lady Gaga’s production team, which would have involved working in the U.S., and how he had to weigh the dangers of being a black man in America with the otherwise amazing opportunity. (In the end, it didn’t pan out for reasons beyond his control.) 

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Hawthorne wrote the piece to deal with his emotions and decided to post it, thinking it would be illuminating for friends and colleagues, many of whom are white. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that these are the things that happen on a daily basis,” he said. “It was to show that how a black person sees the world is totally different than what a white person sees. It’s not about pushing blame, it’s just that we see the world and react to the world in a totally different way.” 

The post amassed hundreds of comments, likes and shares, and inspired others to write, too. One was production manager Boriel, 45, who wrote about his mixed-race family and how he didn’t fully realize he wasn’t white until he was a teenager and had to deal with the eye-rolling attitude of a bank teller. He closed his account that day.

Boriell details several incidents, including one that happened just six months ago, when he was put in a choke-hold by a security person who thought he had stolen jugs of water (for which he had the receipt). 

“I’m seeing light bulbs go off on my own Facebook page right now,” Boriel says of the reaction. “For a lot of them, it never occurred to them that I wasn’t white. Now it has planted a seed and the seed will grow.” 

Open communication and sharing each other’s stories is an important part of the solution, he added, along with refusing to tolerate racist jokes and comments. 

“To me, you have to call it out every time you see it,” he says. “Don’t just laugh under your breath and walk away. Tell them and maybe next time they won’t say it.” 

• • •

Kimberly Sunstrum Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen/ Postmedia

Ottawa singer-songwriter Kimberly Sunstrum posted a new video of a song called Weighting this week that seems to perfectly encapsulate her reaction to the turmoil in the world. 

“Is it wrong that sometimes I want to shut the world outside?” she sings over a lilting piano-led melody. “Don’t want to hear the bad news/Flashing on the screen tonight. A million lives torn apart by an act that broke my heart.”

In fact, she wrote the song about six years ago, sparked by the conversations about race that were going on at the time and her feeling of being overwhelmed. 

“The content of the song was basically the devastating scenario of living in the world that we live in,” said the 37-year-old in an interview. “It originated from the need to stay relevant and informed, as well as to be a teacher and a learner. It’s being overwhelmed but also trying not to be desensitized to the ever-changing news stories that we’re bombarded with on a regular basis.” 

The song kept tugging at her in the last few weeks so she decided to make the video, teaching herself to film, light and edit the footage, which focuses on an up-close-and-intimate view of her looking concerned and a bit tired as she sings. The spelling of the title, The Weighting, is no accident. 

“It’s very intentional,” she said. “The idea of absorbing information and trying to process it is extremely heavy, and right now, the racialized body is the body that is experiencing a lot of the weight that’s going on.”

The daughter of a white father and black mother who both worked for NGOs, Sunstrum was born in Ottawa but grew up in various countries around the world, moving with her parents’ work obligations. She’s lived in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Malawi, Botswana, Australia, Thailand and South Africa. 

Racism in Ottawa is both explicit and subtle, she says. It’s being called the N-word but it’s also having someone follow you around in a store without saying a word. Sunstrum used to wonder if being followed while shopping happened to everyone; from her father, she found out it was not common practice. 

“It makes you question yourself first, and wonder what that person’s agenda is,” she says. “But after a while, you stop wondering and it starts feeling overt. The frequency of it is too obvious.”

Sunstrum describes herself as a perpetual optimist, and the song reflects her attitude in its hope-filled tone. Empathy, she says, is the key to moving forward.

“I really do believe empathizing with people’s experiences will help us create a space where everybody feels safe and represented and able to exist in this society. Exactly the point of this is to open eyes and have those conversations. And these are not going to be comfortable conversations to learn these things you didn’t even realize existed.” 

• • •

Gary Moore Jean Levac / Postmedia News

Gary Moore was nine years old when he first experienced racism in Ottawa. Now 55, he’s had countless other encounters, but still chokes up at the memory of the first one. 

“The whole family, my parents and four kids, were driving in a car on a Sunday,” he says. “We got to a light at an intersection. There was a car beside us with a family in it. They started screaming (the N-word) to us. My father wanted to get out of the car and kick the guy in the head or whatever. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was in our face.” 

Born to Jamaican parents in Ottawa and raised in the Overbrook neighbourhood, Moore is a soul and reggae singer who fronts his own band, Slim Moore and the New Soul Project. To make ends meet over the years, he’s worked a variety of jobs in the restaurant industry, construction, landscaping and horticulture. 

An employee at one Ottawa restaurant he worked at played the violent, hate-filled music of a white supremacist singer, then showed Moore the Aryan tattoo on his stomach. At another restaurant, staff told racist jokes in front of him. Co-workers at a landscaping company called him the N-word in French, and used other racial slurs. Another time, a property owner sent his dogs after Moore. 

Moore is not one to put up with on-the-job harassment. He’s sued two businesses and one individual for racist behaviour, winning all three cases. 

He’s been sharing some of the details of his experiences on Facebook this week, and expressed surprise at the support he’s received. 

“I believe we’re in the best time right now,” he added. “I’ve never seen so many people care about us right now. Never in all my life have people cared that we’re being killed on camera. I don’t know what’s happened lately but let’s continue it. We need to protest. We need people on our side who are not normally brave enough to stand on our side.”

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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