Stuff

London, Ontario, Was a Racist Asshole to Me

In the four years I've spent in the city I've been called names like Ebony, Dark Chocolate, Shaniqua, Ma, Blackish, and Boo.

by Eternity Martis
May 8 2015, 1:45pm

Downtown London, Ontario. Photo via Flickr user phrawr.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In the four years I've spent in London, Ontari,o I've been called names like Ebony, Dark Chocolate, Shaniqua, Ma, Blackish, and Boo. I've encountered blackface on Halloween and been told to go back to my third-world country (twice). I've been pushed off the sidewalk by white kids. I've been humiliated by white guys shouting, "Look at that black ass!" as I walked down a busy street. I've been an ethnic conquest for curious white men. I've witnessed my boyfriend get called a nigger over 20 times, been called "you people" and been asked by white friends if it's OK to "use the N-word" around me while desperately trying to rap to Yeezus.

But, yes, after all that, I went back to Jack's a month ago, a charmingly shitty bar that reeks of bleach and tequila and where I spent most of my undergrad acquiring alcoholic gastritis (I graduated from London's Western University last June). And not even 20 minutes into an Ariana Grande song, I feel my left ass cheek fly way up. I turn around to see a white guy walking back to his table of cheering 20-year-old Justin Biebers.

I could have confronted them, but then I'd be that angry black girl. I could have slapped him, but after what happened to Aaron Ferkranus, a healthy, young 26-year-old who went into medical distress after being restrained by bouncers at Thorny Devil nightclub (a short walk from Jack's) and died this February, no black person in London is safe from a perfectly normal bar scrap. I could have also dumped my nice, cool beer on his young, receding hairline, but that would be a waste of $2.75. So instead, as I had been doing for the past few years in this city, I bit my tongue and allowed it.

Minutes later as I stood by the trough, a plaid-wearing white guy tried to introduce me to his only black friend.

"Isn't he good-looking?" he said. The black kid smiled. He looked like Urkel.

The welcoming sign at a local bar. Photo by Eternity Martis.

I resisted the urge to tell this little fucker that just because he's black and I'm black doesn't mean there's a love connection. I downed my beer and walked away, wondering why the hell I bothered coming back to London. Obviously nothing has changed, and this familiar feeling—this sinking, sickening feeling of uncomfortableness and humiliation was bubbling in my gut again, like it did every day I spent in this city. The lights and shitty music started to make me angry, and a random hand reached and grabbed my boob as I walked through the sweaty, jumping white kids who don't know how to dance. I searched through the crowd, looking for a black face—any face besides a white one. Only Urkel now. I was sweating and panicked. The buzz was gone. I couldn't be there anymore.

I called my ex-boyfriend, Amir*, who still lives in London. We haven't spoken in eight months. He asked where I was. "You already know," I said. "Now come and get me."

London for black people is like Harvey Dent's face: beautiful, white, and smiling until he turns to the right. For me, London is still the place that I call home, and yet it's a home that makes me feel unwelcome. And while some of the idiocy I experienced in London was unintentional ("I love black people!" "Your English is excellent!" "Yo girl, wa gwan?"), this ignorance has rotted London to its core, and has a long history of far-right ideologies stemming back to the mid 1800s.

London Is an Old White man in a Klan Hat

Ironically, there was a time when London was considered one of the more accepting cities of black settlers. By the 1850s, London was an active little city that was home to some of the richest black settlers in Ontario, many of whom had come through the Underground Railroad as refugee slaves. But ex-slave Dr. Alfred T. Jones said that in London, there was a "mean prejudice" that couldn't be found in the States. By 1863, segregated schools were in the works, but a lack of funding crushed the dream.

Ola Osman, now a student at Western, tells me about growing up in London's school system. IngGrade 7, she asked her white teacher why they weren't talking about black history. "His answer was, 'Because it's not important,'" she tells me. A few days later, the same teacher put together a slideshow of brutalized slaves.

"A slide came up of a black man being lynched," Osman says. "My teacher pointed at the picture, and said, 'This, is a nigger.'"

Osman never reported it because she wasn't sure if it was an actual issue. "I was so young. I knew I was uncomfortable but I couldn't articulate why," she adds.

It's not surprising, considering the city's supremacist history. The Ku Klux Klan made their grand debut in London by 1872. A decade later, a group of white hoodlums burned down the house of a black man named Richard Harrison. More than a century after that, fearing we'd eat up all the white people, the white supremacist group, Northern Alliance, formed in 1997 and is still active today. The esteemed group even has its own mailing address on Richmond Row, the city's main street.

I often replay an escape scenario in my head should I ever be waiting for a bus late at night across from their office. I think I'd pull a Tyler Perry in A Madea Christmas when she stumbles across a KKK meeting in a barn. She pounds the pavement running, tits flapping and all.

Luckily, I had no tit-flapping moments while I lived in London, although I did come face-to-face with a white supremacist/neo-Nazi at a Jewish friend's wedding (ironically, he was the best man). He seemed a little too eager to hold my hand during the Hora dance (I'll bet you ebony porn is his favorite), although he tried to brush it off by calling me a nigger girl all night. I'd have been more afraid if he wasn't Persian and morbidly obese.

Beautiful London in the winter. Photo by Eternity Martis

White Pride marches freak me out more than a fat, sweaty Persian kid who's a convinced Aryanist. I was probably hungover on Mar. 24, 2012, when boneheads decided t'was a lovely day to show a little white pride. However, anti-racist protesters (thanks, y'all) scared them off.

If white pride marches are something entirely strange to you, you should also know that they are frequently sponsored through the generosity of the Southern Ontario Skinheads (SOS). Take, for example, this fucking idiot, who would "like to thank [SOS] for the invite, warm reception and hospitality." Basically, they flare-up in London like a pimple with roots.

When I speak to Barbara Perry, a professor of social sciences at UOIT specializing in hate crimes, she is not surprised. "London has a lengthy history of viable right-wing extremism that's been visible for much of the last two centuries," she says. "The fact that they don't have to hide says something."

London Loves Hate Crimes

According to 2010 Statistics Canada data, London ranked fifth in all of Canada at 8.1 percent for police-reported hate crimes. In Ontario, Guelph ranked first at 15.2 percent, followed by Peterborough (12.3 percent) and Kitchener (10.5 percent). But need not worry, Londoners: Hamilton's black community remains the greatest target of hate crimes.

While the number is uncertain now, London newspapers covered the most amount of hate crimes from 1997 to 2000 of all of Ontario dailies. I found an 2002 Western Gazette article about a black female student who was punched in the face by a white guy after leaving a bar. The reason? She asked what his shirt said. The answer? "The shirt says, 'I hate motherfucking niggers.'"

I've had eerily similar experiences, though minus the violence. Ten years after the Gazette article, a drunk asshole asked me and my ex, Amir, where he and his friend could get food. When Amir answered, the drunktard told him to "shut the fuck up," then turned to me and said, "Go back to your third-world country, you bitch" as he approached, promising to beat the shit out of me.

Naturally, I told him his father loved third-world country women, and turned to leave.

"Your boyfriend is a nigger," he yelled, and the Jerry Springer bell went off in my head. It took two guys to hold me back while his horrified friend pulled him away, apologizing.

Amir didn't flinch at being called a nigger; it was something he was used to since he started driving a cab two years ago to pay for school. Most of his nights consisted of being treated like shit by entitled drunk white boys.

But Amir told me white female students were worse. He'd let me listen through his phone. They would take off their panties, tell him they loved black guys, tried to grab said black guy's junk (once, a girl leaned and said, "What would happen if I sucked your dick right now?"), and would ask him to come inside. "One girl even got into the front seat against my will," he tells me. "When her friend started arguing with her, she said, 'Just let me be with a black man for ten minutes.'"

Sounds like a dream? Mostly, they would call him a nigger, a fucking immigrant, beat him with their purses, make fun of his English, and threaten to tell the police he raped them if he didn't give them a free ride home.

Last October, Amir picked up two female students from Jack's. When he asked one of them to repeat the address, she said, "Do you not know how to speak English, negro?"

Her friend asked why she was being such a biatch, and she replied, "Because they're so annoying."

But Amir is unfazed. "People think that we're shit, like you're somebody that came from the village yesterday," he says.

A guy dressed up as a terrorist at Thorny Devil this Halloween. Photo by Eternity Martis

Racism at Western University

Western University's "zero-tolerance policy" for racism and sexism was part of the reason naive 18-year-old me decided to go there. But when I got there, I was the token black person that nobody wanted to talk to. White kids walked through me like I didn't exist.

During a class discussion on racism in my third year, an offended white girl raised her hand and said, "Like, I don't get why we're still talking about slavery. Like, it's done. Get over it."

Like, that girl made the mistake of forgetting there two black girls in the class. We chewed her up (she tasted like Juicy Couture and stupidity), but—surprise!—she still didn't give a fuck about slavery.

A popular local Facebook page known for racist posts.

White kids at Western were also dealing with a lot of stress this Black History Month.

On February 9, a student hacked the Recreation Centre's Twitter account and posted a tweet that said, "Fuck all niggers." It was taken down and the university has since apologized.

But it gets better, I promise.

Days after the Gazette published its Black History Month edition, a comment ran in the "Dear Life" section that read: "Why does it seem that the point of Black History Month has changed from celebrating black culture to making white people feel bad for being white?"

The day before I spoke to international first-year student Salha Hamad, she was walking back to her room in residence when she noticed the word Nigga scrawled on one of the clean, white walls. She wrote a post-it note condemning it, then taped it to the wall. When she came back hours later, the note was crumbled on the floor and stepped on. Almost two weeks later, the writing has just been painted over. "Like, how do you not see this?" she says.

London Nightclubs Aren't for Everyone

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener to racism in the city was the recent death of Ferkranus on February 15 at Robinson Hall/Thorny Devil. According to the video footage, Ferkranus was restrained outside the club by bouncers after knocking a guy out around 3 AM on February 14. He was unresponsive and taken off life support the next day.

A candlelight vigil for Ferkranuswas held on February 22, and a petition urging for transparency has over 1,700 signatures. Some in the black community have boycotted the club, also calling out Cobra, Jim Bob Ray's, and Jack's for their poor treatment of black people. A business owner known as "Freash" tells me since moving from Toronto to London 12 years ago, bartenders have refused to serve him or even let him in.

I can barely count the few times I've seen black men start a bar fight—and I partied almost every night for nine months straight. Every Thursday, black people would go to this event in the backhouse of a local bar. No surprise, it was the only night in the city that had scanners and pat-downs. Meanwhile, white guys would kick the shit out of each others, roofie girls in a nearby alleyway, and smoke weed, all right outside clubs and bouncers had the shits and giggles watching. What a coincidence that none of them died.

London Makes Me Feel Sad

But also of importance: How does London make us feel?

Hamad, who is originally from Tanzania, feels that racism has taken over her life since moving to London. "I'm anxious, I have heavy breathing. I have constant images of being attacked," she says. "Wherever I am, I'm always aware of where the doors are. I'm in constant fear."

Lwam Berhe, a Western student and vice president of the Black Student Association, feels that she is carrying a burden by virtue of just being black. "It may not be your history, but they make it your history," she says.

I agree with Berhe. Growing up mixed race with my mom's Pakistani family, I suddenly took on the full heaviness of being black. In four years, I went from never thinking about race to seeing it everywhere. I've morphed from MLK into Malcolm X. I'm skeptical of white people. The world is no longer full of rainbows and unicorns as it once was, but now full of dead black kids and Klan hats.

But more than anything, I'm tired. I haven't met a black person in London who isn't. The comments, the glances, the denial, the jokes—are mentally exhausting.

I honestly don't know what can be done for the city. The people making progress in London are the very people experiencing the racism, and that's the biggest problem—the actual inhabitants don't care. Whether it's a banana peel thrown at a black NHL player or a city councillor's signs being vandalized with fried chicken and watermelon, Londoners have no shame, and it's embarrassing.

But in a strange way, London has shaped my identity. It's made me critical, strong-willed, educated, and most of all, experienced. It's where I became an adult, and where I made the most epic memories. But it's an asshole. A big, gaping, racist asshole that will shit you out once you're inside, back into the white porcelain pot called life, and flush you into the sewage tank with the rest of the shit, condoms, and dead goldfish. But I'd rather be down there than with the trash on land.

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