…here in Canada, we have barely even begun to recognize the wrong doings that we, as settlers on indigenous land, have done to First Nations people. We’ve created an apartheid system, which inherently disenfranchises First Nations people, yet somehow we market ourselves as “apologetic, peace loving, Canadians”.
The University of Cape Town – my alma mater – recently hit the international news headlines with the success of the #RhodesMustFall movement, in having the statue of John Cecil Rhodes removed from centre of the university campus.
Rhodes was a British businessman who helped colonized Southern Africa. He had a vision for a railroad to be built from the Cape to Cairo, and it is said that at the place where the statue of Rhodes stood at UCT, on Devil’s peak, Rhodes proclaimed that as far as the eye can see, would be the British Empire…Ironically, the statue overlooks the Cape Flats, which is where black and coloured people were forced to live under apartheid. In “post-apartheid” South Africa, part of the vision for a “transformed” South Africa was to consider all the ways that the country has been colonized, and to find ways to “transform” the country towards a new, equitable, decolonized, Rainbow Nation. This includes grappling with how places, buildings, streets have been named after colonial rulers, and to contend with the impact of having those names attached to land and property. The #RhodesMustFall movement grew out of a larger dialogue about systemic racism at UCT, both within the student body, and within the teaching staff and faculty. The removal of the statue (and other statues and symbols of apartheid, white supremacy, and colonization) is only part and parcel of a larger movement about decolonization, and contending with what it means to be “transformed”.
I have been watching this movement closely for personal reasons, but also because it has forced me to reflect on my own
context, living in colonial Canada, and what it would mean – or what it would take, rather – for a #RhodesMustFall movement to happen in Canada. In my experience, here in Canada, we have barely even begun to recognize the wrong doings that we, as settlers on indigenous land, have done to First Nations people. We’ve created an apartheid system, which inherently disenfranchises First Nations people, yet somehow we market ourselves as “apologetic, peace loving, Canadians”. Fun fact: the South African apartheid system was actually designed after the Canadian system – the South African ambassador to Canada had a special relationship to visit Canada to learn from Indian Affairs, how Canada “managed” indigenous people.
It makes me think about our own “reconciliation” process that we are still going through here in Canada, and how we still have an “Indian Affairs” department in the federal government that continues to manage, marginalize, and give different rights to First Nations people. I think about the systemic racism towards First Nations people that this country continues to reinforce again and again. I think about the comments that we all regularly hear about “lazy Indians who don’t pay taxes” and “chugs”.
I think about the elementary school that I went to: Sir James Douglas, a fur trader and first governor of British Columbia. I think about the high school I went to: Eric Hamber, the first Lieutenant Governor (the representative of the Queen) of British Columbia. Even the name of our city, named after Captain George Vancouver, and province – British Columbia. I think about how we don’t even think twice about what that means to have the names of these icons of colonialism emblazoned all over this land.
How complicit am I, when I don’t even think twice about the fact that we still have the queen on our money – a monarch?
#RhodesMustFall has been a big wake up call to me, that we need to seriously check ourselves here in Canada, about what we are doing to indigenous people, by being totally complicit in the colonial violence and oppression.
What will it take for a #RhodesMustFall movement here?
Vancouver is a very interesting place to be Asian.
There are so many pockets of the city where speaking Cantonese or Mandarin is the norm; there are Chinese supermarkets on every corner, the quality of dim sum is renown – compared to many other places in the Western world. It can be much easier to navigate being a minority in this city if you are of Asian descent. This is something that I really have taken for granted, being a Canadian born Chinese person (aka “CBC”), living in Vancouver.
In 2010, I moved to South Africa to pursue graduate studies with the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. In my two years that I lived in Cape Town, one of the things that I really struggled with, was how I was navigating race in my new home. At the beginning, I really had a hard time adjusting. There are very few Asians in the city, and even fewer that looked like me. Everywhere I went, people were constantly making comments about my race. I was asked on a regular basis if I was related to Bruce Lee, if I eat anything other than rice, and if I could do “kung fu”. It was very frustrating.
That being said, I quickly started to understand how much social mobility I had as well, despite some of these racist experiences directed at me. My Canadian citizenship – and accent – granted me a ton of access to different social circles. And even though I incurred a massive student loan to study in South Africa, my financial situation (including have a bank account in dollars as opposed to rands) – compared to most (black) people in Cape Town – granted me a access to a lifestyle that was above and beyond most people around me.
Also, despite my own experience being racialized in South Africa, I had to come to terms with my own white privilege that I embodied, simply from being of a lighter skin tone then most people. It was so easy to just hide under the “POC” (People of Colour) banner, that I also “belonged to” alongside black and brown people. In fact, due to affirmative action policies at the university, I actually had to select the racial category that I fit under apartheid…Chinese people were technically under the “black” category. But something about hiding behind the POC banner didn’t sit well with me – in fact, I came to realize that without engaging with the privilege that my lighter skin granted me, assuming solidarity with other, darker skinned, POC’s was disingenuous, and in fact silenced the experience of white supremacy by my darker skinned allies.
Moving back to Vancouver in 2012, I have tried to bring that lens of engaging with my own racial privilege, as a POC, with me. I really have to remember that while yes, I may experience the back hand of white supremacy on a daily basis – but in many ways I also benefit from it, and am privileged by it – because I have “lighter” skin.
If I truly want to talk about racism, I have to begin with the reality of my own relationship with white supremacy, before I can even begin to dismantle it.