Racism’s Roots Run Deeper Than You Think

A reflection from the first Indian family in a white dominated town, three generations later

By: Camilla Bains

When people find out my family is from Oakville, Ont., they typically respond in one of two ways. Either I hear, “Wow, that is one bougie town,” with people assuming my family is loaded. Or, I get to hear, “No, but where are you really from?”

Oakville, a town on the southwestern outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area, is home to many privileged white families. In 2019, the average household income in Oakville was $188,997. As for diversity, over 81 per cent of Oakville is currently white.

Being a minority in an 81 per cent white majority can be overwhelming. What’s even more noteworthy is that my grandparents moved to Oakville in the 1960s, marking my family as the first Indian family in the town. My grandparents moved here with three young children, including a newborn baby boy. Like many immigrant families, they moved to seek better opportunities for their children, and to create a comfortable and safe life. What they didn’t anticipate was the racism that followed. Fifty years later, their granddaughter lives in the same town, only to face the same challenges, just slightly modified to become a more subtle, and arguably a more poisonous, version of racism.

As the granddaughter of the first Indian family here, I still experience the same racism they faced not so long ago. While some forms of racism have transformed into a more subtle hatred, it doesn’t excuse any of the horrific events of the past or present; it all contributes to the pain of racialized people. Racism, in some ways, has become more subtle yet more constant and accepted due to its ability to slip under the radar. All forms of racism are violent.

From physical assaults to hurling racial slurs, children picked on my family on the playground, in class, and on their walk home. My family wasn’t much different than the average one in Oakville; they had clean clothes, short cut hair and the only accent they had was Canadian. The colour of my family’s skin was the basis of enough bigotry when my dad was young that I find myself wondering if the people who inflicted this hate and racism then still live around us today.

My family moved into another house closer to the heart of the town a few years after moving to Oakville. My dad was a teenager at the time. In the winter, the neighbours behind the house threw snowballs at the windows when they saw anyone inside. In the summer, the neighbours beside the house built an eight-foot-tall hedge so they could separate the Brown family from theirs even further. My parents, brother and I live in that same house today. Same neighbours too. We try not to think of the hedge too much.

That newborn baby who was moved to an unknown town in the ‘60s grew up to be the person I admire most in this world — my father. When I look at class pictures of my dad, it’s easy to spot him as the only racialized person among more than 30 white children.

On Oakville’s official history page, it states, “Oakville was a terminus for the Underground Railroad, signifying freedom for many African-Americans who fled to Canada.” This passage seeks to remind us of how tolerant and progressive this town is. Or so they want us to believe.

The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) have a documented history in Oakville. The last recorded violent event took place on a Friday night in February of 1930. The KKK burned a cross in the middle of Kerr Street, with 75 Klansmen riding in a procession from Hamilton to Oakville. They congregated in an effort to stop the marriage of a Black Oakville-raised resident, Ira Junius Johnson, from marrying Isabel Jones, a white woman. Johnson was a First World War veteran who fought for the Allies in Vimy Ridge. The KKK burned the cross and marched to the house that Johnson and Jones were residing in and surrounded it, threatening the couple.

While there may not be cross burnings now, even in modern day Oakville, racism routinely presents itself like “White Pride” being posted on the Salvation Army's Oakville Church sign, though Halton Police did not investigate this as a hate crime.

My father is the best person I know. He grew up and attended Queen’s University, acing an incredibly difficult engineering program and landed a job before he even graduated. Queen’s is still known today as a predominantly white and affluent school, with many deeply rooted instances of racism. As you can imagine, it was worse 30 years ago when my father attended classes.

When he first arrived at Queen’s University and was walking to his residence after his very first class, a group of white boys rolled by in a car, shouting, “Welcome to Canada!” My father says he recounts thinking, “You’re about eighteen years too late.” On more than one occasion when I’ve told this story, white peers have suggested those kids in the car were being genuine — genuinely welcoming him into the country, suggesting my father just took it wrong. It would take a whole book to unveil my thoughts on this statement, each sentence on how wrong it is. Racialized people know when others are being racist.

On another occasion, my father was in a lecture hall talking to a friend, who was an Indian teaching assistant who wore a turban. An engineering professor walked in and said, “What are you two doing in here, building a bomb?” My father remembers the professor catching himself and apologizing. This was just after the Air India bombing, when a bomb exploded on an Air India Flight 192 en route from Toronto to London, killing all 329 people aboard. Twenty five years later, the Air India bombing is still the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.

It’s eerie how similar my experiences with racism have been in this town compared to that of generations before me. I’ve grown up hearing stories of the adversity my family had to face to get to where we are today and I can’t help but ask myself, “Well, how much has society progressed today?” I commonly white peers state that racism is nothing more than a thing of the past. I can assure you that is not the case. I have three generations of people to back me up here, and I am one of them.

I can’t remember the first time I experienced racism. I can’t remember it because it happened to me before I even realized what it was. As racialized people, we experience microaggressions every day. That may seem like an exaggeration to some, but that’s not the case. To put it simply, we know when people treat us differently because we’re not white. Even as a young girl, upon hearing these stories, I would wonder, “Why would anyone want to hurt my dad?”

When my dad was young, him and his father were in a supermarket in Oakville. A young girl, no older than five, looked up at my grandfather and said, matter of factly, “Paki.”

My grandfather looked down at her and simply said, “That’s not very nice.”

Hearing that story as a young girl was when I first realized how deep racism's roots run. This little girl in the grocery store was expressing racist sentiments without even understanding what it meant. It highlights quite clearly how this cycle of vicious yet normalized racism is taught and learned and continues through to today.

When I attended a predominantly white elementary school, I remember very clearly what my peers would say to me and I remember even more vividly what my teachers' responses would be when I’d tell them about it. When I would seek out my teachers’ help, they would say those students just “heard someone say it at home.” My music teacher constantly yelled at me, even when I was doing what I was meant to do. My social studies teacher would never call on me, even when my hand was raised to the sky. I remember asking my teacher if we could watch President Barack Obama’s unprecedented 2009 inauguration live in class, and she refused. A few years later, we stopped our class to watch William and Kate’s royal wedding.

The first aggressive instance of racism I experienced was memorable. I was walking to get lunch in Grade 9 with my friend, who was another Brown girl. A yellow bus full of elementary students drove past us on the road, with three white boys hanging their torsos out the windows. One of them yelled, “Go home to Osama!” We had no idea how to react to something so absurd and direct. I think of that moment often.

Remember the KKK cross that burned in Oakville, all those years ago? I worked in a Starbucks further down that same street. We reopened just after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down non-essential businesses, with mask mandates in place for all employees. On my first shift after reopening, two white women came in and pointed to me with my mask on and said, “Ugh, the Muslims won. It’s like Saudia Arabia in here!” I’m not Muslim, but that’s not really the point, is it? Or maybe that's exactly the point. A short time later, I heard conversations between dozens of white customers in and out through the day, talking about the tragic murder of George Floyd, clearly comfortable making horrid statements around visible minorities. It’s quite an indescribable feeling, with people saying hateful things around me and consistently acting as though I were below them, just because I enjoyed making lattes and needed a job.

I voiced my concerns to my manager on four different occasions. Then I regularly had anti-mask customers coming in, screaming profanities at me. Nothing changed even after pleading with managers to take my concerns seriously, other than them performatively printing out a tiny “Black Lives Matter” logo on a sheet of printer paper and posting it in the corner of the cafe. Performative action only goes so far if you’re not willing to actually protect your employees.

On my one day off, I read the news and saw that a violent hate crime happened at my place of work. My managers did not see it fit to inform any of us that this happened; to let the racialized employees know the circumstances or to make any sort of statement condemning the act. From condoning racism to not enforcing mask provisions in a pandemic, it was clear that this place of work could not care less about their employees, let alone the high risk ones. I bit the bullet and quit a short while later.

As I reflect on the stories I heard growing up, leading to my experiences with racism three generations later, it is heartbreaking to think of the experiences my family and others like us have been privy to. Examining the evolution of racism and how frighteningly similar my experiences have been to those of generations before me only cements my fears.

In the past couple of months alone, in those few experiences I highlighted (there are many more), the most heartbreaking aspect was internally debating whether or not I should tell my dad about how racist my place of work was. Wasn’t the whole point of his family moving to this town in efforts to create a safe and peaceful life?

No matter how perceivably ‘successful’ a racialized person is, we will never feel safe in a world where racism is so deeply rooted. Even a perceivably nice place like Oakville can have a dark history behind it.

Despite all these experiences and challenges, my parents and grandparents still consider Oakville home. They were not handed anything easily in life, and instead worked towards their goals and overcame obstacles people of privilege know nothing about. My family is not bitter and will continue to flourish. Through our own strength and resilience and own volition, we have thrived in this small town and will continue to do so. When I say my dad is the best person I know, I don’t say it lightly. He’s the strongest person I know.