Barbara Hamilton-Hinch’s family has been in Nova Scotia for eight generations.
Yet what for many people would provide a feeling of rootedness hasn’t been enough to change the fact that Hamilton-Hinch has often felt alienated from her home province because of the colour of her skin.
Before a room packed with supporters, students, and members of the public, Hamilton-Hinch invited attendees to recognize “that in front of them is a woman who for almost 18 years of her life hated the skin she was born in and part of that comes from growing up in a very racist province.”
Hamilton-Hinch, who is a professor in the School of Health and Human Performance, led a discussion Wednesday as part of Dalhousie’s Global Health Rounds. Titled “Surviving Racism and its Impact on Health and Well-Being,” the seminar centered on the experiences of women of African descent in Nova Scotia.
While Hamilton-Hinch drew on the research she’s conducted for her own PhD dissertation, she also invited four women to contribute to the discussion.
“It’s important to hear people’s experiences,” she stressed, “because sometimes people think that the stories that they hear are just that, and that Nova Scotia does not still have a history of racism and I can assure you that that history is strong.”
For Ntombi Nkiwane, a second year management student at Dalhousie, the fact that it was possible to talk about racism in Nova Scotia was a shift from her home country of South Africa, where she said discussion of racism is discouraged.
Yet this didn’t mitigate the shock she felt arriving in Nova Scotia and finding herself suddenly in the minority. “[I was] wondering why I was the only black person, why there weren’t any other African Nova Scotians in my classes. That really shocked me.” Racism can be displayed and experienced in different ways, she said, which is why it’s important to think about its effects cumulatively.
‘I think it’s important to speak about race and racism in terms of how it affects your well being.’
Workplace racism down-played, ignored
Kesa Munroe-Anderson joked that she didn’t realize that she was black growing up. Raised in an independent Bahamas, she was used to seeing people who looked like her at every strata of society and was “taught that I am as important as anyone else.”
That changed when she came to Nova Scotia.
Her own experiences in the province have informed her research as a PhD candidate in educational studies at MSVU. “I am more passionate now than ever about ensuring that educational institutions are welcoming spaces for all to live and work.”
Racism for me has been people wanting to have power over me, and I’m very resistant to that,” said Crystal Watson. Watson related how she was “traumatized” by her family moving, when she was in grade 6, from East Preston to Cole Harbour.
Shortly after the move, Watson was walking home when she was accosted by a fellow student, who called her the N-word.
As she grew older, she found that even in her work as a recreational therapist – and the only black employee in her health unit – she was having experiences that left her with the same feeling as that childhood encounter. “Decisions or ideas or anything I brought to the table were being dismissed.”
Racism and health
While Watson tried to make the best of the situation, the environment took its toll.
“As a result of that I developed a health condition that I still have to deal with on a daily basis,” she said.
Watson pointed out that in environments where racism is experienced, it often isn’t easy to walk away.
Stephanie Bizzeth, a current Dalhousie student and a former event planner at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, echoed this. When Bizzeth quit her position at the museum, she said that “I felt really guilty.”
At that time, Bizzeth was the only black manager out of 20; the only other black staff were either security guards or custodians. “I knew when I was leaving my job there was not going to be someone of my culture who was going to replace me.”
Hamilton-Hinch pointed out how little changed these stories were from those catalogued in previous research, such as the Racism, Violence and Health study that ran from 2002-2008.
She noted that the health problems that the speakers reported were instances of a wider phenomenon where race has been linked to health conditions ranging from high blood pressure to depression.
While research is being done in the US on the effects of race on well-being, Health Canada does not collect statistics based on race, said Hamilton-Hinch.
“My hope is that we begin to try and affect our health profession. Even if we can start at Dalhousie, we’ll begin to recognize the implications and impact of race and racism on health and well being.”
While changing to profile of even a single institution such as Dalhousie will be a gradual process, Hamilton-Hinch said that by gathering people together to tell their stories, the seminar represented one of the first steps to reducing the effects of institutional racism.
After all, she suggested, it’s impossible to address a problem without first acknowledging that there is one.
“I cannot change the skin colour that tells me so much about who I am and what my journey is,” said Hamilton-Hinch. ‘The non-recognition of race allows racism to flourish. We need to get beyond the idea that it doesn’t matter.”
This piece has struck a nerve, and in commending the power of examples I failed to offer two specific ones.
When I lived in Beaver Bank in the ’90s, a widow raising three sons, I became acquainted with the divorced father of a son’s friend. He was a social worker assigned to the Cherrybrook-Preston area and had worked out of an office in Cherrybrook for years, he told me. I was a school volunteer, committed to education, and was alarmed to see serious racial conflict developing in Cole Harbour High School. An academic was appointed to investigate and report on causes and solutions. I obtained and read that report (would probably be secret in today’s environment) which I felt was superficial and glib; however, it did furnish information on the provincial education structure, school staffing, standards and oversight.
The basic cause of the Cole Harbour High School problems, the report said, resulted from students from primarily black areas feeding into it who were academically ill-prepared and unable to meet required standards. I was bewildered, given that the province clearly mandated a uniform curriculum, so I asked my (white) friend to explain how this could be, why it was happening. Friend with two degrees (a first in theology) never gave me an explanation, despite having worked in the affected area for years. Most disturbing was the fact my questioning made him very uncomfortable. He neither understood my interest, nor seemed to care about the larger, much more important education issue. He was indifferent because they were black was the only conclusion I could draw. In subsequent years, he rose to head his department.
The other, more recent example arose last fall at a seniors’ church dinner in PEI, where I now live. Approximately ten were seated around a circular table when an elderly 80-ish woman made what she thought was an acceptable witty racist quip to the male friend I’d arrived with. Her ignorance, in the accurate sense of the word, so infuriated me that I retorted something that caused the table, and her middle-aged daughter beside her, to immediately fall into awkward, tense silence. Sadly, PEI seems a century behind Halifax in the willingness of seniors here to publicly express racist attitudes. Even worse, many don’t seem to know there’s anything wrong with their being racist! I’d quickly worn out my welcome that day, but it might have applied to my friend also, had those women known he was gay. Poor guy, he had to listen to me rant about it all the way home, and he’s never invited me there again, which suits me just fine. I wouldn’t go.
As a white person born, raised and returned to Nova Scotia from the U.S. in my forties, I’ve heard and seen the ugly Nova Scotia racism Professor Hamilton-Hinch has experienced and speaks of. It’s much more difficult to root out in Nova Scotia because it lies under the cultural surface, dormant, much like the herpes simplex (cold sore) virus which only erupts when triggered. A comfortable white majority, until recent years largely ‘undiluted’ by immigration, rarely needed to acknowledge and authentically engage with those considered different.
We served few blacks in the health care setting in which I last worked, and even fewer immigrants, though that may have changed in the years since. We did serve First Nations, and racism extends virulently to them.
Unlike the U.S. where the way one presents oneself largely determines respect, social class and education are the primary determining factors in Nova Scotia. Since I was inferior in education to the professionals dispensing meds in the pharmacy in which I worked, they spoke freely in my presence. One professional in particular avoided interacting with First Nations, particularly one male, and the collective workplace consensus among the three peer professionals was ugly. I still recall sensing his gratitude and seeing his quiet smile and hearing his thanks when he was given respect with his service.
Until racism is intuitively felt to be wrong, or it’s personally experienced in all its humiliation and degradation, we only chip away at it. Relating experiences, such as Professor Hamilton-Hinch asks, allows us to walk in others’ shoes, experience their pain, live a little of their life for a few unforgettable moments. It’s probably the only thing that may start to make a difference.