Writer reflects on racism

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By Wency Leung

Althea Prince says she didn’t understand racism until she came to Canada. But once she arrived, people made sure she did.

Men twice her age propositioned her for sex on the streets. She was once denied an apartment because the landlady didn’t think Prince should share a bathroom with a white girl.

“The rude awakening in Canada was around issues of race,” she says. “I had no idea that people were going to look at me and think things and have these stereotypes in their minds. I didn’t even know of the stereotypes, you know? I was just shocked.”

The novelist, poet and essayist wrote about her experience in Being Black, a compilation of essays. She will read from the book at Oakham House next Friday as part of RyeSAC’s celebration of Black History Month.

Prince immigrated to Toronto from Antigua in 1965. Then 20 years old, she says she was naïve and idealistic about her new home. But she soon found it wasn’t the perfect place she had imagined.

While stereotyping and racism aren’t as blatant now as in the 1960s, Prince says they still exist. It’s difficult for people of a visible minority to fit in, she says.

“If you’re of another race, you will always have an issue,” she says. “People ask my daughter who is 27 years old and was born here, ‘Where are you from?’ And she says, ‘Toronto.’ And they say, ‘No, really. Where are you from originally?’ And she says, ‘Toronto.’”

“For my daughter, her race makes her not Canadian.” She laughs and shakes her head. “It’s crazy.”

Prince graduated with her undergraduate degree in sociology from York University in 1973. Then she worked on a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore until moving to London, England, in 1975. She returned to York University two years later to finish her doctorate in sociology.

Canada was the least cosmopolitan of the three countries, she says, since the black population in Canada during the 1960s and early 1970s was comparatively small. But Prince says whites and blacks were also alienated in the U.S., probably because of lingering effects of slavery. Similarly, she says, Britain’s colonialist history still taints its race relations.

“For me, they’re three racist countries,” she says. Prince says all of this matter-of-factly. When she speaks about racism, she does not sound angry or bitter. “It’s reality,” she says.

Prince says she has learned that trying to change racist attitudes in individuals is a waste of time. But she does take issue with racial inequality when it comes to African history. She criticizes Black History Month in particular, saying people are given a “ghettoized version” of African history — it’s only acknowledged for one month each year and taught from a white perspective.

“[Black History Month] can be a celebratory time but it really is the only time when African Americans’ history gets dealt with,” she says. “And that’s not really satisfactory.”

Prince says the education is particularly unsatisfactory this year since several Toronto high schools have dropped Black History Month activities because of teachers’ work-to-rule campaign. So children in those schools aren’t even getting the ghettoized version of African history.

“On a whim,” Prince says, “it can be cancelled.”

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