For Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, we are featuring a blog written by a YW team member on her experiences with Apartheid and the institutionalized racism found in North American and Canadian culture. 

I’m black. I’m a cis female. I’m an immigrant. I’m a borderline millennial. And a whole bunch of other things beyond rhetoric. Thinking about the amalgamation of those descriptors is tiring because they each have individual melees attached. Then I remember that I have to live and balance each of those on a daily basis. My first point of identity has always been my blackness though.

The first talk my parents had with my brother and me about our blackness happened on a random day after we arrived home from school. My brother ran off to his room and wasn’t seen or heard for a while. Noting the suspicious absence, mom went to check on him. She found him sitting comfortably in the bathtub, bathing in a white liquid which she later found out was all the milk we had in the house. I remember the brief lecture about not being wasteful and other starving African children who couldn’t even afford a half gallon of milk. Then, with a puzzled expression, she asked why he did it. He innocently explained that he was the only boy in class that looked dirty and that he was just trying to look like the rest of his classmates (My brother and I were often the only people of colour in the schools we attended). With a heartbreaking sigh, my parents explained that he wasn’t, in fact, dirty, he was just black.

Conversations about blackness were a regular occurrence at our dinner table after that day. The diversity of those discussions corresponded to the differences in experiences of racialized people. My parents fought through and survived colonialism and the ramifications of Apartheid (a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s) which trickled down to other southern African countries. Their experiences with racism were some that I thought I’d never have to go through. But with any ideology, there is evolution. I may not have experienced as many blatant, forceful acts of racism, but I have had to navigate institutionalized racism that is deep in Canadian culture.

In 1994, my dad pulled my brother and me out of school to accompany him on one of his work trips. That never happened, and he traveled often. This trip was special though. We were going to Johannesburg, South Africa because my dad was assigned to the UN envoy overseeing the transfer of power from F.W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela. I knew who Nelson Mandela was, but never really grasped the large-scale effects it would have on South Africa, the world, or my parents. Apartheid was what dictated my parents’ place in the world. So the revelation in my teen years that my father was part of the downfall of the system that was built to oppress him was unequivocally mind-altering.

My parents’ experiences, my own experiences, conversations about blackness, opposition to my blackness and micro-aggressions I acquiesce to on almost a daily basis have been my compass. I consider myself to be self-aware, self-determining and vocal about injustice. Knowing my parents’ history helped me shape my own identity and provided me with a clearer vision of how I fit in the world. It is essential for all of us, individuals, organizations, businesses and governments to take stock of our values, our own biases and challenge ourselves and others to be allies in a world of growing diversity and to support those diverse populations equally and effectively.