First experience with racism in my life!
Last summer we had the amazing pleasure of having 7 relatives from Italy come and surprise my mother for her 80th birthday. They included my aunt, her daughter and son-in-law, her granddaughter and husband and some cousins.
It was a magical time that was so much fun! We are extremely close with our family in Italy and visit at least once a year. My mother and aunt have lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic for over 59 years but are as close today as they were when they were in their 20s.
I grew up in a household where my parents spoke Italian to each other and us. It was mostly my father’s dialect but I also took Italian in high school (along with French) to learn the “proper” way to speak it. I love speaking English, Italian and French and I’m proud of the fact that I can! It’s helped me immensely in doing genealogical research and it comes completely naturally to me.
No one, in my entire life, has ever made a racist comment to me about being Italian descent. I grew up in Toronto which is hugely multi-cultural and although I lived in a mostly white Anglo Saxon Protestant suburb, everyone knew and accepted that we all came from a different country at least 1-3 generations prior.
Last summer I had an incident happen that shocked me to my core!
The lovely lady in the photo above- 2nd from the right- is my cousin Rossella. She is Italian and has always lived in Italy. Her mother is my mother’s sister. We are very close and see each other yearly and have even vacationed together. She’s a newly retired pharmacist who is enjoying being a first time grandmother. She’s also very smart and speaks English very well….as do a LOT of Europeans. In their countries, they are almost all taught to speak English.
Rossella and my sister and I had gone into the closest town to me- Orangeville, Ontario- to pick up some groceries for dinner. Rossella had offered to pay for them and we joked about making sure we went on a Wednesday because it was “seniors” day so that we could get a discount.
We had a great time going up and down the aisles, discussing how different the food selection was, and the cost of the items too. Once we were done, we got into line at the check-out.
As usual, Seniors Day at the store was crowded. There were many people in line waiting to pay for their items. In our particular line, we waited patiently and started talking to each other about our day and laughed about our mothers and how they nattered at each other all the time. We were oblivious to the fact that we were speaking Italian because we switched back and forth from English to Italian and it was just easier for us to speak Italian because we were better at it than Rossella was at speaking English.
Rossella was busy paying for the food when mid way through a sentence, a man standing behind me in line, interrupted me to ask what language we were speaking. I was happy to answer him and said “Italian”. I thought he was just interested. His next words to me were so shocking that it took me a few seconds to realize he wasn’t being friendly at all.
“Sometimes, I don’t even know what country I live in anymore” was his comment. I didn’t quite get the comment at first so I said “What do you mean?” and he said “Well, you know what they say….”When in Rome do as the Romans do” “!! I was completely taken aback, and frankly amused that he used that exact saying because of the reference to Italy. “What?” I said, again confused…”When you’re in this country, you should speak English”, he said.
By this point I knew that he was being confrontational. I was put on the spot and said, “Well, I AM from this country. I was born and raised here. We have company from Italy who are visiting us and it’s just easier to speak to them in Italian.” I don’t know why I felt the need to explain anything to him but I said it instinctively. His response????
“Well, you know, there’s a place in downtown Toronto that’s called Little Italy. Maybe your company would feel more comfortable there”. I was in complete and utter shock by this point and couldn’t believe what was happening. No one else in the line said a word. I’m not sure they even heard him, but they probably did.
Orangeville, Ontario is mostly white but there are a lot of East Indians, Mennonites, African Canadians and who knows what other nationalities living there. Orangeville is surrounded by mostly farmland. This man was very obviously from a rural area because he was wearing coveralls from working on a farm and he was in his late 60s. Maybe I’m making excuses for him…I don’t know. I shouldn’t judge him from what he’s wearing anyway. I think I’m just trying to find a reason for his way of thinking but I can’t.
“Why would you say that to us?”, I asked. He said with a completely straight face…..”You live in an English country and you should speak English”.
At this point there was NO DOUBT that he was not joking and I just followed my sister and cousin out of the store. Luckily, my cousin heard none of this conversation until I told her about it in the parking lot. I was fuming. She was shocked as was my sister. Luckily my sister hadn’t heard or she would have made a huge scene!
This whole scenario happened in about 2 minutes.
I learned a lot that day.
- Racism is ugly.
- Just because I am white, and born in Canada does not mean that I will not experience this ugliness.
- People can be so ignorant and mean spirited.
- I have a HUGE new understanding and empathy for minorities who are subjected to this on a daily basis.
- I decided to share this story as many times as I could so that people would know that it can happen anywhere to anyone and it needs to stop.
- I learned that I would not let some small minded individual ruin my wonderful day with people I love. This was HIS issue not mine, but I learned that next time this happens that I would make a point of singling such comments by repeating them back to the person LOUDLY so that others could see this ugliness…is this wrong? childish? Maybe.
I asked my mother when I got home if she ever experienced racism when she first came to Canada in 1957. We had never spoken of it before. Her answer hurt me.
She said that a lot of times she’d enter a store and be greeted with a smile and a nice “Hello”. From the outside, she looked just like everyone else. Once she opened her mouth to speak and her thick Italian accent came out and she had trouble speaking in English, the demeanor and attitude of the person serving her would change completely. They would be brusk and impatient and she felt very small, hurt and centered out.
I had never heard of this story before!
Has anything like this happened to you? It amazes me that he didn’t realize that even HE originated from an ancestor from another country- even if he was 5 or 6 generations Canadian. I should have pointed that out, but I didn’t think of it until later. There is no excuse for rudeness. No reason for him to single us out in a public place like that. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing I walked away. He might have made it an even uglier scene and that would have not made him any more enlightened or made our day any more pleasant.