Ottawa·First Person

Sitting in your discomfort

Anti-racism consultant Nathan Hall was thrilled to be recognized as a 'Forty under 40' recipient, until he read the comments under the announcement. He writes about why that response tells him many Canadians don't understand the realities of life and work for those in the Black community, and what he'd like to see change.

Nathan Hall writes about why there's no changing the channel on difficult conversations around race

After winning a 'Forty Under 40' award, anti-racism consultant Nathan Hall said he wasn't too surprised to see a racist comment in response. He writes about why he was more frustrated by those who thought this kind of racism is no longer present in Canada. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

This First Person article is the experience of Nathan Hall, a consultant who founded Culture Check, an anti-racism support centre for the workplace. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Last summer, I had the honour of being named one of Ottawa's "Forty Under 40." In my excitement, I shared the achievement on Linkedin.

While a lifetime of similar experiences braced me for the negativity to come, I did not expect the amount of attention that it would garner.

Under my post, someone left the comment that, "Nobody respects people with a criminal record, the first thing you and your bros need to do is learn to respect the law and society." 

I would be lying if I said that being on the receiving end of racially charged comments like this has become easier, but when you come to expect it, I suppose it does become a little less disruptive. 

One year later, I can't help but wonder, do we still matter?- Nathan Hall

A number of colleagues worried that the honour and celebration were tainted by what had happened and flooded the comment section with congratulations to drown out the negativity. 

I also received a slew of messages saying things like, "I can't believe someone would say something like that," and, "This guy wasn't in Canada, right?" 

Well believe it, these types of comments happen all the time. And yes, they come from people within these borders.


Cognitive dissonance

Growing up Black in Canada, I was forced to endure this kind of chorus of denial that many white Canadians would recite on command with pitch-perfect harmony. Creating a hedge of protection from accountability and seemingly reaffirming their own self-righteousness — in their own minds, distancing themselves as participants in our discomfort and pain — they remained adamant that the country was multicultural and inclusive and rejected any testimony that suggested otherwise.

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To me, this denial reveals their cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that leads one to refute information or deny certain beliefs in order to keep one's existing ideologies intact. As I've gotten older and have advanced professionally, I've seen this play out again and again.

When referred to as the N-word at work, a colleague explained this away as the culprit being old and French-speaking. 

When told that people with my cultural background were all on drugs or criminals, other colleagues just laughed it off. 

Hall says he's tired of hearing white colleagues explain away racist comments as just a few 'bad apples.' (Robert de Wit)

While I hear from many business leaders who say they value diversity and inclusion, they are also the ones who chalk up these types of indiscretions as the result of a "few bad apples" or "misunderstandings." 

Whether we are speaking about micro-aggressions, unconscious bias, straight-up discriminatory comments or systemic barriers, the fact that colleagues and business leaders write them off or ignore them altogether tells me that they are also ignoring the realities of life for Black Canadians and other racialized groups whose unemployment rates are higher, salaries lower and who face other undue challenges in the education, health-care and justice systems.

Being Black in the workplace and being Black in Canada has profound psychological, emotional, physical and financial impacts that materially affect our lives.

Yet, throughout my professional career and my life in general, I have had more people challenge me on why Canada is welcoming than I have had people stand up for me and challenge the repugnant behaviour of their white colleagues or these social inequalities.

Hall says he had never felt so welcomed in his community as when he walked through his neighbourhood last June and saw Black Lives Matter signs in people's yards. A year later, he worries some are hoping to change the channel on difficult conversations around racism. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

1 year later

Last summer, the Black community witnessed an unprecedented level of interest, curiosity, dialogue and apologies from white people surrounding our experiences with racism and discrimination. 

Suddenly, it became not only acceptable but desired that we open up about our experiences, especially in the workplace. Suddenly, people and companies acknowledged the powerful reality of their biases and complicity. Suddenly, terms like anti-racist, white fragility, white privilege and ally became part of the daily language. 

I was starting to feel seen. I was starting to feel heard. The energy was palpable. I would walk through my neighbourhood and see Black Lives Matter signs in people's yards. I have never felt so welcomed in my own community. 

On LinkedIn, I stopped seeing #AllLivesMatter in my newsfeed as more people spoke out and stood with the Black community. Talking about our experiences didn't feel as political or threatening anymore.

But one year later, I can't help but wonder, do we still matter? 

Hall is the founder and CEO of Culture Check, an anti-racism support centre for the workplace that acts as a free resource for racialized professionals to share their stories, experience community and learn best practices for navigating their careers. (Jen Bernard)

I worry there are a lot of white people who are increasingly rolling their eyes whenever this topic is brought up. I know there are people who, in theory, care, but have been inundated by it for months and are fatigued by the conversation. 

But as tired as white people are of hearing it, imagine how much more tiring it is to live it. 

It is a white person's privilege to be annoyed and be able to change the channel or focus on other things. 

We don't have that privilege. This is our reality, whether we want to tune it out or not. 

This is why I launched Culture Check, an anti-racism support centre for the workplace that acts as a free resource for racialized professionals to share their stories, experience community and learn best practices for navigating their careers.

It has been a year since racial consciousness reached its peak in this country, and the hashtags have slowed down. 

I worry that the same instinct to reaffirm Canada's so-called inclusivity will lead to white colleagues and leaders rushing to believe that the issue of racism has been addressed in workplaces and that it's OK to change the channel. 

My question remains: Do we still matter?

Hall worries that a year after the BLM movement took centre stage, Black voices have faded from the spotlight. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Nathan Hall is an award-winning entrepreneur, educator and the founder and CEO of Culture Check, an anti-racism support centre for the workplace. Hall has been the recipient of Ottawa's Forty Under 40 award and the Small Business of the Year award, as well as the BBPA's Harry Jerome Award.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.