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A reflection on race and racism

Former NDP candidate discusses her experiences with racism

Shailene Panylo opened up about her experiences with racism and how she feels about the current state of events in the United States as protests currently rock the country. (Photo by Randy Nickerson)

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

Shailene Panylo is an Oshawa resident who ran as a candidate for the NDP in the last federal election, went to the University of Toronto, and is black. She says she’s faced racism ever since she was young.

Raised in Oshawa, Panylo, 23, was adopted by a white family, and says she’s felt the sting of racism throughout her life, especially when she was a child.

“I grew up in a household where I was the only black individual, and also in a time when I was often the only black student not just in my class, but also typically in my division,” she says.

Panylo says she was “regularly harassed” because of the colour of her skin, or the texture of her hair.

“I was called any number of names that kids would make up, as well as the n-word,” she says. “I was terrorized, I would say, at a very early age. It was verbally, emotionally and physically.”

Panylo says she is very open about the fact that when she entered Grades 7 and 8, she struggled with mental health and suicide due to the actions of a group of fellow students, and the lack of help she received from some educators.

“I speak candidly about the fact that my principal at the time, when I went to her with my concerns, and what was happening to me, including with one of the teachers at the school, she told me to grow thicker skin,” says Panylo.

It wasn’t until her family found out through one of her homeroom teachers that outside sources became involved, which helped matters.

“There was no course of action taken against any of the students or the teacher, they just passed a story through her, and that was the end of it,” explains Panylo.

She says 10 years later there are still children experiencing similar problems to hers, whether it’s in the school system or outside of school.

“I think it’s very telling of how far we still have to go – especially within schools and school boards,” she says. “As much as I believe change has to happen municipally, I also do not by any means want to allow the school boards to wash their hands and say that their equity statements are enough.”

Panylo believes there is a lack of training in schools, and there are still teachers and educators on the job who have committed acts of racism.

Often, she will think of the children today who are going through what she did.

“When serious action is not taken, when people are not held to account, abusers tend to continue their cycle of abuse, and that’s what I see it as,” she explains. “No adult who is healthy and happy within themselves would ever terrorize and victimize a child.”

Eventually, when she moved on to high school, Panylo says things were better for her, as there were more resources available.

“I was able to be more active, get involved, and I started a lot of programs, and I had the support,” she says. “It was the first time in my life I ever had black educators… so it was a different environment.”

It wasn’t perfect though, as there were still teachers who committed or acted aggressively against her, she adds. But since she was older, she was able to hold them more accountable.

However, despite the progress she’s seen, she doesn’t believe society is done changing. “There’s still a long, long way to go.”

When she looks at events unfolding in the United States, she says she feels as though what happened recently with the death of George Floyd was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Obviously, the communities have been dealing with this for a long, long time. It’s nothing new,” she says. “It’s just there’s always a hype, then it dies down, then it happens again, and we just repeat that cycle.”

She says this time since people are also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it compounded  and there is now “collective action” and “change unfolding.”

“Personally, I’m overwhelmed, I’m angry, I’m sad, and I’m optimistic that we’ll have real change come out of this,” she says. “But it’s just incredibly sad, and shouldn’t have had to come at the cost of another life.”

Panylo says she expects if U.S. President Donald Trump lost this fall’s election, there would be some change, but it wouldn’t fix the whole issue.

“We’ve got deeply seeded anti-black racism in America and Canada that will not just disappear,” she says. “However, do I think things will be a little bit better if we don’t have a President who almost openly supports anti-black racism? Yes, absolutely.”

As Panylo notes, issues of race and racism are not a purely American issue, with photos released prior to the last federal election showing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in blackface years earlier, which nowadays is considered racist.

While Trudeau apologized for the photos, some felt it wasn’t enough.

“I was angry. I was annoyed. I was ashamed and disappointed that he made it to the position and that he made it today having that,” she says. “I think that’s a huge failure on the Liberal party’s part of vetting.”

She says the reveal of the photos highlights “how tired” she is of how politics are done in Canada.

“It’s like a constant, ongoing competition during campaigns to see what can be dug up on who,” she says.

She says Trudeau was in the wrong, however, and says his apology after he “committed to being an ally” of people of colour today does not match up with his previous actions.

“Not seeing him stand up to Donald Trump’s actions and words does not match up. I think he’s hypocritical,” she says. “It sounded nice to say that he wanted to be an ally and make up for what he did at the time, but I don’t think we’re seeing that in action right now, and so, when it comes to issues like this, I don’t expect very much from him.”

Closer to home, she says Oshawa is an “interesting place,” noting normally the city would be getting ready for Fiesta Week right now, but due to the pandemic, it’s been cancelled.

“Fiesta Week is our largest celebration of multiculturalism and diversity here,” she says. “It’s obviously not happening this year, and in it’s place, we’re seeing these protests… so I think this poses a really great opportunity to see just how committed Oshawa is to actually valuing diversity.”

She says the city had applications open for the diversity, equity and inclusion committee a couple of months ago, and she applied.

“When you read that, it sounds very nice… but I don’t necessarily think that equity and diversity boards really address anti-Indigenous and anti-black racism with the seriousness and the focus they really need,” she says.

Panylo says racism is a very deeply rooted issue, and it can’t just be undone with equity statements.

“A lot of it is implicit bias and microaggressions, and system things that people don’t even see unless they’re experiencing it,” she says. “It’s almost like a double battle. We have to prove that it exists, and we have to prove that it’s worth changing.”