From South Africa to Alberta: A Calgary woman’s experiences with racism and how to end the cycle

Hadija Rutter first came to Canada in 1999 filled with the excitement and butterflies that often accompany 18-year-old, first-year university students now far from home.

But Rutter had travelled a much further distance to be there than many students, her journey both intriguing and inspiring.

When asked about her thoughts on participating in a journalism project during Black History Month, she quickly replied, “What because I am not going to be black in March?” She laughed and agreed it was an important issue that should be talked about all year.

Rutter was born in Uganda during a civil war. Her mother was just 15 when she had her, but she was determined to get them both to safety.

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“She was a baby having a baby… trying to survive on the basic level.”

She tells Global News while standing inside a plus 15 on a frigid Calgary morning. “She has this resilience, she has this fighter in her. Regardless the circumstance, she was going to get us out of Uganda.”

And she did. They made it to Kenya and met up with other loved ones and refugees who had fled.

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It was in Kenya where Hadija’s mother would meet the man who would become her husband and Hadija’s Dad. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and while he looked different from them, she said their bond was unbreakable and remains so today.

“It was the three of us, my Mom, Dad and me and it’s always been the three of us,” she smiled.

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”My Dad played a huge part in who I am, he’s always made me understand you’re never in a room you don’t belong.”

The family moved to South Africa the year Nelson Mandela became president.

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”It was post-apartheid, there was still so much engrained systemic racism to a degree I don’t even think people would process,” she said. “When a Black and white person drove in the same car most often the Black person would sit in the back.”

She remembers vividly an experience on her first day of school.

“One of the girls asked me who was that, that dropped me off at school and I said ‘oh that’s my Dad’. I remember her asking me ‘how come he’s white?’ I was like ‘I don’t know how to answer that,” she recalled. “I was mad at the fact that had to suddenly like almost see him differently … like, you’re that, I’m this.”

“When we ‘other’ each other, that’s where the problem is on so many levels. It’s easier to de-humanize, it’s easier to create a separation… Nothing is equal.”

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She said that was the first time she started thinking about her family dynamics differently. But her parents always taught her to never let anyone give her a narrative that wasn’t true to who she is. As a university student in Calgary, she was shocked by some of the questions and assumptions people would lob at her.

“’What’s it like in Africa? What do you mean it’s not like the Lion King? What kind of shampoo do you use?’” she said, saying she is still exacerbated by it all. ”You start to wonder, who’s really ignorant here? Because I didn’t think you lived in igloos.”

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The Calgary entrepreneur said there is a lot of unlearning that needs to be done in order to re-learn.

Weeks after the death of George Floyd she said she walked into a coffee shop and two white women sitting at a table stopped their conversation and just stared at her.

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“What I really just wanted to do was walk over to them and have a conversation, ‘is there something you want to ask me, can I help you with something?’”

”It was so obvious that they were so unaware of their response to me. I was with a friend who was white, I walked in and they just gawked and gawked at me. It wasn’t curiosity, there was a level of just [being] othered — I was othered right and that is what racism [really] is.”

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Rutter is encouraged with the increase in dialogue surrounding racism but urges it is not enough just to talk about being aware. She said true change will only come when people start to act.

“It’s not just enough for you to be inundated with information, if a co-worker says something about any other colour, say something, say anything. Empower your kids, tell them differences are amazing and beautiful,” she said.

”I have seen change and it’s amazing and beautiful but we can’t sit on the safe side of it.”

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