They Said This Would be Fun is one of eight books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.
Three racists walk into a bar.
They’ve used Halloween as an excuse to wear blackface. They’re dressed as cotton pickers.
They cut through the crowd at an off-campus bar to get in the face of second-year university student Eternity Martis. They smirk and leer in silence.
“Drunken bar patrons pushed past me and into the crowd,” writes Eternity in They Said This Would Be Fun. “So many bodies around me – witnesses – yet no one stopped to help. All I could hear was my own voice screaming at these smiling white kids, with their black faces, to speak. They looked back at me, composed, still smiling, daring me to lose my mind. Then, still smiling, they turned their black, painted faces and slowly disappeared into the crowd.”
Racist acts and comments would be unrelenting during Eternity’s four years studying at Western University and living in London, Ontario (my alma mater and hometown).
Strangers would ask Eternity if she was born and raised in the country (not continent) of Africa or on an island in the Caribbean. When drunk or angry at the world, strangers would yell at Eternity to go back to her own country (that would be Canada). Eternity would be asked if she was related to the only other Black person waiting for, or riding on, the bus. She’d be told that Canadian winters were cold and warned that there’d be snow.
Classmates would touch her hair and sometimes ask permission first. White boys she’d never met would tell her that they’d never talked to, danced with, kissed, dated or slept with a Black woman.
She’d be followed in stores and told the discount racks were at the back of the shop.
On campus, Eternity was desperate to connect with other Black students. Yet the first Black student she ran into refused to look up and kept on walking. “A few weeks later, I saw another Black person on campus. I made eye contact and it happened again; eyes and head down, no acknowledgement. And then again. And again. It was if they didn’t want to be seen at all.”
Instead of strength in numbers, there’s suspicion and unwanted attention when Black people get together says Eternity.
“You’ll count how many Black people you see on campus. And if you are lucky enough to find others, you and your group of friends will be stared at with fear and loathing for daring to even laugh simultaneously.
“We know that our bodies and our behavior are always being policed. We don’t get an automatic welcome to the party – we are constantly having to prove that we deserve an invitation. Even then, we know it can be revoked at the first slip up.”
White students can get together whenever and wherever. They’re not drunk, loud and obnoxious – they’re just having fun and finding themselves. It’s a right of passage. If they screw up, they get their wrists slapped along with a second or third chance to do better.
“When white people behave badly, it’s an individual trait. When people of colour misbehave, it’s a problem with the entire race. White people get the green light to be hedonistic, carefree, flawed. We know we’re not afforded that privilege.”
While her time at Western and living in London was anything but fun, Eternity discovered V-Day, enrolled in a Black Women’s History in Canada elective and found her voice as a writer. She went on to earn a master’s in journalism from Ryerson and is now an award-winning journalist and senior editor at Xtra.
Anyone working in postsecondary education should read Eternity’s memoir. You’ll get a better, and sobering, understanding of what Black and Indigenous students experience day-in and day-out both on-campus and in the community.
At a minimum, we’ll know what to do if we ever see three racists in blackface walk into a crowded bar to terrorize a 19-year-old.