Canada Women’s Rugby Sevens star and bronze medal winner at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Charity Williams talks about growing up as a person of colour in Canada, tackling racism and how the Black Lives Matter movement has given her a voice.
I was involved in the organising of the Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria back in June. I was feeling really confident in the days leading up to it. Then I got up there in front of the microphone and there were thousands of people looking back at me. All the confidence I’d built up vanished suddenly. I was nervous. I was scared.
The fear didn’t last because what mattered to me most were the community of people who looked like me standing with me and behind me in that moment.
At 23 years of age, I’d been fighting my whole life for that chance to be heard, to be seen. To tell my story.
It’s something I’ll never forget.
I’m from a very big family. I’ve six brothers and sisters spread between Ontario and Toronto now. We are all athletes, or aspiring athletes.
My Mom is mixed race and she always made sure we were educated on prejudice from an early age. She taught me that it is a blessing to be a woman of colour. She empowered me to know that black is beautiful.
She shared her experiences of growing up being bullied and being called the ‘N’ word. She never had the benefit of the doubt from teachers and others in authority. It was tough.
My mom’s older sister was fully white. Blonde and blue eyed. Because of her skin she had a different experience growing up than my mom. She had the authority to protect her mixed raced siblings which is a sad reality.
My mom made me realise that a lot of the negative things that were happening were not necessarily because of the colour of my skin. That’s hard to rationalise as a young black woman in Canada. It’s difficult to understand why someone wouldn’t like you just because of your colour.
My elementary school was predominantly black and Chinese, but the faculty were all white. We were uneducated in race because we were children who didn’t know any better, and the faculty were never educated in race because they never needed to be. It’s like the blind leading the blind. Diversity amongst staff is so important so that there is an understanding of differences.
People are not cool. Just like my mom, I had a lot of name calling in school and in public. I was told I didn’t belong. I was told I’d never amount to anything. I was followed around a store.
At that age you don’t have the confidence or the strength to stand up to these kids and tell them they are wrong. Then, they grow up thinking it’s ok to speak to people that way. That’s when you come across 25-year-olds who are incredibly ignorant and racist.
The toughest thing about being a person of colour is that you’re often the only one in the room. There’s no one to turn to talk about what is happening. It’s tough to think that you’re the only one experiencing these things.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realised there was a community of us. Not all of our stories are the same, but they’re pretty similar. Every single person of colour is affected to some degree. It sucks how many people will never get the chance to meet such like-minded people and share their experiences and realise that they are not the problem.
”There’s so many times people look at me in complete shock that I have experienced racism. I’m like, ‘Are you serious? You are the problem!’.
I think that the narrative that racism doesn’t exist in Canada is just a testament to how broad and deep the issue really is. It’s a huge issue. You can’t change something that you don’t believe is happening.
With COVID affecting everyone in the world it has forced everyone to sit down with their thoughts and really take a look at what’s going on. People were so busy living their lives that they never took the time to really acknowledge or face these problems before.
All the people coming out now saying, ‘this is not ok’, wouldn’t have been saying it six months ago when they were living their normal lives. It wasn’t ok 600 years ago either.
George Floyd wasn’t the first man of colour to die by the hands of a policeman. But for the first time, people watched it happen. The broken system was brought to light in a way it never was before.
There is a lot of great work being done but it is going to take a generation. Plenty of people have stood up in the past and said, ‘racism sucks’, but they don’t put the work in. And it takes a lot of hard work. It’s relentless. You can’t turn it off. I can’t turn off the colour of my skin.
I’ve had to remind a lot of white people of how tough the fight is. They’ve only been doing it for a couple of months whereas I’ve been doing it for 23 years. I don’t want to feel that way forever. I can’t imagine what that struggle has been like for people in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
Since the Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria, I have become part of a really beautiful community. I feel very whole. I feel very connected to people. I found my allies in the people that I know will support me and will stand up for me when I’m not in the room. I’m very lucky to have such people in my life because I know that there are a lot of people who don’t have that privilege.
I’ve always tried to represent myself and others the best way that I can. I’m very proud to be considered a role model. I want people to look up to me and to know that I worked really hard so that one day you might be able to be in my position.
There have been times when a young black woman will come up to me on the street and say how inspired they were by my speech or how they want to be a national athlete like me. That makes me cry, every time. I’m so appreciative that I’m helping someone. I’m thanking them whilst they’re thanking me.
At a young age I’ve really had to acknowledge who I am and what I’m fighting for. One thing that has helped me stay focused on this path is my Olympic journey. I wouldn’t be able to reach these people if I wasn’t in the position I am in.
Playing rugby is my happy place. Cutting up the pitch and burning tackles is a great feeling. It’s a powerful place to be. It’s been a difficult year with the Tokyo Olympics postponed but with my free time away from the rugby community, I’ve noticed my ability to do other things that make me quite happy.
Right now, I’m helping to organise a mural created by 20 artists in downtown Victoria. It’s going to say, ‘more justice, more peace’. I’m really enjoying that. I’m getting the chance to explore new cultures and meet new people. I’m enjoying my new community.
I’ve become very resilient overtime. The more I was educated the more my confidence grew. My biggest regret of my youth is that I didn’t speak out more. If I did, maybe I wouldn’t have endured the hardship that I did for so long. You have to stand up for yourself.
Give yourself a voice. Don’t give up. Don’t ever stop trying. There were so many times I felt like giving up on my athletic career and the racial injustices in the world, but I kept going. Too many people struggle with giving up too early. If you go those extra steps, you will get to where you want to be!