Samanta Krishnapillai, Founder, On Canada Project

On how she didn’t realize she was Brown growing up, how that led to a rejection of her Tamil culture, and how she unpacked her internalized racism.

On how she didn’t realize she was Brown growing up, how that led to a rejection of her Tamil culture, and how she unpacked her internalized racism.

samanta krishnapillai

(Photo: Courtesy Samanta Krishnapillai)

by Isabelle Khoo
August 13, 2021




What started as a small initiative to improve public health communications around COVID-19 has turned into a grassroots movement fuelled by 150 volunteers

Samanta Krishnapillai from Markham, Ont. launched the On Canada Project (formerly the On COVID-19 Project) in June 2020 with the help of her sister and a friend. The intent was to use a compassionate tone and Canadian lens to address inequities surrounding COVID-19, and to aim messaging at Millennials and Gen Z.

With a masters of health information science from Western University, Krishnapillai knew people of colour were being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which was one of her motivations for starting this project. It wasn’t until March 2021 that the project rebranded because her team saw a need to start contextualizing Canadian issues rather than talking about the pandemic in isolation.

“It became apparent that not [talking] about how [COVID-19] was worsening pre-existing social inequities that would continue after it ended was not doing right by our communities,” Krishnapillai explained. “We wanted to be able to explain [the pandemic] in a way that invited people into [the conversation], but also helped BIPOC folk where there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance around things like internalized racism.”

Krishnapillai currently works on the On Canada Project full-time without pay, which worries her parents, who immigrated from Sri Lanka. “My parents have been really supportive in the sense that I am living for free in their house. That’s the privilege I get that allows me to volunteer like this,” the 30-year-old said. “They’re concerned that maybe this won’t pan out, but I also think they are quite proud of the hustle they’ve seen in me. I think when you find the thing you’re meant to do, you can chase it full speed and not get tired. And if I’m being totally honest, I have complex PTSD, so in the past they’ve seen a shell of myself. I think there’s something about seeing me this happy and this motivated that they’ve given themselves permission to be proud of me instead of worried about me.”

Below, Krishnapillai talks to The RepresentASIAN Project about how she didn’t realize she was Brown growing up, how that led to a rejection of her Tamil culture, and how she unpacked her internalized racism. 

On how her grandmother’s hospital experiences sparked her interest in health sciences

My grandmother passed away last August. Growing up, she had arthritis and other health issues, so she’d be in the hospital quite a bit. In those environments, she minimized herself. I’ve seen her in pain and not want to bug people because she [didn’t] want to put them out. I think she felt like she was in a white space and it was not a place where she could ask for help in her language and felt othered. 

She could never stay [in the hospital] alone because she [didn’t] speak English well. I thought it was messed up that her symptoms had to be conveyed through one of her children who translated. When you’re describing medical pain, it’s best to hear it directly from the patient because you don’t know if something [will be] lost in translation. I remember thinking how lucky our family was that all my grandmother’s children and spouses were able to take time off work to rotate through. [That] was not the case for every person in the hospital who didn’t speak English. 

I remember seeing this growing up and [thinking], This isn’t the way it should be. That’s something that’s really stayed with me. The older I get and the more I reflect on it, I’m inspired by [my grandmother and] her grace, but I’m also a little angry it’s taken this long for a country that prides itself on multiculturalism [to start] creating inclusive treatment or plans, like making sure there are translators. It’s taken so long and it’s still not happening everywhere. That’s something I really wanted to do as a CEO of a hospital, or something of that nature, was to make those changes. 

“I’m inspired by [my grandmother and] her grace, but I’m also a little angry it’s taken this long for a country that prides itself on multiculturalism [to start] creating inclusive treatment or plans, like making sure there are translators. It’s taken so long and it’s still not happening everywhere.”

On how not realizing she was Brown led to a rejection of her culture

Growing up in the ‘90s and 2000s, you didn’t really see people with my skin tone on TV [or] in leadership roles. Any conversation about diversity back then was rooted in white and Black, and that’s largely because our media was very American. 

I [knew I wasn’t] Black because my family made it very clear that I wasn’t. And I know I’m not white, but I [thought], I’m more like a white person. I didn’t understand that a Black person’s experiences are not the same as what I would experience, [or that] there’s more similarities that bring together non-white people than there is with me trying to be white. Also, white people were doing well in life. They were celebrities, leaders of countries, and they were in magazines. So I thought, That’s who I want to be. Honestly, I don’t think I had a formal conversation with myself about this. I just think it was a mental feeling of [wanting] to be white. 

But now when I look back, I see things I did [to downplay my culture], like staying up until 2 a.m. in residence at Western [University] to heat up my mom’s mutton curry. I didn’t want to eat it while everyone was awake because people would be able to smell it and I didn’t want to get made fun of. I also think about how I deep dived into pop culture in my teens and my early twenties so there would never be a reference that I missed, [so I would] be in on the joke. 

I really subscribed heavily to centering myself around whiteness and wanting to achieve the privilege that came with being white. With that came a deep rejection of my culture, which I thought was wrong, backwards and misogynistic. I just believed what I was seeing and it wasn’t until my early twenties that it started to shift. 

On the experiences that helped her unpack her internalized racism

There were three big things. One was I have complex PTSD and in my mid-twenties, I went through a significant mental health period. I had to process a lot [and] start going to therapy. [Therapy] started to make me more engaged with who I am [because] I had to exist fully to deal with my trauma. Through that, I became very spiritual with Hinduism and that made me have a real appreciation for my culture. So that was the entry into that space.  

The second part was I worked at a local health integration network and had a manager who was a Black man [named] Malvin. He basically changed the way I see the world. He was so authentically and unapologetically himself in London, Ont., which is not an easy place to be authentically yourself because there are a lot of racist undertones. I was so invigorated by his energy and his honesty. He didn’t adjust himself to fit into what “Canadian culture” dictated. He was just himself and I was so inspired by this radical notion.

“I really subscribed heavily to centering myself around whiteness and wanting to achieve the privilege that came with being white. With that came a deep rejection of my culture, which I thought was wrong, backwards and misogynistic. I just believed what I was seeing and it wasn’t until my early twenties that it started to shift.”

That was when I was really forced to look at myself and realize that when I’m in a room, I have either had to be a spokesperson for my community or minimize my race in order to “earn” my seat in that room. Either way, I was adjusting myself to make white people more comfortable with my presence. So my big takeaway from the months I spent [with Malvin] as his intern was this unpacking of my own internalized racism, where that came from, and how [I could] start becoming radically myself. That was the beginning of a shift in myself. 

And then, for a lot of people, the summer of 2020 was a fundamental shift because there was such a collective awareness about the inequities that exist. [It created] two sides. There’s the side that is actively anti-racist and trying to dismantle white supremacy, and then there’s a side that’s perpetuating racism or just being racist. Those are the sides. You can’t say you’re in the middle or that this doesn’t affect you. That’s the benefit of this collective awareness: it’s one or the other. That moment liberated me because I didn’t have to play a game anymore. I show up as myself fully because I’ve picked my side. I know what I’m here to do. And I don’t feel like I owe anyone an explanation for that anymore. 

On how being called “not Tamil enough” affected her

I feel like I should preface this. In my high school, people of colour were normal. It was a super Asian high school [and] there were maybe 10 white students. 

The Tamil girls that went to my high school would always say things to me like, “You’re not Tamil enough” because I was doing that whole pop culture thing. I do genuinely like pop culture but I definitely leaned heavily into it as a crutch, and they didn’t like that I knew things about Hollywood celebrities but not about our [Tamil] culture. I [also] didn’t speak the language, so I wasn’t Tamil enough. They just kept saying [that] and making fun of me that it just sort of became my identity: “I’m never going to be Tamil enough.” 

I’m genuinely not upset with anyone who ever said that I’m not Tamil enough…I think often it comes from a place of protecting yourself. I think they knew that they weren’t white at a young age, whereas I didn’t figure that out until my early twenties. So, maybe in rejecting the fact that they were not white, they embraced their full selves and they saw that I wasn’t doing that, but that’s neither here nor there.

I know this is an experience a lot of Tamil women (who are my friends) have also been through because when they were growing up, people made them feel like if you’re not fitting into this exact idea of what a Tamil person is, you can’t be in that group at all. But just by existing, I am Tamil. I can’t do anything about that. That’s just who I am. So it’s not really a question of, am I too much or too little? I just am. I didn’t [understand] that until I got older and until my spiritual realignment with my religion and my guru really brought me back to my core.

“There’s the side that is actively anti-racist and trying to dismantle white supremacy, and then there’s a side that’s perpetuating racism or just being racist. Those are the sides. You can’t say you’re in the middle or that this doesn’t affect you. That’s the benefit of this collective awareness: it’s one or the other. That moment liberated me because I didn’t have to play a game anymore. I show up as myself fully because I’ve picked my side. I know what I’m here to do. And I don’t feel like I owe anyone an explanation for that anymore.” 

On how she’s learning more about her Tamil heritage and history

I don’t like identifying as part of Sri Lanka because of the civil war that happened there, which was a result of the colonial chaos in that country. My parents fled [from there]. A lot of people whose parents grew up there or were born there left and came to Canada because they would not be given the same freedom [or] security that the majority population in [Sri Lanka] would have. So it’s hard to learn more because of the way [Sri Lanka] writes and talks about it. In the same way that Canada doesn’t have public records of all the crimes we’ve committed against Indigenous peoples, Sri Lanka doesn’t really talk about all the crimes it’s committed against Tamil people. So it’s hard to learn about the heritage and the history.

“I know this is an experience a lot of Tamil women (who are my friends) have also been through because when they were growing up, people made them feel like if you’re not fitting into this exact idea of what a Tamil person is, you can’t be in that group at all. But just by existing, I am Tamil. I can’t do anything about that. That’s just who I am. So it’s not really a question of, am I too much or too little? I just am. I didn’t [understand] that until I got older and until my spiritual realignment with my religion and my guru really brought me back to my core.”

For my family, that’s a traumatic period. It’s not easy for them to talk about. So I’ve been turning a lot to the internet, making new friends and learning more through Instagram accounts, blogs, recommended readings and articles, and developing my own little network of people who are learning and trying to do more. There’s also this organization called Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action in Toronto that does a good job of connecting the diaspora here and creating conversations, so I’ve been leaning into that space.

I’m just trying my best to exist fully as myself. I don’t imagine I’m going to learn it all tomorrow, but I’m just going to keep learning and leaning into it. It’s definitely a big interest area and I do want to know more. 

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