Re-setting the Table: Exploring the Counter-stories of Racialized Dietitians in Canada

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Dhami, Gurneet Kaur
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Mount Saint Vincent University
On the first day of orientation at the School of Nutrition at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) in August 2012, I was told that only some people in the room would become dietitians going into this nutrition program. I thought to myself, “What a discouraging thing to say before we even start, right?!” Looking around the room, I will not say I was not judging, but we were all judging; I felt it. Although I was shy and quiet since day one, I made it a mission to chase this title I dreamed of in my high school’s home economics class. As a resourceful child of immigrants, I knew I would have to forge a unique path like the movie characters that taught me about university life. My parents immigrated from Panjab, India, and like many folks in my Etobicoke North suburbs of Rexdale, worked in blue-collar jobs to afford a working-middle-class lifestyle. The students in my orientation class were a mix, but now that I think of it, I was naive not to name the difference in economic and racial class representation since day one. Also, never did I think these small moments would lead me to stir the pot and question dietetic diversity in the profession I am about to join as a dietitian. During my undergraduate studies, many small moments made me internally question the lack of diversity and race conversations in dietetics. Over five years, certain exchanges with colleagues and educators made me feel odd, and I often would equate that to not being seen as “dietitian material”. The nicest way I could rationalize that feeling was the unconscious bias towards me. One of the few stand-out moments is my interaction with my course counsellor. I often see them giving pep talks to white students, which would cut into my meeting time which was never appropriately booked on their end. I still sought help despite the judgmental interactions with the course counsellor surrounding my potential- I knew deep down I would return and share the program I got into so the counsellor would see my value. However, today I was not as important as the white student with their problems. I hated being overlooked and almost switched out of the program until my friend convinced me otherwise on our commute home. Because I saw the dietetics profession differently, I would seek out events and activities outside the program. Most of my university friends came from various sociology electives- something I was advised not to pursue as a minor. Understanding how society functions through pop culture, relationships, and theory opened my mind to many intersections we did not explore in our nutrition program. How can I support racialized communities to eat healthily despite economic and social hardships? How does colonialism impact our relationship with Indigenous communities? These questions and intersectional conversations were missing from nutrition courses. I felt the privilege reflected in the student’s behaviours in some nutrition class presentations around health promotion activities in neighbourhood improvement areas and raised questions. My peers did not have much to share, and an educator later shared that my questions were good, but everyone was too competitive at this stage in the program to engage in discussion. I felt discouraged and never uncomfortable fitting into the mould, so I attended business, political and art events on campus. Whenever I asked nutrition peers to join, I was asked, “Is that nutrition-related?” because they did not see the point, and that is what made me gravitate towards having friends in fields outside of my study. Beyond the program, volunteer commitments in my Rexdale community and around Toronto kept me busy. I tried to get into any small area that I could, be it a food bank, kids’ program, health promotion, events, you name it, I tried it out. Although I faced resistance, I found the best time to be spent with people outside of nutrition sharing their thoughts on nutrition, which in the long run, helped me craft a better idea of my career goals. I never stopped researching. I always tried to get a certificate, meet with someone cool and work on my resume. In my final year of the program, I decided on a few internships I wanted to pursue and master’s programs. My networks came through during this challenging time to provide me with references and guidance for the interview process. By March 2017, I got two offers fulfilling my dietitian dream and one belligerent comment from a peer reminding me that I still did not belong in dietetics. As much as you do not want word to go out on not getting into a program, the harshest comments are from those who got into a program. I was away at a business conference when we heard back from dietetic internship programs, so I do not know what that atmosphere was in class the day everyone found out. A week or so later, when I was with a classmate discussing our extra-curricular activities, they hesitantly told me about an incident they felt bad holding back. A classmate commented on whether peers would sink or swim during internship or master’s programs. My classmate was present at the time of the discussion, which was cruel and honestly just unprofessional from my understanding. When my name came up, the person said something along the lines of “It is going to be hard for Gurneet to fit in” to my rural internship or East Coast master’s program, which is where my classmate interjected and said, “Gurneet’s not that dark”…and things were just left at the moment. When sharing this story, they got emotional and feared I would too. I was taken back by a classmate who said this is also racialized…like why ?! I laughed it off and replied, “I knew my social location before I applied to these places,” to soften the blow…which again took me back to the isolating feel I felt on day one. Despite getting in, I still felt like I did not belong. Ultimately, I chose the master’s program over the internship because I wanted to research. And the very topic I was going to research was chosen when I shared this story with my thesis advisor over a Skype call. I felt like I would be able to rewrite a wrong and explore dietetic diversity at Mount Saint Vincent University. The Fall of 2017 was a massive transition to a new province and university, where I did not know anyone. Although I was welcomed, this doubtful feeling I had from my undergrad program still lingered concerning whether or not people would support my multifaceted and non-conventional approach to dietetics. It became clear that although anti-racism discussions were happening and I could be more open with faculty, the same issues were presented when I tried to befriend and get to know dietetic students, especially the white students. I look back and still laugh at how much I just went with the flow because everyone seemed progressive. The moment white classmates said they wanted to “wash the whiteness of their skin” and that “more diverse students accepted into internship will prevent them from getting in” were my ah-hah moments. This is also where I gravitated to a few racialized students in the program from the graduate and undergraduate levels to provide me with the company I needed to belong. These social obstacles deflected me from my dietitian goal, so the more I went anywhere and everywhere else but my thesis. There is a lot in between to celebrate that I don’t want to discredit, such as mentorship, counselling, interdisciplinary events, programs and funds that made me find joy when I needed it most. Those who helped me at my lowest know who they are as I became self-consumed in the pain of my participants through my thesis journey. Thank you for the laughs, caring messages and memorable advice that got me through the last five years. As I reflect on my master’s experience, there is a good reason why a racialized dietetic student just getting their Registered Dietitian designation will not jeopardize their career by speaking out against racism and injustice in the profession with a thesis. It has not been done since dietitians have researched in Canada, so why? I learned this the painful way, but I am still here as an almost dietitian, and, to be honest, I do not know if I want the title as I once did. My most significant achievement today is supporting a cause more prominent than the dietitian title, and that is finally finishing up this thesis for the dietetics community in Canada and beyond! The opportunity to make off the table comments surrounding the experiences of racialized dietitians as table topics is a pivotal moment in the dietetics field. We must address racism, discrimination and professional culture that continues to sideline individuals from entering and being welcomed into the profession. This is only the beginning and a journey we must take together in breaking down barriers with anti-oppression at the forefront. Reading the following hundred pages will inform you about what I learned so we can have nutrition orientations that bring us together in the profession with a sense of community rather than competition. It is time to put the talk into paper and paper into policy and action in 2023 and beyond!