Jun 17, 2022

Shelly Dev on Racism, Silence and Why She Spoke Up

Education, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Inclusion & Diversity
Professor Shelly Dev
By Jim Oldfield

In a recent essay for The Globe and Mail, Shelly Dev outlines the racism her father faced in Canada as an immigrant from India in the 1960s. She also details how his choice to remain silent about his experience, and to deny the existence of racism in Canada, drove them apart.

“We loved each other but were strangers in each other’s worlds,” writes Dev, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a critical care physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

The two would have stayed apart years more had Dev’s father not developed cancer. Through months of treatment and as he began to die, he told her about his experience with discrimination. And she shared related experiences with him.

“It was the easiest we had ever been together,” Dev writes.

Read the essay by Shelly Dev in The Globe and Mail.

Response to the essay has been passionate. Some Globe readers expressed anger or sadness about racial discrimination in this country. Others felt Dev should just ‘move on,’ and show more gratitude for the opportunities that she and her family have had in Canada.

Doctors of colour thanked Dev for the piece, she says, because it put a voice to their own experiences and feelings about race.

And, the husband of a former patient at Sunnybrook wrote Dev a long letter about the care his wife received — from doctors and health care workers of many ethnicities. They provided such excellent and compassionate care, the man wrote, that he developed an awareness of his racial biases and overcame them.

“I am sorry for what you experienced in our shared country,” he wrote.

That letter has helped vindicate her decision to share her experience, Dev says. “It’s a reason to write about these things. I love the idea that you never stop growing, that everyone can find their way to a greater humanity, if they’re willing.”

A single conversation or event can trigger that life-altering change. In 2016, Dev shared her struggles with mental illness at a retreat for physicians in U of T’s department of medicine. It was a cathartic and transformative moment, Dev says, and she has since given hundreds of talks on physician mental health.

The moment was also undermined by a racist comment from a colleague, right after her speech. The juxtaposition of feeling both euphoric and humiliated was one of the starkest experiences of her life, Dev says. But it also burnished her resolve to talk and write about wellness, and later to link wellness with race.

“It’s a shame that so many of us stand alone in silence and in parallel,” Dev says. “There are stories to share and learn from, if we just turn 90 degrees.”