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03/01/2019 09:26 EST | Updated 03/01/2019 16:57 EST

'The Ugly Face Of Racism Still Exists In Canada,' Says Former Y&R Star

The actor, director and producer has faced racism throughout her career.

Tonya Williams on being a Black actress.
Charles Bush
Tonya Williams on being a Black actress.

When Tonya Williams landed the role of Dr. Olivia Barber Winters on the American daytime drama, "The Young and the Restless" in 1990, it was a dream come true. But the road to her acting accomplishments was paved with its share of trials, she says.

"It was difficult for me just to find work as a Black actress," Williams told HuffPost Canada.

"Y&R took a lot of heat when they hired us — one of the assistants in the office showed me some very scary letters from audience members who were very angry that they show now had Black people on it — some really nasty letters filled with racist names you couldn't print now."

Williams said that she performed in the role for almost 10 years before they hired on a "hair" person who knew how to handle Black hair.

"In fact, no jobs that I'd ever had from 1977 until then ever had any hair or makeup people who knew how to handle Black skin or hair. I definitely had feelings of not belonging or feeling isolated when the productions didn't have the basic items that would have made me feel included and wanted in those productions," she said.

In spite of these hurdles, Williams went on to earn two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a daytime drama series for her role on "The Young and the Restless" — no small feat for Williams, who says she constantly stood out in a sea of homogenous players and casts in the industry while working her way to the top.

Jeffrey Mayer via Getty Images
Former and late fellow Y&R actor Kristoff St. John, left, and Tonya Williams.

When she was young and restless

Born in London, England to Jamaican parents, her family relocated to Jamaica a year after she was born. Her parents divorced when she was five, and her mother and Williams returned to London. When Tonya was 12, the pair moved to Oshawa, Ont., and Williams went on to study drama at Toronto's Ryerson University.

"I was the only person of colour in the program," she said. "And for most of my career until around 1990, I was usually the only actor of colour in any job I did, and there were certainly no people of colour behind the camera on those jobs. I saw no one that looked like me in the industry."

She said that one of her first jobs was a TV milk commercial for the 'Wear A Milk Moustache' campaign.

"The casting person told me I was the first person of coloured they ever hired and they had a conversation with the milk reps about whether that would be positive or negative for the brand, if there would be backlash on their sales," said Williams.

But Williams kept plugging along, landing small television and Canadian theatre roles for a few years before heading to Los Angeles in 1987 in search of a major acting role. She landed guest appearances on various TV shows before getting her big break on "The Young and the Restless." She performed the role for more than 20 years.

In 2001, she founded the Reelworld Film Festival to address issues surrounding a lack of diversity in the entertainment industry. The festival screens films and provides professional development for racially diverse and Indigenous Canadian filmmakers and media artists.

"When I started Reelworld, almost all the white reporters harassed me with the same question — 'Why did I think this was so relevant?' They didn't understand why a festival like Reelworld was needed — they didn't think we had a racial problem in the entertainment industry in Canada. They thought I was just exaggerating the issues on this subject," said Williams.

"But the access that racially diverse filmmakers/content creators had in front of the camera and behind is significantly low," said Williams. "Major guilds had little to no representation of racial diversity in their memberships."

"We have to recognize there are still significant problems in Canada racially — and you don't need more rules and regulations to fix it — you need people to be more aware of their own biases or their own insensitivities. They need to look around where they work or go to school and say 'what more can we do here'?"Tonya Williams

Now in its 19th year, the Toronto-based festival has grown into a major film festival with support from industry folks such as Sandra Oh, Robert Townsend, Shabana Azmi, Eriq LaSalle, Adam Beach and others. The five-day event showcases features, documentaries, animation, shorts, music videos, industry panels, awards, parties, galas attended by celebrities and film lovers.

Williams said that only racially diverse artists in the industry cheered and encouraged her to bring to light an issue that she had lived with for years.

"I can't emphasize how important it is to talk about and address these issues," said Williams. "To this day, people of colour in the entertainment industry are paid less, even when they're in the same position in a production. People talk about the wage discrepancy for women, but they don't speak enough about those discrepancies for people of colour, which tends to be worse than for white women."

"Look at our top broadcasters, productions companies, distribution companies, then look at their top executives in those companies, those who are in a position to green-light projects — you'd see a lack of racial diversity there still. In fact, I've only been seeing some small change in that area over the past five years, slow and small changes."

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And while Williams supports the progress and changes that have taken place, she said that we can't fool ourselves into celebrating these achievements for one month of the year — Black History Month — and think that is enough.

"The ugly face of racism has always existed and still very much exists as a problem in Canada," said Williams. "Yes, we've come a long way — but maybe what February should be about is not congratulating ourselves as to how far we've come but to remind ourselves how much further we need to go."

"We don't need more rules and regulations to fix [racism] — you need people to be more aware of their own biases or their own insensitivities. They need to look around where they work or go to school and say, 'What more can we do here'?"

Williams also said that for people of colour, it's important to remember that everything you do reflects on your whole community.

"It might not be fair, but that's just the way it is. So carry yourself with pride and respect, chose your roles carefully — young people of colour are looking up to you. Respect is truly earned in our industry, it is not given. How people treat you will depend on how you treat yourself."

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