Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Words and Work of This White Person

I've been thinking about this photo this week, as the words of Black people, the pain of Black people, the fear and rage of Black people really hit me. 

Honestly, I've been complacent. I live in rural Nova Scotia, in an area that is not diverse, and I keep to myself, so it's only occasionally when I'm forced to call out someone for using the phrase, "Those people". Because I keep to myself, both in real life and online, I'm not confronted with racism. But it's there. Of course it is. 
I didn't grow up in a diverse area, either, and in the seventies and eighties in southern Ontario (but outside Toronto, where I was born), anything about race came from the television: Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood, M*A*S*H. My life and my world, right up to this moment writing this, is white. All white. Nothing but white. 

Here's my confession, and I've never admitted this out loud or in writing until now, only alluded to it in a church message: When I was 19 and 24, on two separate occasions, I made a racist remark. I complained that the local dance bar played "too much Black music" and I mocked a co-worker for sounding "too Italian" on the radio. 
Fortunately, both times, a person of the race and ethnicity I commented on was standing behind me. 
I say fortunately because their presence caught me out, made me feel ashamed. That shame made me think about what I did. 
That's all it took. I was so ashamed -- and remain ashamed to this day -- that I am still thinking about what I did. It changed me profoundly and made me conscious of how I speak, how I use my words, what attitudes and beliefs I have and why. It makes me conscious of the lens through which I view the world. It infiltrated my entire system - not just race and ethnicity but also sexual orientation and identity.   
This is why calling someone out on their racist comments works. It won't work on everyone, some people are just hardcore racists and their beliefs run too deep to excoriate, but it will work on enough people. And you know what I've learned in the last 25 years? 
Acceptance and compassion feel so much better. Being accepting of everyone no matter who they are, who they love, what they look like makes life so much better, so much sweeter, so much easier. For one thing, you're embarrassing yourself by putting your foot in your mouth. You're not living with the fact you made someone else feel like crap. 
Acceptance AND inclusion. Compassion AND justice. 

Of course it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

I've been thinking about this photo of my sister and my brother-in-law, of my husband and me on a visit to Georgia in September 2010 (three more kids came later!). My sister sent it to me for Christmas that year (it's a terrible photo of me but I still cherish it for everyone else looking so happy. Natan was a big boy to hold onto!) and it hung on the wall next to the phone in our pre-renovation kitchen. 

One afternoon, a six-year-old boy was visiting us and he pointed to the photo and said, "What's the name of the boy you're holding?"
He didn't ask, "What's the name of the black boy?" but used a description that had nothing to do with skin colour. 
The idea that children are born "colour blind", that they are not born racist, but instead are educated to become racist, has been widely debunked. Researchers say children as young as two can show racial bias. 
That moment in my kitchen was the first time I'd witnessed that from a child. My assumption is his mother influenced the way he viewed that photo. 
His question made me try my very best from then on to describe someone in a way other than by race or ethnicity. It's not always possible, but it certainly is a worthwhile endeavour. 
But I wonder at the idea of being "colour blind". I wonder at not using race or ethnicity as an identifier because for most of us, that's such a part of our identity. Being Italian, being Black, being Greek, being Indigenous, being white, being Asian, being Sikh. 
I suppose the problem is -- white people. We are racist. We've always used those identifiers to mock and ridicule, discriminate and exclude, hate and bully. Rather than celebrating our diversity, we've always, ALWAYS, throughout human history, for thousands and thousands of years, glorified white, and oppressed Black, Indigenous and all other People of Colour. 

Even those of us who weren't raised by overtly racist people and who have tried to be mindful of thoughts and speech still have these "micro-aggressions" we're not even aware of, but the BIPOC hearing it certain recognizes.  

I've been thinking about this photo because I'm holding my nephew, who is now 14 years old, and who is Black. Who is terrified. Who is not allowed to leave their property in Atlanta without one of his white parents with him. 
Because I have a nephew who is Black, and a sister who is fiercely protective of him, and aware of the issues of racism, I haven't done any work. I haven't read books about racism by Black people -- or even by white people who study racism. I've been complacent. I can say I have a stake in anti-racism, in dismantling white supremacy, in making the world a safer place for my nephew and all Black people, but I haven't done a lick of work to making that change come around. 

The books have been ordered. 
The videos are being watched. 
And I'm committed to keeping this awareness, and doing this work, not just this summer, when everyone is talking about it, but for the next 25 years. 

Because Black Lives Matter. 

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