Photo: Sharon McCutcheon
Day 2121 – Day 2126
This week I was speaking with a friend about the BLM protests we’ve been seeing around the world. I have my theory, from a white person’s perspective, on why this has erupted in a way it hasn’t before, and I’ll talk about that this week in a post on my YouTube channel. At issue is our role in systemic racism.
So many people have suffered these past two weeks: George Floyd and his family; the protestors and journalists who were shot, beaten and tear gassed; and the many looted businesses, some of them small businesses that will never now recover.
All the attention to the issue has been inspiring but what do we do to actually change systemic racism in the world? Yes, there has been moves to reform policing but nothing exists in a vacuum. The system is not just the system of enforcement but the system that allowed it to go unchecked. If nothing really changes in each of us who stood by and let it happen, it will be a terrible tragedy.
I read Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Prison this week, which the Atlantic kindly republished. What struck me was the way he called out supposedly God-fearing people that have stood by and allowed unjust laws and unjust application of laws to continue. Serving God means working to be anti-racist.
I don’t know how to change a “system” to make it anti-racist. I studied international development, political science and economics and as I graduated with my Master’s Degree, I came away not with hope for change but a cynicism born of academic discourse. The one thing that had been drummed into my mind was that systems cannot be changed. Change must come from the people. Even then, don’t blink, because special interests and power-politics will always be a part of human nature and corruption will arise over and over again.
The darkness of the world has always accompanied the light. Yes, corruption may always exist, but it does not have to exist within me. I am a part of the “system,” just as you are. A system is nothing more than a collection of processes and machinations that people agree and accept. People create and perpetuate the system and if I change myself, the entire system changes.
I’ve been examining my assumptions this week. The other day, I was in the garden centre and a young black man was there picking out some herbs. I suggested to him to get some basil because it goes so well in so many dishes. I was aware that he was black, and as I walked away, I wondered if I had assumed that he had never gardened before, because he was black. Would I have made the same assumption if he was a young white man? I think I probably would. Perhaps I was friendlier than I might have been out of a sense of solidarity, but my response – while perhaps ageist and sexist, was not particularly racist. I’m grateful that I was aware in the moment, and checked myself for racism.
I was recounting the story with some fellow gardeners who are POCs this week and I said to them that I’ve always considered myself to be colour-blind when it comes to people but that I was questioning whether that was as virtuous as it first appears. It is part of growing up in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society where difference is – according to the Canadian narrative – celebrated and normalized. But not all difference is celebrated here. For instance, the Canadian population has a deeply entrenched racism against Indigenous peoples. To dismantle that racism would be to face our existence as trespassers on this land. For all our talk as a nation, we have not done nearly enough.
And, while I’ve always had friends of many races, and I’ve been aware – intellectually – of the differences in our cultures, I’ve never known what it is to be a black man or an Asian woman, or an Indigenous child.
I think it is a beautiful thing to view my friends, colleagues and lovers as equal to me regardless of their race or ethnicity. I remember a good friend – a black man in New York City – once told me that he had learned to be much more tolerant of people through knowing me. I don’t know if that is because I modelled tolerance for him or if he had to stretch his patience to tolerate me. To be fair, it was probably a bit of both. But, I was raised to be curious about and respectful of people that lived, worshipped, or looked different than I did, and that curiosity became a value of egalitarianism and an experience of Oneness, as I grew to adulthood.
But is that completely virtuous? In a group, ignoring difference may impose a dominant cultural norm and narrative to any crowd. I’ve reflected on the ways in which I’ve had to put aside my religion or sexuality or gender or nationality in order to fit in. Some of these things are easy to minimize. I wonder how it must feel to have to put aside one’s skin colour and all the experiences that go with it, in order to fit in.
Like all things in life, there is a good and not so good side to being colour blind. I’m grateful both that I am not a racist, and that I’ve had the chance to deconstruct my colour-blindness to see where I can work to be actively anti-racist.
Even as I examine colour-blindness, I don’t really know how it actually impacts others. Perhaps the best way to know is to ask and to listen and to adjust. I intend to continue questioning my assumptions and making space for more consensus in all my interactions.
So much has happened these past two weeks that I think it will take months to process it all. I have ‘family’ in Belgium and this week I learned, with horror, about the atrocities that the Belgian colonizers inflicted on the people of the Congo. I was familiar with the legacy of the Belgians in Rwanda but the Congo was a little murkier for me. The images of black people in cages and the Belgian construction of a human zoo for the world’s fair was shocking to me. I have even visited the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium and while the place felt creepy and colonial, somehow, I never learned that it was the site of a human zoo. Did I never learn it? Or, did the atrocity of it just never really sink in? I suspect that because I visited over a decade ago, this dirty secret had been swept under the carpet and remained there. But, I can’t be certain that I didn’t turn a blind eye to a distasteful bit of history.
I’m sure that the images of black children in cages were responsible for my dream two nights ago. I dreamed I saw small black creatures in cages and I was afraid of these creatures and afraid that they might escape. For all my liberalism, there is still an unconscious part of me that has adopted the underlying cultural narrative that black people are to be feared.
Perhaps witnessing the justifiable anger at George Floyd’s murder turn to violence during these protests threatens my sense of safety in the world. Consciously, I abhor the police violence, but my unconscious mind throws up images that suggest I fear the unleashing of black power.
What is that fear about? Yes, losing some of my privilege is scary, but the idea of hundreds of years of anger being unleashed in acts of violence upon me for the colour of my skin is terrifying. Yet, isn’t that exactly what the white person has done to the black person, for hundreds of years, all around the world? My unconscious mind fears justice for the wrongs of my ancestors and of my own generation. Rather than fearful images of a police state, I see images of dangerous black creatures in cages. My unconscious mind favours the police who maintain my privilege and suppresses black power. Isn’t that something?
This terrifying dream is a gift of awakening.
Not all fear is a gift of awakening. I remember, years ago, in New York City, I was walking down the street and as a black man passed me, I found myself putting my hand, unconsciously, on my handbag. I noted it at the time and noted that there was nothing menacing about the man. It was an unconscious reaction borne of the dominant cultural narrative that black men are dangerous, and that black men are criminals. Watch American television and you will see where children become indoctrinated to this idea and grow up to be adults that tolerate the disproportionate representation of black people in prison and the existence of racial profiling in policing.
I asked a friend, who is a therapist, how we can undo all the layers of our unconscious racism. A good way is to recognize it and talk about it, she said. She asked me to imagine myself walking down a dark alley at night. How would I feel if a black person approached me versus a white person? I told her that the difference, for me, would be if it was a man versus a woman. I would feel comfortable with a woman of any colour and threatened by a man of any colour. Given that no woman has ever physically harmed me, and no man of colour has ever physically harmed me, but it has been exclusively white men have physically harmed me, it seems unfair to men of colour.
Would I still touch my handbag unconsciously now, if I were passing a black man on the street? I don’t know. I would hope not. No black man has ever harmed me. Consciously, I have seen my colour blindness as a non-racist virtue.
But my dream tells me that I have unconscious racism and an awful lot of work to do.
Photo: Oleg Sergeichik
For what are you most grateful, today?