“If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”
― Albert Einstein
At the beginning of April after the tragic death of a bus load of Humboldt hockey players in Saskatchewan, a Canadian writer issued a tweet;
It was the tweet heard around Canada, and it was sickeningly ill-timed and in poor taste. Soon afterward she was vilified, trolled and threatened with bodily harm, rape and death. **I want to be clear, I do not support or condone ANY of the horrendous and vile words that were spewed in her direction. I do not wish this woman ill-will nor do I think she is a horrible human being. But I did not agree with her statement. She exercised her right to free speech, and sadly the consequence was a horrible week online for her and anyone associated with her who publicly agreed with her.
But while her tweet was tactless and agenda driven, she did bring up an issue that was sorely under-pinned in Canada. Her point, while poorly communicated, is that systemic racism exists in North America. She drove that point home over and over again, especially when people would respond with such vitriol and blind hatred in response to her persistent and unapologetic argument.
The conversation about racism has been brought into the social consciousness due to a variety of factors, mostly because a new and rising generation–one not immune to prejudice–are speaking up in defiance of a system that has unbalanced the scales for far too long. Another because polarizing political structures in the U.S. and Canada have become ever more divisive due to a wider expanse between conflicting ideologies.
I started to see examples that inspired me to look further at this issue, rather than assume I was immune to this issue.
Sandra Oh, who played Christina Yang on one of my favourite television shows was interviewed by Vulture, and she revealed to the interviewer that when she was initially offered the part for her new television show Killing Eve, she didn’t realize that she was being offered the lead role.
[So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us. It’s like, how does racism define your work? Oh my goodness, I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, “Oh my god! They brainwashed me!” I was brainwashed! So that was a revelation to me.
A talented, and brilliant woman who has worked tirelessly in her field and has won accolades for her performances doubted that she was leading-lady material. This woman was born to stand out, yet the pervasive prejudice that exists within our systems of society told her that she didn’t fit the mold.
Naomi Wadler, an 11-year old from Alexandria, made headlines on March 24th when she gave a rousing speech during the Rally in Washington, D.C for the March 4 Our Lives Event. She was interviewed extensively after the event, and in an interview with Elle Magazine she says:
I once had a social studies teacher who made it out to be that black people in the past had more freedom than they did, and I knew it wasn’t true. She said basically they didn’t have to fight in wars, they could run away, and that running away from slavery was so easy. I felt like it made all the white kids around me believe that slavery, segregation, racism were not that big of a deal.
And once, in third grade, a boy and I were playing a game, and he said how I should be the slave or the beggar woman because I’m black, so I can’t have money. I’m Jewish, too, and that same boy told me that I can’t be a black Jew because there aren’t black people who are Jews.
One week ago, two young men were arrested after sitting at a Starbucks while waiting for a friend. Their skin colour alone was the reported mitigating factor in why law enforcement was called in that situation that escalated into a nationwide incident. The incident has provoked Starbucks to respond by closing all of their U.S. based stores in order to conduct bias-education for their entire employee base. A bold move for sure, but one that seems is increasingly necessary in a society where people of colour are being shot and killed or arrested in suspicious circumstances that seem to be related to race.
Prejudice is taught. Prejudice is ignorance in action, and it has to stop. The more we deny it, the less we’re able to have a civil discussion about it.
But even the discussion has become a war of words and sound bites. It’s not enough to simply shove our view point down the throat of others and then run away. (Or log off our computers) There needs to be intentional discussion with respect and dignity. Purporting one race over another has never been acceptable, so turning the tables on the balance of power is not the answer. The idea that “white identity” is being lost amidst multi-culturalism and diversity is a fear that is being fuelled through evangelist style media reporting from the alt-right. And the issue is becoming a hostile hot bed of the ugliest side of humanity coming into the light.
There has to be a point where we stop, and listen to the experiences and the truth that belongs to people of colour. Certain sects of society balk at the idea that white privilege is even a phenomenon, but when I think about it closely I realize all too quickly that the colour of my skin has never given anyone reason to fear me or be suspect of me. It has never denied me an opportunity or respect.
I remember an incident when I was a teenager working in a retail store. One of my co-workers, who was one of my superiors, instructed me to follow a shopper around the store because she looked “suspect”. I did as I was told because I was the young employee, but other than the colour of her skin I had no reason to see what my co-worker saw. The woman I was instructed to follow was a person of colour, she had long braids in her hair, and she was wearing a large denim jacket. I remember the jacket because I was hoping it was the reason she was targeted, and not because of her skin colour. But then the woman caught me skulking around her while she browsed through children’s clothes. She knew what I was about, and called me on it. I was horrified and speechless. She was mortified and furious. And in hindsight, I couldn’t blame her. She left the store without purchasing a thing.
Twenty years later, and we are no more evolved as a society. The incident from my teens illustrated that prejudice did indeed exist, it was just disguised behind a different rationale. It’s subtle, and deceptive. But now there are hoards of people speaking up, and shouting at the top of their lungs, “It’s NOT okay!” It’s not okay to assume someone is suspicious because of their skin colour. It’s not okay to assume their intelligence level because of their race or country of origin. It’s not okay to assume someone is incompetent because their first language isn’t English. It’s not okay to assume that someone is criminal because they have darker skin. It’s NOT OKAY. If our foundation of belief about a person or people group is rooted in the colour of someone’s skin or their country of origin, then the problem begins and ends there. And it is that mindset that needs to change.
This quote, written by Dr. Debra Soh for the Globe and Mail was so inspiring yet sobering at the same time:
What is racist is placing such an emphasis on immutable characteristics a person had no say in obtaining. As an Asian woman, the way I look has no bearing on the way I think, and to assume otherwise is close-minded and patronizing.
What struck me so powerfully about this is her articulation of something so profound that it transcends the racism issue. There is a belief in North American culture of what defines normal: white, male, attractive, skinny, blonde, blue eyed, tall, able-bodied, straight, and rich. There are a few exceptions to this list, however, anything outside this “norm” is considered less-than. The amount of things on this list that can be controlled by any individual are few. We are born into circumstances and into our bodies– yet we are judged and discriminated against by the very things we have no control over.
Most people would deny they’re racist. I deny I am racist. I do not believe that I hold intentional judgements against people of another race or ethnicity from me.
Yet, truth be told, I have.
I HAVE made initial judgements about someone because of their ethnicity.
I HAVE made jokes about people groups that aren’t my own.
I HAVE mocked someone else’s accent.
I HAVE made assumptions about a people group because of their ideology or their religion.
I HAVE discriminated against someone because of how they dressed or how they smelled or how they spoke.
I WAS WRONG, and I AM ASHAMED.
But what I believe sets me apart is my willingness to be educated and humbled. I am full of remorse for my ignorant mindfulness. And it motivates me to change and adapt my behaviour or thinking in response.
The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.
Nora Loreto’s timing and tactics were poor when she made her statement that fuelled a fire storm of hate. But she wasn’t wrong. Systemic racism and its ugly prejudices need to be exposed and need to be dismantled. Society can not look backward and continue to endorse these narrow-minded and ignorant views of humanity any longer. And once we take that view, we need to take action and do something to correct the behaviour. Only then will things begin to change.