There’s really only one thing to write about today, and it would be thoughtless to just ignore everything that is happening in the United States right now.
So let me start by saying: I don’t know anything.
I have been following things on Twitter, reading articles, watching impassioned speeches.
But as a white person with the privilege that comes with it, I can’t ever fully understand.
Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, my classmates were a homogeneous group. When I look at our grade 1 picture, it’s twenty little white faces and one little girl who is not. I don’t like naming people when they don’t know I’m writing about them, but just so it is clear, my unnamed school friend, is black. As a kid, I never noticed. That is the god honest truth. No one was uttering racial epithets in our home, no swearing or derogatory language was used, and the message at home and church was always ‘love one another.’ In fact, her mom was my Sunday School teacher for many years.
It wasn’t until I was in grade 10 that she moved to attend school at LCBI, just down the road in Outlook. I don’t remember who asked it, except that it was an adult, but their exact words stuck in my head:
“I wonder how she will make out there being black?”
For the first time in my life, I saw my friend through a different lens.
Omg. She is black! How ridiculous that must sound, I know. It was something no one had talked about, and in hindsight, how absolutely stupid of me not to notice. <facepalm>
But for a long time, I felt an odd bit of pride in thinking that I’d known my school friend for over a decade without noticing, so that obviously showed that I didn’t pay attention to race, so that obviously meant that I wasn’t racist, right?
Except here it is. Race matters.
Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, is another sign of the privilege that being white has given me. Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, lets me pass over history and pay attention only to the (aptly-named) whitewashed version that is comfortable to me. Ignoring it, or not noticing it at all, lets me off the hook in understanding what her lived experience has been, especially here in Saskatchewan.
So although I grew up in a home where racism was not tolerated, the whole premise of systemic racism is that it’s everywhere and in everything, “a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not.” (Scott Woods) And it sure is. This is what I learned elsewhere:
At school, the little kid’s chant, “Eeeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeeny meeny miny moe.” That’s the version my daughter learned, but the word we used wasn’t tigers.
At the convenience store for treats, we knew the names of the black candies and it wasn’t licorice babies. (And why do these even still exist??)
Driving in Saskatoon, hit a certain neighborhood, and you’d press your door lock down. Look the other way or don’t make eye contact with that person.
Books and tv shows all filled with white faces and characters, any diversity was for comic effect and little more.
Schools run by white people. Government run by white people. ‘Important’ jobs all filled by white people.
The list could go on and on. So many subtle ways that we learn to be racist.
Is it better? Again, this is not my experience to speak to. From my privileged vantage point, it’s sure easy to look around and point out examples of change. But we also know that in 2020 more children’s books are written with animal protagonists (27%) than with black characters (10%). That Indigenous children are still disproportionately affected in areas of poverty, lack of healthcare, and foster care, and that Indigenous people are incarcerated and murdered at much higher rates. That the reality of taking a walk with a headscarf on is much different than walking with a toque. But those things happen elsewhere, to people we don’t know, so we are quick to think we are immune from racism in our own small towns, right?
Well then, I have a story about a Grade 6 girl who came into our senior ELA classroom this year to talk about being called the n-word.
In our community.
While playing hockey.
By another kid.
And this happened to her
More than once.
So hang onto that not-in-my-backyard thought, and press a little harder to figure out where that word is coming from: where it’s said out loud, and where it is practised and repeated, before it is spat out at little girls in hockey rinks.
That’s just the part we can see and hear. There’s so much more to racism. This is where it gets tough for white people to understand.
“Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe…it is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.” (Scott Woods)
There is so much to unpack that it can be overwhelming, but it has to be done. As a friend and former colleague, Tracy Woodward, posted: “We can all learn what it means to be actively anti-racist and start to dismantle the systems that are in place and inequitable. It’s on each of us to pursue this intentionally.”
For me, as the clashes and violence continue, that means to stop writing. Right now. I don’t know anything and I can’t fully understand. But I can keep listening to the voices that are fighting not to be silenced.
And then listen some more.
Here is the full passage from Scott Woods:
The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people's expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn't care if you are a white person who likes black people; it's still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don't look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It's not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It's a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.
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