If you aren’t part of the solution, you are a part of the problem
I am a white guy, always have been, always will be. The past week has caused me to think more deeply about racism and how it affects people I know and in my community than I have before. I have always considered myself an ally to people of colour. I do my best to treat all people with respect and fairness. I have long taken an approach of colour-blindness. I basically ignore the colour of everyone’s skin and just get on with life.
I now think that perhaps I am part of the problem. When I treat people the same I think I am in fact ignoring racism. I am ignoring the fact that my friends, colleagues and other people of colour are not treated equally or fairly by the system.
Racism is a foreign concept to me. This is my privilege. I have never experienced racism. I have not, do not and likely will not experience any significant form of discrimination in my life. I can get worked up about a lack of baby-changing facilities in men’s bathrooms, but that is nothing compared to the fear of being shot by police for following instructions.
My brother and I were pulled over by police in New York State on a recent trip to the US, my biggest fear was that my brother was going to get a huge fine. Never once did I think I might die right here if one of us does or says the wrong thing. That is my white privilege in action. I have acknowledged my privilege in the past and now I think that when I acknowledged it in terms of race, that I was mostly just paying lip service and not really understanding.
I have been a member of facebook groups that involved discussions of feminism and the need for feminism to be intersectional. Basically intersectional means we have to look at discrimination and privilege from all angles. My thought was always, yes I get it. I also through it was too academic a concept for me to really grasp. I look for practical and I have often found the language used around intersectionality to be too conceptual and laden with jargon to be able to dig through and find the practical.
Pick Your Battles
I seek to change the world though example and by doing what I hope is the right thing. I pick my battles and work on those issues and challenges that are within my scope or capacity to change. Most of those battles, when it comes to discrimination, have been related to making space for women. In each significant job and leadership role I have held I have actively sought out women to be my successors. I do my best to keep my mouth shut when a woman is speaking. I am not always successful. I was recently reminded that I need to do a better job of this when the woman speaking is my partner. I try to actively listen to what other people are saying before I offer my opinion. When I hold leadership roles I try to make space for everyone to speak. As a father of daughters This battle against sexism is personal and something I can understand easily. I have encountered many sexist comments over the years so I know what they look and sound like. I have not encountered a lot of overtly racist comments and actions.
Living in a White World
I grew up in a pretty white world. To the best of my memory I went to elementary school with three black kids. One who regularly defeated me in school yard fights, one who was my first crush and her younger brother. My grade five teacher was a black man. I am pretty sure there was one Asian kid in my class in grade five and six. That was the extent of my interaction with people of colour. I had fights with white kids too so it’s not like I was just getting in fights with the one black guy in my class. I believe I lost to everyone pretty evenly. I wasn’t very good at school yard fights…
I work and live in a white world too. I work in an office that is majority white. I work on a team of people that is all white except for one. Many of my clients are people of colour, however they are all professionals starting careers that will give them much more privilege (financially and social status) than I have. That doesn’t mean they don’t experience racism, they certainly do, it just is not on the same level as the average person of colour. Most of our friends are also white. Some because they are friends that date back to our non-diverse youth, some because I am friends with people I work and have worked with and some because they are the parents who stick around after school pick up and chat. That is likely a symptom of privilege because our kids go to a very ethnically diverse school with a good chunk of families who are immigrant families and perhaps don’t have the financial luxury of having a parent who stays-at-home or has enough work flexibility and has time to stand around at the school pick up to chat.
I had one job where the make-up of the office represented what I hope the world will eventually become. It was an incredibly diverse environment. We were fairly evenly split between straight and lesbian/gay/bisexual. We had representation from every major religion in the world and we had a variety of skin colours in the office. We were all pulling together to achieve common objectives and learning from one another. I think many of my colleagues likely experienced significant racism and discrimination in their lives and I was too busy thinking about how great our diversity was to notice.
Canada: Free From Racism Since…
It wasn’t the killing of black men by police this week that has made me think more deeply about racism. Sadly that is an increasingly normal thing, like mass shootings. These things typically happen in the US and like many things that happen in the US, I think – thank goodness I live in Canada where we don’t have racism like they do in the US. I mean, slaves fled from the US to come to Canada – we weren’t technically Canada yet. We voted out the government that wanted to set up tip lines for calling in cultural practices that white people didn’t like. We don’t have Donald Trump or Nigel Farage stirring up racists. When the occasional racist pops up and commits a hate crime, we come together as a community or country and try to make it up.
Racism in Canada
Of course we do have racism like in the US and I guess my perception has been that the primary target of our racism is our indigenous peoples. When I think about structural racism, I think about all the terrible things and damage we have done as a country and as individuals to the indigenous peoples of this land. I think about historical racism like the Chinese Head Tax and Japanese Internment Camps. I guess I hadn’t really thought about day-to-day racism that people of colour experience today.
Blind to Racism
Living in this white world where I practice being colour-blind and racist graffiti or arson are dealt with through public support and love-ins means that I can pretend that every day racism doesn’t exist in my country. It means that I can look at the need for discussions about racism as academic concepts. It means that I can stay away from conversations about structural racism because I think I treat people fairly and I don’t refuse to hire people of colour and I think Donald Trump says appalling things. I can throw my hands up and say what can I do to stop police from shooting black men at traffic stops.
Knocking Off the Rose-Coloured Glasses
This week I realized that I am wrong. It started with the Black Lives Matter protest at the Toronto Pride Parade. I am not sure yet if it was this protest or the backlash against it that knocked the rose-coloured glasses from my face. It may have been the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile that pushed me to the tipping point. More so I think it was friends posting on Facebook about their experiences with racism. Sometimes just to say that it was a tough week for them and that was before the shootings.
I have been watching Trump saying outrageously racist things and yet growing in support to virtually secure the Republican nomination. I have also seen the kinds of things being said and reported in Britain following the Brexit vote. A nation of immigrants and colonizers telling people of colour to get out of the country of their birth. This has struck a little deeper because it is my cultural homeland.
My mum was born in England, my grandparents on both sides were born in England or Scotland. I have plenty of cousins in England and have been to visit a couple of times and we are connected on Facebook, which practically makes us immediate family. I have a degree in history and think about larger swaths of time as a result. I think of my family as an immigrant family with Britain as a way-station. I am pretty certain that based on my appearance and family connections to northern England and southern Scotland that I carry a decent portion of Norse blood in my veins.
The British Isles have been invaded and overrun with immigrants throughout it’s entire history. Picts, Celtic peoples, Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Angles, Normans, French, alternating Protestants & Catholics, Spanish, Europeans of all sorts, war refugees, South-East Asians and other subjects of the British Empire and then citizens of the successor commonwealth. I imagine that the DNA of the average Brit, including me, has bits and pieces from around the world. Then of course this is the island that conquered and colonized a significant percentage of the world. It has been such a successful nation because of it’s diversity and not in spite of it. For there to be white people telling people of colour to get out demonstrates to me a shocking ignorance of their own country and a level of fear that is foreign to me.My perception of racism and white privilege has shifted. Now I wonder if I am part of the problem.Click To Tweet
So maybe it is the shouting getting louder and the racists being more open, or maybe the excuses and arguments against Black Lives Matter wearing thin, whatever it is, I feel uncomfortable. My self-image of one of the good white white guys has taken a bit of a beating this week. I feel – I’m not sure of the right word – unhappy, dismayed, embarrassed, ashamed, hypocritical, etc. that I haven’t been listening. Friends and colleagues have been telling me for years about racism and I have discovered that I wasn’t really listening. I feel like I have been going through the motions, saying what I think I am supposed to say and at the same time, not understanding.
I have no idea what comes next. I think awareness is a good thing. I have some learning – probably a lot of learning to do. I don’t know what I can / will do to be an active part of the solution. I feel like I have been a passive bystander on racism for too many years. I’m not sure if that has made me part of the problem if I haven’t been part of the solution…
What about you?