On November 9th, 2016, the day after the US election, when even my elementary students were freaking out about Trump, I pictured chaos in the United States. Society – which may never have truly earned the term “civil” – crumbling.
Now, I feel like that moment has arrived. Pandemic, hospitals overflowing. Unemployment and poverty off the charts. Inequality rearing up, uglier than ever. All that is wrong with the system (and always has been) bringing anger and desperation to the breaking point. One more police altercation, one more black American (out of a monstrous number) who was powerless to escape his own needless murder. And a POTUS who can do nothing, it seems, but fail. Rant absurdly, tweet, spew hatred, make shit up, call names, and utterly fail in all aspects of leadership.
Enough about him; I have no more words to waste.
I have been struck a number of times recently by a feeling of having travelled back in time by several decades. It’s like the movie “Pleasantville.” On the one hand, you have people baking, canning, and gardening in huge numbers. Neighbours waving from their yards, hose in hand. Teens shooting baskets and roaming the neighbourhood on bicycles. Maybe even a full renaissance of the drive-in movie.
On the other hand, you have people unabashedly giving voice to their prejudices, as if they didn’t just spend most of a century learning that it’s not okay. You have boorish cruelty unbecoming 21st-century adults. And now you have the breakdown, violence, mayhem – and the vows to “dominate” it. Ugh.
And you also have the opposite. You have powerful silence, stillness, beauty and solidarity. (No need for Tobey Maguire to make an eloquent speech.) The footage of these wordless protests brings tears to my eyes every time. Humans gathering together in a time of distancing, masks in place – as further evidence of caring.
In Canada, sometimes we think we have this racism thing under control. After all, wasn’t this country the light at the end of the Underground Railroad? But of course, we are all in this flawed system together. There is plenty of prejudice here in Canada, for all kinds of people. And Canada’s track record when it comes to Indigenous peoples is frankly heinous, evidenced in part by the 1876 Indian Act, still in effect today.
I have learned a lot in my life, especially over the past decade or so, about racism and inequity. I do this on purpose because I think it’s important, not just as a teacher or a Quaker or a pacifist, but generally, as a person who gives a shit.
Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned – most of which can apply not just to racism but to queerphobia, misogyny, and prejudices in general. I’m not an authority in this field… I just found these things really helpful when I learned them.
#1. I am part of racism.
As a compassionate person, I might like to think that I am not racist. Yes, I believe in and support equity and equality and love. I work to be a good ally. But I’m still white, and I still live in a time and place where people of colour are marginalized in countless ways, both overt and insidious. I live within the system that treats me better just because I am white, and undoubtedly possess biases that I have yet to confront. I am part of racism, and therefore bear responsibility for it.
#2. My privilege is real.
The easiness of my life has been made possible by generations of white people who have had to work less hard, and have faced less danger, than their non-white counterparts. The groundwork for my education and profession was laid by the education of my parents – who went to university in the US in the 60s, at a school that only had its first black student the year after my mom graduated. As a person who can afford not to think about my ethnicity, I know that the built-in adversity in my life is minimal. And while I’m grateful for my life, I hate knowing that certain aspects of it have always been at others’ expense. It shouldn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
#3. I don’t know what it’s like.
I can be aware of suffering and sympathize with marginalized people. I can want to make a difference, and take steps to do so. I can read people’s stories, educate myself, and do my best to understand… but I will never know what it’s really like to be a person of colour. Just the way that my husband, loving and thoughtful and open-minded ally though he is, will never know what it’s like to be a woman under the patriarchy. I will not presume or pretend to know what POCs go through in a racist culture. But I’ll listen.
#4. I don’t get to decide what is or is not cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic, because there is so much grey area, and the boundaries are subject to change. In a country like Canada, there is a huge diversity of authentic culture. To what extent can white people participate in non-dominant culture? We might love the food, fashion, music etc. from another country, but that doesn’t make it ours to do with whatever we want.
Some factors to consider are whether one has permission (e.g. buying a cultural product made by someone of that culture), whether credit has been given (as discussed in this article about appropriation in fashion), and whether any learning has occurred about the culture. It is crucial for white people to approach this topic with humility, and to learn, especially when it comes to cultural significance. No one should want to be the #ignorantwhite disrespecting something sacred because we thought it was cute or cool.
#5. “Reverse racism” against the dominant culture is not a thing.
Sometimes, white people like to talk about being victims of “reverse racism.” What they mean, I think, is reverse discrimination. That is certainly a thing – the holding of stereotypes/bigoted thinking/biases about white people, and the negative treatment of them based on those stereotypes. But unless people of your ethnicity have been low in the shared power dynamic for a very long time, unless marginalization and/or exploitation of your people is embedded in the fabric of your society, you are not a victim of racism. True racism is much too deep to be “reversed” by, for example, someone throwing you a race-based insult on the street.
#6. It is not the responsibility of people of colour to educate me.
Lots of well-meaning white people, moved by racial suffering, want to know what they can do to improve the situation. The urge is to look to someone wise that you know (or follow on Twitter) who is of the culture and just… ask them. After all, they must be the experts, right?
But look – we have this ginormous thing called the Internet, and it’s full of the genuine voices of people who are experts. There are long forum threads you can read where people have already hashed out what it can look like to be an ally. There are articles and books expressly written to help others understand. There is very generous teaching already out there, and expanding every day. (This book list from Mark Lamont Hill on Twitter was offered just yesterday.) And if you want to go deeper, there are speakers and workshops and courses and all kinds of ways to learn. If white people want to be allies, we can start by showing some initiative.
#7. Let’s not get stuck in the white guilt.
I know how easy it can be to feel awful about what has been perpetrated by my predecessors – or what is currently perpetrated in my home society. I think that this feeling can be a step in the right direction, but dwelling on it is unproductive. As it was put by an Indigenous teacher I’ve been very fortunate to learn from, “I know it’s sad. But don’t cry to me about it, because we’ve got work to do.”