Before I get into this really important story, I have a few words to say so you understand the full context of this post. I know - this blog post has nothing to do with makeup, fashion, cooking, baby stuff, etc. So I feel like I need an introduction here.
It has been a really difficult, intense week. I've been listening and learning, I've been holding myself accountable - and most importantly, I've been planning ways I can move forward to continue the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are three things this week has showed me I can do better:
With myself: recognizing my white privilege (which I honestly did not think about previously. And that's just plain ignorance on my part). Learning how I can be more aware of it..
As a mother: How can I change the future? I have a son who is going to have more diverse experiences, belongings, and discussions about racism.
My platform: I've thought a lot about how I can amplify black voices through my platform, and help teach my white community.
With all of this in mind, I read a really upsetting post on Facebook by my friend Dave. Dave is black. He was on my cheerleading team in university. I trained with him several times a week, but we also hung out a lot socially too. He was basically my family. I hadn't seen or spoken to Dave in a LONG time, but when I read his post I was brought to tears and my eyes were WIDE OPEN. He was my friend and I was completely oblivious to what he was going through.
I have been so ignorant and unaware.
I asked him if I could share his story on my blog and he gave me permission and edited/added to it. My hope is that Dave's story will make you think about your ignorance and white privilege, the black people in your social circle, and all people of colour in your community.
Please read Dave's story:
𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝗦𝘁𝗿𝘂𝗰𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗖𝗮𝘀𝘂𝗮𝗹 𝗥𝗮𝗰𝗶𝘀𝗺 𝗪𝗮𝘀 𝗡𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗮𝗹𝗶𝘇𝗲𝗱 𝗶𝗻 𝗠𝘆 𝗨𝗽𝗯𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝗻 𝗢𝘁𝘁𝗮𝘄𝗮
I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class community in the suburbs of Ottawa. This afforded me certain privileges, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize how my life within a white-centric, white-dominant culture caused me to internalize feelings of oppressiveness that went unchecked and unrecognized. Recent remarks from certain Canadian politicians and community leaders echoed a sentiment that we in my community were regularly fed: that racism, structural or otherwise, wasn’t a problem that we as Canadians had to reckon with; it was an American issue. Frankly, this is bullshit, it wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t any truer now.
Police brutality (one of many symptoms of structural racism) and the resulting pushback through protest have brought out feelings of anger and helplessness that have forced me to reflect on my own experience of living in a Black body in Ottawa. To make sense of this anger, I started to put down some of my thoughts and memories to work through my emotions. So, what started as a cathartic exercise to help me order my own thoughts and feelings has become the following, an incomplete list of my own experiences with racism in Ottawa—from the structural to the personal, and from the casual to the overt:
- Growing up I was always the token. I was always one of a handful of Black students in the schools I attended or groups that I was member of, and one of the only non-white employees in my workplaces. As such, I often felt singled out and felt as if I was being propped up not only as the example of diversity in a group, but also the physical manifestation of its 𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘵𝘺, what also seemed to me a justification for others not having to do the work to acknowledge their biases and blind spots, and to create meaningfully inclusive spaces. This treatment led to a sense of exclusion, othering, and alienation within my own world. A constant reminder that I could never belong to the in-group but that they accepted my presence in spite of my race. - 𝘍𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘴 casually called me “nigger” all through middle school, high school, and university. People rarely stood up for me, and that only started happening in university. Even then, people rarely showed up for me and the other people of colour in my circle. You might ask why I didn’t put in more of an effort to stand up for myself. Well, a person can only scream into the ether for so long before they give up and stop fighting to be heard. - Regularly having to justify why I didn’t like being called a “nigger” or being made the butt of racist jokes only for them to continue. - Being forced to play the token Black arbiter of all things racist to all of my white friends and being asked if racist things were ok to say after they had already been said—and when people fully knew what the answer was—in hopes that I would validate their racism. - Constantly being told that I wasn’t Black enough, or that I was too white, or being called an Oreo. Constant exposure to this kind of messaging made me doubt the validity of my own experiences as a Black person. - My kindergarten teacher telling my mother that she thought it was strange that a little Black boy and a little white girl were such good friends. - From the earliest years of elementary school constantly being reminded by my parents that I had to be that much better and smarter than my friends just to get equal recognition. - For a number of years in grade school, my Dad was asked to teach Black history month units by my teachers. At the time I thought it was cool, because who wouldn’t want their parent in the class acting as a badass ally. However, as I’ve gotten older I have come to wonder if he was asked to do the teaching because the teachers couldn’t be bothered to do the heavy lifting and learn about the history themselves or create appropriate curricula. Offering that much grace, I can confidently assert that this is blatant tokenism, while hopefully unconscious, it is casual racism at its worst. If I wasn’t in this class, how likely would it have been that Black history would have been taught at all? - Every speech I wrote for a public speaking assignment in school after the 4th grade having something to do with race or racism but having my words perennially fall of deaf ears. - Constantly being told growing up that I benefitted from reverse racism or affirmative action, and at times believing it myself. - At 14, having my belongings thrown around the changing room at my gymnastics club and my glasses destroyed when nobody else’s belongings were touched—I was the only Black kid in the program. The gym’s response was to deny any responsibility and they told me to start using one of the lockers, which none of the men’s competitive team ever used. I didn’t make a fuss about it and won the 𝘴𝘱𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘴𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥 that year, as if to say “thank you for not stirring the pot.” I don't know if this was the intention, but it's hard not to read it this way. - At 16, I broke my wrist after punching a friend who called me a “nigger” for the umpteenth time, and the response from my friend group wasn’t to hold him to task, but to make fun of me for being clumsy enough to break my wrist. They didn’t stop calling me “nigger.” - Having the door broken off of my high school locker, swastikas drawn all over it and scratched into the paint, and my belongings thrown all around the locker bay in high school. Nobody from the administration asked me why I needed my assigned locker changed on that day. Although, I’m sure that even though I removed all of my belongings and quietly went to get another locker without trying to be disruptive they must have found that swastika covered locker door and chosen not to investigate the incident. 𝘡𝘦𝘳𝘰 𝘵𝘰𝘭𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 policies were the name of game in the early 2000s. Where was the zero tolerance for racism? - Having an entire team of people that I belonged to come up with racially charged nicknames like “darkness” and “black magic,” both of which were coined by the coach. - Repeatedly being the only one within a group of white friends carded by the police when being stopped after dark. None of these friends ever stood up for me in the moment and it was always laughed off. I have to wonder how often the same people were stopped when not in my company. - My own sister constantly reminding me that I had to soften my appearance because I looked like “a scary Black man.” - Guys I dated telling me that they aren’t usually into Black guys but that I was “hot for a Black guy,” “better than most Black guys they knew,” or some variation on that theme. - Constantly being treated like people’s racial fetish or some kind of conquest that they needed to check off of a list. Or otherwise being made to feel invisible in the gay community. - Regularly being told how well-spoken or eloquent I am—very coded language that always has the implied but never explicitly stated “for a Black person” tacked onto the end. - Being talked past when in the company of white people. - Being followed/surveilled in stores. - Not infrequently being pulled over by the police when I had other Black people in my car but never given a ticket. - Being nervous walking late at night because I didn’t want to come off as “threatening.” - Finally feeling like I had a place where I could exist anonymously and with more relative safety after moving to Brooklyn. - Being called a “nigger” by strangers more times than I can count. - Regularly being qualified as the “Black friend,” “Black Dave” instead of just David, the friend. - When attempting to push back against people calling me a “nigger” in high school one of the people that I called out was dating a friend of mine. One of my oldest friends. That friend pulled me aside and told me that I couldn’t have been remembering right, and that I had to stop ruining her boyfriend’s reputation. - Having to be warned by my mother not to be seen driving my partner’s parents’ car by the police when driving around in Gatineau when the interprovincial bridges were closed because of the Covid-19 crisis. - Just last week, driving down the highway in Gatineau behind a car proudly displaying a confederate flag in its rear window.
Taken Independently, most of these instances aren’t likely to raise much concern, most are relatively benign—microaggressions, if you will—but taken as a whole my hope is that this paints a picture of how destructive not actively combatting racism in all of its forms can be. Even one 𝘣𝘦𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘯 microagressive act can cause insurmountable harm to the person at the receiving end of it. Complacency is just as dangerous as overt action where prejudice and inequality are concerned. While I recognize that the community I grew up in has grown in diversity over the years, and reflects the changing landscape of communities across Canada, the importance of acknowledging past history is imperative if we want to challenge the status quo and move in the direction of progress. Even in a more diverse space the same issues can continue to exist and cause harm. This is all to say that the relatively benign quality of casual racism holds space for, and makes the more violent and dangerous expressions of racism that much easier to reconcile for those who are 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘥.
This exercise has also been a reminder of a phenomenon that most racialized people are all too familiar with: the emotional labour of catering to white fragility. The notion built into our collective consciousness as people of colour that if we want to be seen and heard we need to downplay our own day-to-day struggles so as not to offend white sensibilities in hopes that it might mean that we’re heard when it really matters. But it matters every day. The expectation is that we’ll internalize our own pain to avoid creating discomfort in others, the white majority, but all that this accomplishes is the bolstering of systems of injustice and inequity, further reinforcing ever-present racial hierarchies, and leading to an erosion of our collective dignity that goes unacknowledged.
This list is far from an exhaustive list, and by posting this I’m not trying to vilify anyone. I want the people in my life, the people I still care about, to see how their past actions have and still do have an effect. In many instances what I experienced were the actions of children, but children are taught these kinds of behaviours and language. They learn how to navigate the world from the adults in their lives, and the normalization of racism is something that is modeled, whether through overt action or indifference, and it isn’t inherent in any of us. I want people to learn from their actions so that they can play an active role in educating others and being a positive influence in the developments of their own children and communities moving forward. If, as someone who’s played a role in my life, you feel called out or like this reflects your own past actions in any way, make up for it by acting now. Be a better ally. Educate yourself and make your privilege count for something.
This is also a call to action for other Canadian people of colour who have confronted racialized stigma to share your own experiences and to pull back the veil on the legacy of racism that persists in this country.
Racism is just as prevalent, destructive, and dangerous in Canada as it is elsewhere; and the fact that we are reluctant to acknowledge its pervasiveness in our own communities makes racism in Canada arguably more dangerous than that of our neighbours to the south. When we hold ourselves apart as the exception rather than the rule, we give ourselves permission to maintain oppressive structures and to continue not putting in the work to acknowledge our own dangerous biases, prejudices, and blind spots.
Start by listening.