[Disclaimer: I am convalescing from having shoulder replacement surgery last week, and so have little to do but take pain pills, lie around, and think about the state of the world. Thanks to the state of the world right now, the pain in my heart far outweighs the pain in my shoulder. I feel compelled to write down my thoughts, even if limited to one hand. You see, racism is the one big evil in the world that I have never been able accept or compartmentalize. It eats at my soul, even though I don’t even suffer from it directly. And so, I’m going to let it all out. This post will be longer than usual, so I hope you can bear with me. Also, for those who know me well, you will be surprised by some references to God and even Jesus. It seemed the most appropriate approach and I do so intending utmost respect.]
Nobody is born a racist. Nobody. Children of all shapes and sizes, all colours and religions, play together without a care, not noticing any differences except as a matter of innocent curiosity.
Racism is a learned behaviour. For many, sadly, it’s learned in the home. For some, also sadly, it’s learned at their place of worship, in those troubling instances where bigotry, hypocrisy, and hatred have replaced love and tolerance for all. And for many, it’s learned through other kids at school and in their neighbourhoods, but these views would have been picked up from adults.
It’s a learned behavior, and it’s propagated with frightening ease. Those of us who happened to have been born white – through no effort or talent of our own – must bear some responsibility whenever we make it too easy for those who would spread hate.
Some actions we take or don’t take are unintentionally damaging:
- Not speaking up when someone makes a racist or otherwise demeaning comment.
- Making excuses or downplaying a demeaning comment made by someone else. “They didn’t mean anything by it.”
- Making a demeaning comment yourself and then saying you didn’t mean it, you were just joking. It’s never a joke. “Sorry if my comments offended anyone” is remarkably offensive in itself.
- Accepting such behaviour in others because you want to be part of a group. If speaking as a racist bully is going to help you fit into a group, run for your life.
Such examples are endless. The bottom line is that one person’s “harmless fun” is someone else’s lifetime of hurt, exclusion, fear, and self-loathing.
This penchant on the part of so many humans, including too many so-called leaders, to divide the world into “us” and “them” and then proactively make life miserable for “them” has been a pain in my heart ever since I was a kid.
I grew up in the 50s, about 40 miles from NYC in the new suburbs on Long Island. Nearly everyone was from somewhere else. We were all post-war babies, and our parents had come from different parts of the U.S., from apartments in the City, from Italy, Germany, Poland, etc. I had one friend whose grandmother lived with them who only spoke Italian and another friend whose grandmother lived with them and only spoke Yiddish. Our neighbourhoods and schools were healthy mixes of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
The first time I was made painfully aware that racism existed was when anti-Semitism raised its ugly head in my sheltered life. The war ended in 1945. The whole world knew that 6 million – 6 MILLION – Jews had been brutally treated and then murdered in the gas chambers in Germany and Eastern Europe. We all knew that many of our school friends had relatives who’d perished in the death camps; some even had survived and were living with them. We knew that. And yet – and yet – somehow the kids still knew who were Jews and who weren’t. And some of my Jewish friends were taunted, including a popular kid on the basketball team. Oh, it wasn’t violent. It was most likely some kids thinking they were being clever. I remember thinking, “Knowing about the Holocaust, how can any adult in any household have put this idea into their kid’s head?” it’s not like any of us even looked different, but somehow differences got figured out. And so anti-Semitism traveled to suburban America in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Astounding. None of the non-Jewish kids would even know what it meant to be a Jew beyond that your relatives were gassed in Germany. Yet they still picked up on this hateful taunting without thinking twice. And some adults had to have put the idea in their heads. At home. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.
Divisions sown by religious teachings.
We were Protestant and our neighbours across the street were Catholic. We all played together happily, day in and day out. I vividly remember one day (about 60 years ago!) when a younger neighbour, who would have been 7 or 8 and getting ready for his first holy communion, boldly told me, as a 13-14 year old, that I was going to hell because I wasn’t Catholic. No, this did not put the fear of God in me. 😉 But it did give me cause to question just how much church messaging had anything at all to do with love and tolerance as opposed to control. Even at 13 I knew that it made no sense that God would only take care of people who went to a specific church. How could that make any sense?
Slavery and never-ending anti-black racism.
The schools I went to did not have many African-Americans. Now I realize how early my white privilege started. But even so, anyone who learns anything at all about U.S. history, or reads any novels set in the south, or sees any films about the south, cannot pretend ignorance of the staggering brutality brought to the Americas in slave ships, starting 400 years ago. People taken from their homeland in bondage. People owned and brutalized by white masters. People whose wives and children were sold on auction blocks. And then after the Civil War, life as a free black person was not very free and not very pretty. Any improvements in the past 155 years have been slow and only reluctantly accorded. Treated with derision, cruelty, exclusion. You name it. As we are now reminded yet again, the road to being treated just the same as another human being regardless of skin colour seems to be cruelly endless.
I want to cry out, “WHY??” Why are the majority-white churches not crying out as well, reminding their parishioners that we are all the same in God’s eyes? Maybe reminding them that, after all, Jesus was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew. What would He think of how so many of His followers are treating their black brothers, God’s children who have already put up with countless unfair barriers?
The European colonization of the Americas was built not just upon slavery but also on the genocide of its Indigenous peoples. Oh yes, a fine legacy we white people of European heritage carry. The American history I learned seemed to skip from the kindly encounter of the Indians with the Pilgrims at the first American Thanksgiving to a few battles with fearsome warriors on the Plains to total silence on the topic. Canadians of my age would have learned a bit more and a bit differently, but the whitewashing (aha, a fitting double entendre) would have been similar. At least now Canadian schools are finally teaching some Indigenous history. Next step, teaching Indigenous respect.
The truth is that in Canada as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Americas, Indigenous populations were decimated by disease brought by the Europeans, first by accident and later by design. They were further decimated by purposeful massacre. Later, in Canada at least, our Indigenous neighbours, whose lands we stole, were subjected to loss of self-sufficiency, cultural genocide, and deprivation of human dignity through relocation, the evil residential school system, and patronizing attitude of successive governments as they oversaw their controversial Indian Act. Canada’s government now talks the talk but has yet to walk the talk. This is to Canada’s continued shame.
Continuing anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism in the Americas are both tied to systemic/societal enablers and revisionist history. (That doesn’t mean to say there aren’t other stories of racism in other parts of the world.) All of the history we learned was presented from a European perspective. This perspective has pushed the notion of white European supremacy and omitted the reality that civilizations existed in the Americas for 5,000-12,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans, thank you very much. These civilizations and societies had language, astronomy, architecture, governance, worship, agriculture, trade, and so much more that define a culture such as art, crafts, music, and organized sport. The Europeans didn’t “discover” anything new. It was all already there. People had lived in these places for millennia. All the Europeans did was rename everything after themselves and abuse or kill the inhabitants. That. Is. Our. Heritage.
I feel I must include this here. How can we live with ourselves for allowing our leaders to foist paranoia about a religion on entire swaths of humanity under siege? Syrians, Yeminis, Iraqis, Rohingyas: they’re just people trying to raise their children in a safe place. Their homelands are being destroyed, in many cases by equipment and bombs bought from our countries (good jobs in the defense industry, you know). Tarring millions of innocent people with the brush meant for a few is inhumane. And the discrimination of Muslims in Quebec in the guise of their provincial law of secularism is just racism by another name. For shame.
I am very sad to say that Anti-Asian discrimination has a long history in Canada. Chinese workers started coming to Canada way back in pre-Confederation days (pre-1867), including the many Chinese workers involved in building the railroad through the Rockies in the 1880s that made Canada “whole”. There have been numerous examples of overt discrimination through the years, including various head taxes, citizenship restrictions, and the especially egregious confiscation of the property of Japanese-Canadians during WWII and their placement in internment camps over several years. We have much to atone for. But what’s up with this recent anti-Asian sentiment because of COVID having started in China? What does someone of Asian descent who lives in Thunder Bay or Saskatoon have to do with a pangolin or bat that infected someone in China with a new virus? Is our need to find someone to blame when things go wrong so strong that we need to blame our neighbour instead of the pangolin on the other side of the world? WTF?!
The list of victims of racism and prejudice is just too long: LGBTQ+, the visibly disabled (like mocking a reporter with a shriveled arm, perhaps), women … name your “other”. Why is it so hard for humans to be kind to each other and expect the best from each other?
My Dad once asked a neighbour to leave our house, completely upending an evening of bridge for four neighbourhood friends. This “request” came because the neighbour had been spouting “manly” talk about what his sons could get away with with young women. I’m proud that my Dad had the conviction to take that action. I would like to think that he would have taken the same action if an anti-Semitic or anti-black comment had been made.
It has to start in the home. In every home.
Why should some parents have to teach their children to be careful in public or around police for fear of being deemed suspicious for no reason except colour of skin, while others don’t? What does that do to someone growing up and living that experience, in their own country? It’s got to be soul-destroying. Two entirely different sets of expectations, one based on trust in our systems to look out for us and the other rightfully based on distrust in our systems due to racial stereotyping.
When your young child points out something different in another person, he or she is providing you with an opportunity to teach a lesson in inclusion, understanding, and kindness. Take that opportunity every chance you get. And lead by example.
We must turn away from hatred, fear and exclusion and towards acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Man’s inhumanity to man must stop. And that change must beat in every home and every heart.