I’m a Canadian, and I do not suggest for a second that Canada doesn’t have its own challenges when it comes to race. A 2018 study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that Black residents of Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police (you can read more about that study here). One could reasonably argue that the numbers are even worse in the United States (you can read about the disproportionate arrests and shootings of Black Americans here), but this isn’t about “better” or “worse.” This isn’t a debate about statistics, because systemic racism is difficult to quantify anyway. Its manifestations are numerous and far-reaching. That’s what “systemic” means—it refers to the kind of racism that isn’t always obvious. It’s the racism that occurs in between the one-on-one interactions and encounters, when people of colour are excluded and marginalized, prevented from accessing certain social privileges, or made to feel unwelcome in social spaces without anyone actually saying “you’re unwelcome here” (although that kind of overt racism happens too). Systemic racism is not getting a job interview simply because you’re a person of colour. It’s feeling excluded in school because the curriculum has an obvious White focus and your experience and history are made invisible. It’s being more likely to be pulled over, arrested, shot, and killed by the police simply because of the amount of pigment in your skin.
This runs deeper than numbers. From what I can tell, much of it comes down to a lack of humility, and by extension, a lack of understanding (and a lack of desire to understand, in many cases). What I have always found especially disturbing about race relations in the United States is the complete lack of humility and remorse expressed by so many White people—by actual descendants of those who stole the lives of millions of Black people by enslaving them, selling and trading them like cattle, owning their children (who were born into slavery), and then once they were freed, went on to segregate them, lynch and murder them, belittle them, and disenfranchise them in countless other ways—including institutionally, such that occupying positions of power remains more challenging for people of colour. Now it’s the year 2020, and the descendants of slave owners and lynchers and KKK sympathizers act as if everything is perfectly fine—as Black people continue to be murdered by White police at disproportionate rates; as Black people still experience higher mortality rates compared to Whites; and as White people continue to call the police on Black people for going about their daily lives (for walking in parks and watching birds, apparently). Where IS the humility? Where IS the deep remorse for centuries of enslavement and oppression, or for the social inequalities that persist today? Where is the desire to heal the wounds of the past, which are obviously still present?
I don’t care that you weren’t there. I also don’t care if the ones who committed those abhorrent acts were not YOUR own ancestors. Throughout my life, I’ve heard many White people brush it all off by saying they weren’t the ones directly responsible, as if not owning another human life yourself frees you of all burden. That’s a pretty dismissive excuse; it’s an easy way out. After all, however disconnected one may be from events of the past, one could still TRY to understand them, or express sympathy and remorse for them. It’s not as if the horrific nature of the acts committed by your ancestors is difficult to see, is it? (I mean Black people were still sold like cattle as late as 1865 in many states, and one of the last reported lynchings in the U.S. occurred as recently as 1981!) If you are a White person and you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself about the history of race relations or the experiences of your Black neighbours, NOW IS THE TIME. If you are a White person and you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself about the Black Lives Matter movement or any other movement that aims simply to overcome the dehumanization and oppression that have lasted centuries, NOW IS THE TIME. And if you aren’t in some way being part of the solution (even if only by speaking up and contributing to the conversation), then realize that as a White person you ARE enabling the dehumanization and oppression that were started by those who came before you. That is the burden that is on you because of the colour of YOUR skin. Let me say that again: That is the burden that is on you because of the colour of YOUR skin.
Now, I realize that you may not like assumptions or expectations made based on the colour of your skin. But the truth is, White people invented the idea of race in the first place, specifically for purposes of social dominance (even many early scientists proposed theories and presented “facts” specifically intended to validate White superiority). Ask a geneticist and they’ll tell you that race is a biologically meaningless and socially constructed idea (you can read more about this conversation here). So I guess it’s all coming full circle—deal with it. At least you’re not on the other end of it all. At least you don’t know what it’s like to be dehumanized, to be pushed to the margins and made invisible, or to be made to feel less than based solely on the amount of pigment in your skin. And while you’re at it, spend some time reading about other forms of dehumanization, too. There are many other examples that you may be equally complicit in, from the historical and ongoing oppression and genocide of Native and Indigenous peoples to the marginalization and stigmatization of queer and trans people. It’s time to educate yourself (and check your privilege). Or don’t, and be part of the problem. But I would like to suggest that there’s nothing cool about “not getting” this stuff today. There’s nothing admirable or respectful about ignoring it all.
I am a White person, and I am not indifferent to the pain and suffering of people of colour. (Maybe it has something to do with being gay, though my gut tells me it has more to do with simply being compassionate.) But I am so incredibly tired of the indifference I see in others, especially those with privilege (which refers simply to the experience of not being oppressed, by the way). Being indifferent—and refusing to take a position on matters of humanity—enables the status quo, plain and simple. Making little-to-no effort to understand your neighbours or learn the history of your country contributes to the invisibility of those things. You may think that you’re simply avoiding “being political” in your indifference, but in actuality you are taking a political stance, as your indifference lends support to those who oppress. Being indifferent is reckless. It’s lazy. And it has real consequences for real people—people who are living and breathing and dreaming just like you.
As Desmond Tutu put it, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Perhaps it’s time for YOU to stand up. Educate yourself. Find some compassion. And try to understand the experiences of those around you. Next time you see injustice, do something about it. SAY SOMETHING. Use your humanity (and your privilege) for something GOOD.
And let’s clear up one other thing: Whether it’s Black people, Indigenous people, or Queer people, or anyone else who has had the proverbial boot of society pressed into their neck, preventing them from breathing, this isn’t a matter of people being “more sensitive” nowadays. This isn’t a matter of identity politics gone awry, either. Racism and discrimination have ALWAYS hurt (and even killed). Systemic racism has ALWAYS resulted in Black people and people of colour being held back, disenfranchised, and in some cases, murdered. Similarly, homophobia and transphobia are NOT new experiences. Queer people have been beat up, murdered, and dying of suicide at disproportionate rates FOR A VERY LONG TIME. And Indigenous people have had their culture restricted, their land and children stolen, and their way of life attacked directly and indirectly FOR CENTURIES. People aren’t “more sensitive” nowadays. These things have ALWAYS mattered! We are simply more aware of them today, and we have words and language to describe them. Your brushing them off as emotional hypersensitivity is just your way of saying that you don’t care, and that you don’t want to make an effort. But you CAN learn about these things. You CAN ask questions and educate yourself. You CAN take the time. (The information is literally at your fingertips.)
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”