In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like many of you, the news about the unjust killing of George Floyd by a police officer has been weighing really heavy on my heart. It weighs especially heavy because this is not a single, isolated incidence of racism against a black person, but rather, the latest in an increasingly disturbing pattern of violence against people of colour (POC) in the world. According to data complied by Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police, despite only making up 13% of the US population. Canada, we are not innocent. Hate crimes targeting Black people accounted for 16% of all hate crimes in Canada in 2017. Muslims, Jews and especially Indigenous people are disproportionately victims of hate crimes and acts of racism in our country.
I’m sure many of you, like me, are sad and angry, but also perhaps at a loss for words. You may be at a loss for words because you are shocked (a sign of our privilege that we can be shocked by such occurrences). Or maybe, because you don’t fully understand what is going on or why. Or maybe because you don’t feel like you, as a non-POC, can contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. But now is not the time to be silent.
I have, in the past, been reluctant to speak my mind about a myriad of political issues for a multitude of (somewhat lame) reasons. But the biggest reason I had chosen to stay silent is because I used to be vocal about certain issues, but I was vocal on the wrong side, and have deeply regretted my words and actions. This is hard for me to admit, but having grown up in a conservative, evangelical Christian worldview, I used to believe in certain ideologies that I no longer hold (how and why those views changed are for another time and place). As a young teenager in the early 2000’s, there were two major political debates that were happening in Canada – the legalization of same-sex marriage and the level of abortion rights that should be given to women. I am ashamed to tell you that I believed and spoke out (sometimes loudly) against the fundamental right of a women to get a safe and legal abortion, and also against the fundamental right for two persons of the same-sex to marry and have their marriage recognized as equal in every way to that of a marriage between a man and a woman. I am so, so, sorry to those who I undoubtedly hurt, made feel “other”, alienated or oppressed because of my un-educated and narrow views. (note: I don’t think being an evangelical Christian means you necessarily have these views, this was just my personal experience).
I tell this story because my adolescent experience was a big reason why I have been a silent bystander on many “hot” topics including injustice against POC in the past. I feared speaking up against the “wrong side”. I feared espousing an “uneducated view”. I told myself I stayed silent because I didn’t want to get too “political”.
As I read the news about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbrey, my heart reminded me that the issue of racism isn’t just another “political” issue, say like taxes, that is OK to stay silent on. Racism is a human rights issue.
But staying silent is worse than “not OK”. Staying silent is in fact aiding and perpetuating racism. As a human being, how can I possibly stay silent when my fellow human beings are being targeted and killed in the streets just because they have a different skin colour than the majority? Staying silent when it comes to racial injustices only demonstrates that I am comfortable with the status quo. Silence says “I like the way things are, and I’m fine if these acts of racism and violence continue”. So I refuse to be silent any longer. I pledge to be an anti-racist, and that means speaking out against racist acts towards POC and speaking up for equal and equitable human rights between POC and the majority.
One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.Ibram X. Kendi
With my pledge to be an anti-racist, I recognize that I have a lot of work to do. Some thoughts and fears running through my head were and are “I’m not a Black person, so I don’t understand how they feel or how they want me to act… I don’t know enough about the history of slavery and racist policies in the Americas…. I don’t know what to say or what to do that will help the situation… I don’t know how to effectively respond to someone when they say there are two sides to every story… I have said discriminatory things in the past, who am I to speak up?… I have, both consciously and unconsciously, done discriminatory things in the past and probably will in the future… so am I allowed to participate in activism for POC?”
I love this above quote that has been making its rounds on social media by author Ijeoma Oluo. It is a well-needed reminder that I can have all these thoughts and fears and questions running through my head, that I can be a flawed human who has done racist things, and still be an anti-racist. Being an anti-racist doesn’t mean I have all the answers, or am always doing the “right thing”. Each day we are presented with choices. We have the choice to take the time listen to others, and to understand their point of view or ignore them and stay ignorant in our own worldview. We have the choice to speak up when someone makes a racist comment or joke, or laugh and let it slide. We have the choice to read and understand the news, evidence, and data, or brush it off and watch another Netflix show.
I think a lot of us have these same fears and thoughts running through our heads, and not just white people either. I’m mixed raced (Chinese-Canadian), and I know that I have a lot of privileges that come with looking the way I look and living where I live. I’ve been called names and had racial slurs thrown my way but nothing that compares to what Black people experience on a regular basis. And that’s step one – recognizing that I am so privileged, and rather than being ashamed of it, because we are born the skin colour we are born with, I should be aware of it and realize that there are many people who struggle on a daily basis with things I take for granted.
As for all those racing thoughts and fears and questions – I am privileged to be able to ask them because that means I probably haven’t had to deal with a most of the issues I’m trying to understand. But that means I have a responsibility to educate myself. That means reading articles and books by POC to broaden my understanding of their human condition. Listening POC with open ears and an open heart. Having open and honest conversations with my friends and family about “taboo” topics like race and racism (and politics!). Support and promote the work of activists who are working hard on the front lines to end violence towards POC.
For this last one, I know it can be touchy because of the looting and violence that is going on with the protests. I read a post on this that resonated with me on this topic – because while I don’t condone looting and violence from these protests, that matter is secondary to the true issue at hand:
Here’s an example of how white privilege sounds
You keep saying “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop”
Try saying, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop”
You’re prioritizing the wrong part.
I remember a few years ago, when the events in Ferguson were happening after Michael Brown was killed by the police in 2014, I naively said in an offhand conversation that “I’m soooo grateful I live in Canada and not the USA”. Why did I make such a stupid and unhelpful and privileged comment?! Racism is alive and well in Canada, and all over the world. And furthermore, it doesn’t matter where I live or which country I call home – Black Lives Matter in the USA, in Canada, and everywhere in the world.
When I saw the graph above, it really helped put things into perspective for me. Black Americans have have been oppressed far longer than they have been free. And even after they were “freed”, things didn’t get much better. “We don’t see any American dream,” Malcolm X said in 1964. “We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.” This is a real issue that is happening today. I have a lot to learn and research and do, and I will continue to do so.
We are writing history as it happens, and one day, when I have my own children, I want to be able to look them straight in the eye and tell them that I did not sit quietly and avert my gaze the other way in the face of injustice. I want to raise future anti-racists who I hope will be living in a world that is more empathetic and loving towards POC than it is today, and to do that, I need to be an anti-racist too.