Unless you are hiding in the spaces of an anonymous comments section, talking about racism is hard. I have never had to reckon with the consequences of racism—that is my privilege showing through. As someone who’s never had to worry about racism impacting my day-to-day life, I relate when you say that there’s an almost embarrassing guilt that swells in your cheeks when you try to form words on the topic.
It would be easy to say that the days of racial segregation are over and that we don’t publicly spew hate in the streets anymore. Rationalizing the quieter forms of racism is easy if you really want to do it.
That racial joke: “I was just kidding. It’s funny!” At whose expense though?
The idea that we should look after our own first: “we’re giving refugees money that should be going to real Canadians.” As if dividing people into us and them categories is somehow okay.
Apologizing for the nastier things said by the people who you love: “they don’t know any better!” And maybe they don’t.
But that’s precisely why we need to have these conversations. And on the second-to-last week of classes, that’s exactly what we did.
The event was called Unlearning Racism: A Conversation About Ethnicity and Multiculturalism. We had planned a talking circle for twenty bodies, but as the clock ticked past one, there were more than fifty people crowded into the UC Landing. Chairs materialized out of the unused corners of the room and we all crowded into a haphazard circle, bumping knees and balancing our food on paper plates.
The talking stone passed from palm to palm and people tried their best to answer the question: what does race mean to you and how does race impact your everyday life? The answers to this question were as varied as they were breathtaking.
Some people made jokes about the ways they had been treated—satire is sometimes the best medicine. Others spoke loud and proud about their heritage, confidence red in their cheeks. Others still lamented the ways their children were suffering the quiet prejudices of their neighbours.
As I listened to these truths spill into the circle, I couldn’t help but think about all of the ways that my life is made easier by the way that I look, by how white my skin is, by the way my hair falls, or the blue colour of my eyes. Maybe there are things about the way you look and act in the world that make your life easier too. Maybe that’s why we have such a tough time acknowledging the racism of our day-to-day lives and maybe that’s why the words get stuck in my throat when I try to talk about it.
There is a question that comes up a lot when we manage to talk about racism. “I’m not racist,” people will insist. “So, what can I do?”
It is events like this that can give people in a position of privilege some direction.
Whether it was the crush of economic inequalities, the innocent-seeming generalizations absorbed by children, or the way that the university differentiates between local (us) and international (them) students, there was no shortage of issues experienced by the marginalized people in a room of fifty. Two hours of talk answered the question “what can I do” a dozen times over.
The trouble is, there are so few spaces where we take the time to listen to the voices of people living with racism. The echo chambers of our digital lives are warm and comfortable. Accepting the failures of a society that rationalizes devastating conditions in northern Indigenous communities or sees a man walk into a mosque and murder Canadians at prayer is no easy task: this topic hurts.
After the event wrapped, after all the food was packed away and the chairs stacked up, I felt the words that everyone had spoken during the day settle over me. Unlearning racism is not easy. Owning your privilege feels weird and recognizing that you will sometimes make mistakes can twist your pride. But if we can manage to create more spaces like this, spaces where we can look around a circle and hear the words of everyone in it, maybe we can do better.
What we do next is up to us. I don’t think change can exist in a vacuum. I think change comes alive in the happy accidents, in the brilliant moments of truth and honesty of an afternoon, in a space where everyone feels safe. These conversations are not easy—not for me, not for you, not for anyone—but they need to be had.
The next talking circle will be on April 17th at the University Centre Landing. All are welcome.
Reporter: AmyAnne Smith