Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
This blog is part of a blog-series published in 2017. The blog is a personal reflection authored by an NCCDH staff member and is focused on the tendency of white people to remain silent in the discussion of racism.
A little more than two years ago, I took part in a team workshop on racism and intersectionality facilitated by two co-workers. There were ten of us on the team; three women of colour and seven white women. Among other things, the day included exploring racism in the Canadian context and creating a space where learning and unlearning would actively take place. Oppressive and racist practices were not going to be excused by our good intentions and best efforts. I was immediately scared that I would look at myself and see things I didn’t like. Or worse, see some things that I was ashamed of. And even worse than that, the other people in the room might see those things too. Looking back, I remember asking a lot of questions, not wanting to speak for fear of getting it wrong and being judged, feeling like I had said the absolute wrong thing more than once and that I was exhausted by the end.
There have been several Team Days in the last two years. About six months ago the agenda of an upcoming Team Days was changed in response to an experience within our team, and dedicated to discussing racism. And not just systemic racism, not just the overt stuff; but racism that exists here in our organization, in our subconscious – my subconscious – that operates every day. When I learned of the intention of the meetings, I felt guilty that I hadn’t used much of the previous two years to read more, examine, change, and dedicate the time to make this a priority.
I went in to the discussion not knowing what to do or say. After all, I’m white. And there were racialized people in the room. Thinking back now I recognize this uneasy feeling came from the fact that white people don’t talk about racism with other white people; definitely not with the frequency, depth and accountability that we should. I knew racism was happening and I knew it was unjust. But I didn’t know what to do or say without doing or saying the wrong thing. Better to not come across as racist. At least that’s how it always played out in my mind. So I did nothing. I acted as though talking about racism made it worse, and staying silent wasn’t hurting anyone. I had passed racism off as something that didn’t affect me and I was not accountable.
During those Team Days I learned the exact opposite is true. Talking about racism acknowledges it as a real issue and identifies it as a problem. Staying silent perpetuates the status quo. Being part of the racism discussion is unlearning the instinct to stay quiet. It’s unlearning that being uncomfortable means you should stop participating. Being a part of this means I’m accepting the responsibility to analyze – and most likely change – thought patterns, perspectives, actions and reactions. Recently I was told “it’s not about never getting it wrong. It’s about how you respond after you’ve gotten it wrong that matters.” That expectation to adjust is very motivating. And it gives me something to work towards. It takes some of the not knowing what to do out of the equation.
I’m trying to say things out loud that normally stay safely hidden away in my mind, free from further examination. It’s hard and it’s scary. Sometimes I hear things in response that make me question my sense of self, and things I thought I knew about the world. For example, just last week in reading an article related to the residential school system in Canada I eventually came to thinking about Indigenous treaties and land “ownership.” Of course it was wrong that people were forced off the land they were/are so connected to. Of course we should try to rectify that. But wait – will that ultimately mean I’ll have to give up my house? I don’t want to give up my house. And then I thought wait – if that’s as far as I’m willing to go with discussions on Indigenous land, what are the other limits I’m not seeing? What if I’m only willing to go part way on everything; on all of this? Then what? What does that mean? I’m still sitting with that one. But for me discussing it with the Team and including it here solidifies it as something that needs attention.
I think – I hope – I have a better grasp on racism now; at least in that I understand it permeates everything and I can recognize it in action. The fact that I have the choice whether or not to think about racism, whether or not to engage in this conversation, is a privilege. It’s a luxury not afforded to racialized people. In order to not take that for granted, it’s my responsibility to keep learning, being challenged, being open to getting it wrong or offending someone, accepting criticism and trying to do it better.
I don’t talk about racism with people outside of work as much as I should. Even in writing this, I fear that someone reading it will see my current thoughts as permanent. Six months ago that would have been enough to stop me from writing this blog. Being judged on this snapshot of this ongoing process is terrifying, because it’s not complete. There is no definitive end point where I know I will get the satisfaction of saying “There. I’m done. Look at me now.” There are many things I have yet to learn and understand, and there will definitely continue to be things I need to change.