I remember my first personal encounter with any kind of racism or nationalism vividly. In the grand scale of racism, it was really quite miniscule. It wasn’t a threat against me, it didn’t disrupt my way of living, and it didn’t take me out of a position of privilege. But it was my first experience with cruelty fuelled by hatred of someone over their heritage.
I was in the eighth grade, in the middle of one of the weeks where my then ‘best friend’ decided she no longer liked me and convinced our class to mock and humiliate me. My German heritage was fairly common knowledge, particularly that my mother was an immigrant and had passed away when I was young. During this specific mocking, I decided to stand up for myself. I don’t recall what I said, because it wasn’t important. The response I received was. One boy in my class told me to shut up, that Nazis weren’t allowed rights in this country, and then spat on me. Laughing, he told me my mother was a $2 hooker in hell, servicing all her Nazi brethren, before spitting on me again and telling me to get out of his country.
The timeline regarding how long it took for my situation to translate into a basic understanding of racism in general is a little fuzzy. What I do know is that situation made me more acutely aware of people being treated differently. It wasn’t something I just took notice of, I actively paid attention for it.
I grew up in a very whitewashed town. There were so few black and brown families, that even in a town of 20,000+, everybody knew who they were. I don’t even know if they ever experienced any racism, because it wasn’t exactly something that was talked about. In fact, very little to do with race of any kind was ever spoken about. While Canada officially chose to begin recognizing February as Black History Month in 1995, I cannot recall ever hearing about it or discussing it in school. If it was brought up, it was so fleeting that it didn’t make enough of an impact for me to remember it.
The earliest memory I have of hearing about it is in college. The campus I attended was incredibly close to an area known to have regular gang-related shootings. It was a low-income area, rife with violence, and we were regularly warned as white women, not to wander alone. At the same time, our campus was incredibly diverse. A large number of black students, both from the area and from outside the Greater Toronto Area attended school there. We had Muslim students, many internationals from India, China, Japan, and so on.
My college experience could be summed up as a massive culture shock. Largely because I couldn’t correlate the fear I was supposed to have of the gangs in the area with the kind and wonderful students I became acquainted with on campus. It was like being on the cusp of trying to understand, but still not being able to connect the dots.
February of my first year of college, a group of students had gathered in our common area to hand out flyers and information on Black History Month. I was curious--I didn’t know much of Canada’s history regarding it, and I wanted to learn more. I’d love to say this was the moment I woke up, dug in and researched, and found a way to be a voice against the issues still present today. It never happened. Those flyers ended up on my desk, eventually the floor, and then the garbage can.
If I’m being honest with myself, this burning desire to stand on the right side of history didn’t fully develop until the Ferguson protests exploded. I found myself watching in disbelief as my world shattered. I knew there were racists in the world still (a large number of them occupy my hometown), but I never fully realized exactly how aggressive racial issues still are, especially in the States. I guess you could call it the moment I fully ‘woke’.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot--but there’s still more. The first step in really truly making that ‘wakefulness’ pro-active is doing something. There are so many people who are even more oblivious to the racial issues present today than even I was. Here, in Canada, we have our work cut out for us too. And if I want to be an ally, if I want my voice to lend a helping hand, it means learning to step up and remind people of history, to show the truth to the world. It means treating Black History Month equally as important as I treat Mental Health month. It means not just educating myself, but taking what I learn and sharing it as much as I can.
It means using my wakefulness to help others wake up.
In this post, I was asked to answer a very specific question. “What is your hope for the future when it comes to progress?”
My answer is that I hope to see more people embracing the differences between us, and using them to strengthen our relationships between races. Specifically, as it is right now, to see the relationship, respect, and trust between whites and blacks become a strong rope, incapable of being severed. That we’ll be able to create a domino effect and change the way people look at racial issues. I want to see the police take responsibility for their actions, and continue to see the good cops take a stand against wrongdoing. And I want to see people change the way they speak about blacks in the news and in everyday conversation. I want to see people stop asking whether they had a criminal record when a black man is brutally beaten down and arrested, and instead start asking why an officer attacked unprovoked.
Black History Month needs to become more than just a time to recognize the contributions of those who have made waves. While it’s important to know the impact they’ve had, I feel like it needs to become even greater--a beacon to draw people in, a tool to educate and generate compassion and understanding.
For me, that will mean holding myself accountable to not just educate myself this February, but to do something actionable with that knowledge. If every person who’s been woke does just one action this month, I believe we would see a huge difference.
28 Days is a project about perspectives of people whose lives intertwine with the black struggle either personally or through others close to them. Along with their perspective they entrust us with what they hope for moving forward.
We hope this helps drive conversation, breaks down barriers and incites change.
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