Race, racism and other prejudices

I know what you are thinking, do I really want to read this dribble about racism from a white, North American male?  I completely understand that the opinions we should all be listening to are those who face such injustices daily.  I can be honest in saying that I understand the narratives from my lived experiences.  Take this as you will, all opinions have merit, even mine.  I have stayed quiet and listened for quite some time and felt I wanted to say something, anything against racism.  I may rarely be the victim but all too often the witness.  

Growing up, I had no solid concept of the meaning of racism.  My naivety was based on ignorant innocence to the world around me.  I've always grown up in communities immersed in multiculturalism, where everyone played together.  I understood that we were all different colours and that some of the parents were from other parts of the world.  It just didn't matter to me if anyone was black, white or in between in being a friend.  

As I got older I began to understand the basis of racism but still believed it was not as widespread as I heard.  How can so many people be hated or targeted based on skin colour?  My experience with racism wasn't a pivotal moment that I can recollect in my childhood.  I went a third of my life without a defining moment about racism.  

One day I finally understood what it meant to be "Driving While Black".  I had heard the statement but never thought it really happened.  While out driving with friends in one of our parent's car we were suddenly pulled over.  The three white teenagers in the car seemed perplexed on the situation.  Were we speeding?  Did we run a stop sign?  Did the officer think we didn't have our seatbelt on?  My friend driving just told us to be quiet as the officer came to the window.  The officer stuck his head in the window, looked at all of us, wanted all of our licences and then went back to his car.  We didn't get what was going on and then we heard "it's my fault guys, I was driving while black".  The officer returned, handed back our identification and walked away as we asked "why did you pull us over?"  Three of us were angry at the situation while the other felt embarrassed.  The nature of racism began to show its face with more regularity, my naivety faded away.

Over the last dozen years I've had the pleasure of travelling to all six continents.  I've been through deserts, jungles and everywhere in between.  I've met new friends and experienced amazing cultures.  I've had the opportunity to travel to parts of the world alone and did so without fear.  I was always aware of the seedy underbelly of any city or country but it never affected my travel.  Many times I didn't know the language or where to go but I always found my way or used physical language to communicate.  Not everyone has experienced this freedom to travel.

My best friend is a white female, our first major trip together was through Egypt, Israel and Jordan.  She had initially planned on going herself but would have only done the tour we were going to go on.  When I said I would come, it allowed her to travel outside a tour because I was a man.  I didn't get it, she was a strong willed person who I felt better around.  On our trip I was asked several times "How much?" to which I didn't understand at first... "How much for the pretty lady?"  Strangers asking me this question was both disturbing but incredibly insightful to a culture shock I had yet to experience.  We have since travelled three other continents together and cultural prejudices are everywhere.

I juxtapose my travel with a white female friend to my travel with my wife, a beautiful black woman.  The differences in the experience were similar but heightened to more intense level.  We have discussed where she will not travel or depending on the time of day, how she won't go without me.  The looks from the locals can dramatically change when they realise she's Canadian.  That sense of uneasiness of shop owners is magnified in other countries simply because of her skin colour.  It has been through her experiences with racism that I have begun to understand the hardship felt by those victim to racism and prejudice.  

The news has been a frightening view into the psyche of a society attempting to deal with racism.  From Trevon Martin to Mike Brown, the repetition of young black males being murdered scares the daylights out of me.  Why?  Because that may one day be my son in a similar situation.

I am aware that our children will be somewhere on the spectrum from black to white.  I want to say it isn't going to matter but I'd be a liar.  It takes no less than a second to look at the hateful, racially based comments thrown at the duly elected President of the United States Barrack Obama to know that success doesn't end racism.  My children will grow up with a loving environment and exposed to many different traditions and cultures.  They will be travel around the world and be full of knowledge and experience.  Throughout their entire lives we will be there to show them the best of the world, and support them when the worst appears.

My wife and I know that our children will hear "you aren't white enough or black enough" from other kids or parents.  They will not only experience one type of racism, they will experience two (or more).  This is a reality I have heard from friends who are from multi-racial families.  How do we cope with this, how can we make this better?  The idealists will say "can't we all just get along?" which is empty optimism.  The realists will say "I don't know!"

In our multicultural society it would be expected that racism and prejudice attitudes would slowly erode.  In a city like Toronto where every nation can be represented, it would seem a safe bet.  Yet we look at the political position over the last few years and the sense that it is OK to be 'yourself' has emerged.  If you hate gays or blacks or Muslims, that's OK right?  Bigotry has no place in our society.  None. Zilch. 

I cannot offer any solutions of merit.  Staying informed, supporting friends who are discriminated against and being an ally any way I can are all personal choices.  Not everyone wants to change, not everyone is ready for change.  It would be easier if all the racists and bigots were easily identifiable, many now keep their hatred to themselves unless given a forum to speak.  Celebrating a child's death is barbaric; how can you change a person who feels no shame in such open hatred?  

This entry is a collection of thoughts I've had for awhile.  Through conversations with friends of difference races, religions, genders and sexuality - there is still so much to be said.  This is not the last I shall speak about racism.  I have many other personal stories about how I was often the witness.  

Thank you for reading.

Peter

Posted on November 25, 2014 .