Time to Listen. Black Lives Matter.
To say these are unsual times is now an understatement. Since my last blog, yet another black man has been killed needlessly. There have been riots in many American cities, forcing many cities to submit to curfews. People are angry. Rightfully angry. I do not condone the violence, but I certainly do not condone the crime. Never should anyone have been killed the way George Floyd was. It is an act of racism.
Racism is defined as: Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.
George Floyd’s murder was an injustice. And because it was an injustice, what coincided with angry riots were voices of a different sort. Voices asking for reason. Voices asking for change. Voices asking to be heard. Voices…
And so the voices rose, each perhaps saying a different thing, many recognized what was done was an injustice beyond words. I’m trying to find words for how this makes me feel. Perhaps, if you’re reading this, it might help you find words too.
Demonstrations appeared not only in the United States but around the world. This is because racism is not unique to the U.S. These demonstrations were dominantly peaceful, a stark contrast to the initial anger and rioting. Terms like “I can’t breathe” and “white privilege” are key phrases emerging from these demonstrations. This act of racism may seem unimaginable in a world that has advanced so far. Unfortunately, I think I am mistaken to imagine this world has advanced. We have put men in space, and we have put robots on Mars, but some of us still see people who look different from us and grow suspicious. Some of us let that suspicion lead to acts of violence or indecent words. Racism wears many costumes. Not all racism is outwardly violent. More on this later.
I grew up in what I once considered a very racist part of the United States. I have no doubt racism was bold and proud there. One of my earliest memories is an event my grandmother recalled. In One night in August 1930 she was walking home from work and was swept into a riot that she wanted no part of. Three black men were accused of several crimes, including murdering a man and raping a white woman. They had been arrested and jailed in the city courthouse. I’m purposely withholding where this happened. Does it matter? This story has certainly repeated itself in many places, but this memory happens to be my grandmother’s.
Certain men in the city decided to take the law into their own hands and broke the three men out of the jail and hanged two of them from trees on the courthouse lawn. We will never know if they were guilty of their crimes as they never had a fair trial.
The third escaped with help from law enforcement. He went on to serve jail time although he was not convicted of either murder or rape. His statement claims the other men were guilty. After he served his sentence, he attended university, became an activist, and founded a museum of African-American history. He also carefully documented events from this night.
My grandmother recounts it was the worst night in that city. There was so much anger and rage. As a sign of sorrow, the city cut down the trees from the courthouse lawn and, to this day, the lawn is bare of trees: a quiet whisper to a dark moment in history that cannot be erased. Every time I see that courthouse lawn naked of trees I remember my grandmother’s memory and the horrors that happened there.
As a consequence, that city has never recovered its dignity. It has remained an aggressively racist city. Growing up there, I remember as a young child being told that the neighbor was a member of the KKK. My dad shrugged it off and said he was a nice man. He further said we shouldn’t talk about his membership. It was a secret everyone kept. I was friends with his son. I was horrified to think such a nice boy could be the son of such a bad man. My parents didn’t realize how knowing this made me feel. We never talked about racism or those who openly practice it. Have we ever had a talk with our kids about racism? An honest conversation? What would happen if we did?
Years later when I moved away from there I was never so glad. I was getting away from a city embroiled in racism. I’d felt the tension everywhere, marring everyone’s face, even my own. I thought I’d left racism behind me. I thought perhaps that place was unique with its troubles. More time passed, and I moved a few more times. I thought with passing time we as a people had changed. Certainly I saw more diversity after leaving a predominanty white area of the country. I considered the issue of racism something of the past. Something related to that area. Something we had matured beyond. I was mistaken.
We’ve seen the death of several black men since that time. Due to the smart phones, we’ve captured more evidence on video. The problem isn’t worse, but the problem hasn’t gone away either. We have advanced in technology, but racism seems to be as deeply rooted as it was in my grandmother’s world of almost 100 years ago.
A few years ago I moved to Canada. Again, I thought, it’s over. This country is not racist. It’s an American thing. It’s behind me. Again I was mistaken. With the murder or George Floyd, I have watched from outside America’s border. I have watched the riots happen close to people I care about. I have seen the pain inflicted on friends who have been touched in different ways by this. I have seen my own Canadian city stand in solidarity with the black community.
It isn’t enough. Here’s why: Racism wears many costumes. Racism is not just physical violence against the black community—or any minority group. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had this to say about racism. He thought carefully before answering, but I believe his message can be taken by anyone anywhere. Because racism wears many costumes, it portrays itself as the hanging of two black men. It portrays itself as kneeling on the throat of a black man. It equally portrays itself as a young bully saying “N—” to his classmate day after day. Words can be as cruel as fists.
We as a people need to look past the costume and recognize racism for what it is. In every country it may look different. This week, I’ve reflected about what racism looks like in Canada. It certainly doesn’t look like what my grandmother witnessed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not here. That doesn’t mean it’s better here. It is just wearing a different costume.
Canada has had its share of racial issues. There even was a time when slavery existed here. Further, the treatment of the Indigenous population, including the Indian Residential Schools, has left a scar on this country. Canada has issued an apology, but there is still much to be done.
As this country discriminated against certain peoples, white people looked at themselves and often considered themselves superior. So-much-so that after World War II up into the early 1970s there was the Sixties Scoop: Young, unwed women who became pregnant were often abused into giving up their children. These children were given to white married couples so that they defined “the perfect family.” I know some of these children who are now adults. I know the pain this has caused. None of it is right. One race is not superior to another. We are all human. We are all the same.
I speak only about America and Canada in this blog simply because these are the countries I have lived in and from where I can give first-hand accounts. If you’re reading this in another country, your experiences are different, but that only means what you see is racism in another costume. History of every country has so much to say on this topic.
Riots happen because people are angry. Protests and demonstrations are a plea to be heard. They are not the same. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are made when people wish to convey an important message. We should listen to that message. Now, more than ever. If we can put robots on Mars (an incredible accomplishment my grandmother could never imagine!), why can’t we respect another human who may not look exactly like us? This seems like something so simple, and yet it clearly is not. Not yet.
Perhaps if we listened more—heard more!—then we will realize there is more about us as humans that is the same, regardless the color of our skin or the language we speak. Perhaps what is different isn’t scary. Perhaps in learning the differences we can grow and expand our understanding of this world. And in doing that, we might learn more about ourselves.
Now is the time to learn what racism is. Now is the time to speak about racism and understand its costumes. We can’t be afraid of it. We can’t keep it as the secret everyone knows but isn’t talking about. It’s been said often: we have two ears but only one mouth. That’s because we should listen more than we speak.
It’s time to listen to what the protesters and activists are trying to say. It’s time to have a dialogue. It’s not time to figuratively cut down the trees and pretend something terrible didn’t happen. It’s time to learn and move forward.
If you want change, be the change. Be kind, and listen to one another.