For a white person, talking about Canadian racial issues is like unclogging a communal shower drain by hand. You only partially know what’s there, and that causes anxiety and avoidance.
An immigrant pointed out to me that Canadians like to compare themselves to evade their own messes. Bad is bad, he said. Who cares whose mess is worse. It is like a kid refusing to clean his room because his sibling’s room is messier. Both rooms need cleaning. So it is with Canadian racism. When it comes to racial issues, we speak more about our southern neighbour’s sins than our own. I wanted to better understand how a member of a racial minority viewed their situation in Canada so I contacted EJ, a speaker at the Black Lives Matter rally. She graciously accepted my dinner invitation.
We met at The Original Spaghetti House Pizzeria. It is a place she frequents because it is owned and operated by an immigrant who hires other immigrants. For EJ, eating here was a safety issue. Despite being born in the Peterborough area, she feels more comfortable in immigrant-run establishments.
She’s hilarious. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit we had multitudinous belly laughs talking about violence and discrimination against black people. EJ knows she’s funny. She explained that she developed humour as a coping mechanism for the racism she experienced growing up. She told me of a childhood bus driver who always used to stiffen up and grasp his wallet every time she entered the bus. She dealt with it by joking with him, “Ooh! Better protect your wallet or else I’ll steal it!”
What disturbed me most though was EJ’s belief that she didn’t have a voice; that if she spoke out it was perceived as whining but if a white person spoke out, they had something important to say. It shocked me, until I realized that this is how I feel about gender discrimination. If I speak out, the people who need to hear it won’t take me seriously. If my husband speaks out, they are more likely to listen. I feel that way because I’ve lived that experience.
What a horrible truth! After all, who better understands issues of racism? Me or a member of a racial minority? Who better understands issues of gender? Me or my husband?
At the rally, EJ spoke of the police discrimination she experienced in Peterborough – multiple incidents – including being held at gunpoint in a situation where no charges were actually laid. EJ is my age. These are not stories from the 1950s. Since speaking out, EJ has received threatening anonymous phone calls telling her that if she ever needs protection, the police will not help.
These are the kinds of messes Canadians need to clean up. We can unclog our own drain. We can clean our own room. Let us start by actually listening to our minorities, because black lives matter here too.