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Monday, July 11, 2016

Racism?

I don't understand racism.
I mean, I really don't. Now let me clarify, I know the definition of the word, and I have witnessed it, and I have even been a victim of it. But I don't understand why it exists. My brain cannot fathom that degree of prejudice and hate. It does not compute.

Now, let me further clarify:
I am considered Caucasian. I was raised in a highly multicultural neighborhood, and attended a Mandarin elementary school. My family doctor from when I was 3-years-old was dark-skinned and accented. My best friends growing up were descendants of various cultures. Sure I had friends whose homes smelled, sounded, and seemed more like mine did, but there were many that (wonderfully) did not. I have memories of playing with friends at houses that were filled with the scent of cumin, friends whose grandparents made us sit and watch quietly while they knelt and prayed in their Buddhist garden, and I remember going to a birthday party where we all got to learn African dancing. I can honestly say that skin colour was nothing to me.
I do remember hearing references to skin colour growing up, usually from older people. I was often referred to by grandparents as "the little white friend," but I never saw it as a term of degradation. Perhaps they meant it as such, maybe they didn't. But I was what society deemed "white" so I felt it was just a term, nothing more.

As I reached my teen years, I realized my father used a lot of racist terms, despite assuring me he "wasn't racist." As an adult I can now see what bullshit that was. But instead of adopting these terms and this view of people, I grew up choosing not to use the types of words my Dad, some of my friend's parents, and even some of my friend's used. They were universally acknowledged as hateful, racist terms, so why on earth would I use them? I didn't want to be like that.
I remember as a teenager, visiting my grandparents out in Halifax, when I first heard blatant use of racist terms. My jaw hit the ground. I couldn't believe they used such words in their everyday language. As I grew, I learned more about Halifax - Africville, in particular - and discovered just how widespread and deep racism really was (and is, I suppose) there and all over the world.

Becoming an adult, I obviously saw more and more racism that I never understood as a child. I've even been victim to it on several, minor occasions. Asked to go to a Caucasian cashier at the grocery store by a cashier who wanted to only take customers of the same culture as herself. Or being told at a store that there were none left of a certain product, only to find that was untrue and the associate was only giving them to customers of their culture, etc. Nothing violent, but just that differential treatment was confusing, and hurtful enough. And it was NOTHING compared with what some people deal with daily. I have always felt that those who exhibited such behaviors were completely ignorant, and I distanced myself from such people. Anyone who I ever caught using derogatory terms for any culture, were called out. Of course, people defend their choices - "Oh, I'm not racist, I just grew up hearing it," or "I don't mean anything by it," or "oh c'mon, you know what I mean." I've just never understood the need, or fear, or WHATEVER it is that people feel that compels them to LABEL by skin colour. I DON'T UNDERSTAND.

The other day I had a very upsetting conversation with my kids. That was what prompted this post.
As I was surfing through Facebook, my 9-year-old son was periodically walking behind me (and peeking) at my screen as I scrolled. 
"Mom, what is racism?"
He made me jump, as I hadn't even known he was behind me. I then realized that my FB screen was plastered with posts about shootings, and hate crimes, and general awfulness. And my son had caught a good chunk of it.

***Just to also clarify: we don't have cable. My kids do not see the news on tv, or commercials for violent shows, or clips of upcoming breaking news, etc. I feel that there is enough hate and stress and trouble for them once they are adults, that they have no need to see that sort of thing as children. You may disagree, and that is your right, just as it is mine to expose my children to hate (or rather, not to expose them) as I see fit. ***

"Um, you know what buddy, don't worry about it."
At this, he looked at me rather sternly. "No, really, Mom. What is it?" 9-year-olds. Geez.
I thought for a moment. 
"Are you asking me what racism is? The definition?"
"Yeah."
"Well, I don't know if I want to explain this to you. It's not a good word."
"Okay." He was still staring at me.
"Allright. I suppose you should probably learn about it. I'm sure you've learned a little bit at school, but not really known that was what it was."
"Okay?" He looks skeptical.
"So, racism." I feel really, really, REALLY upset at this point. I felt like my son was 5-years-old again and he'd come home with that gift of a toy gun from Uncle Trevor - a toy I'd prevented with great effort for as long as possible.
I didn't want to change how he saw people. I was also so worried I was going to explain it poorly.
"I suppose racism would be... treating someone differently because of the colour of their skin."
He frowned. "But... why?"
"I don't know, buddy. There is no reason, but some people are massive jerks and feel that if they don't have the same skin colour as them, they should be treated differently. Often, it means hurting someone because they have a different colour skin."
He was visibly upset by this point. "Who?"
"Well, there is a lot of problems in the United States right now because a lot of people are being killed for no reason. All because of the colour of their skin.
"That's really stupid."
"Yes it is, buddy. REALLY stupid."
He nods. "Who is Martin Luther King Jr.?"
This took me aback, until I realized that when we began talking I had stopped scrolling on my FB page right on a picture of and quote by Dr. King. I immediately relaxed, thinking that would be easier to explain.
"He was a really important man who did a lot of important things, but was most well-known for fighting for the rights of black people in the United States."
"Black people?"
Okay, that floored me.

***Another moment to clarify: My husband and I are pretty conscious of how we refer to people, as we both feel its just irrelevant to refer to people solely by their skin colour. If we are asking about a friend of the the kids, we ask things like "Who's that? The one with blond hair?" or "is she the one that loves Pokemon?" or another identifying factor. We don't define people by skin tone, and never have with our children.***

Now, I was stunned, because even though I know how my husband and I feel about not defining people by skin tone and how we've raised our children not to, it wasn't until that moment that I realized that we had actually succeeded. My kid did not know the term 'black people.' It blew my mind.
"Well, a black person is someone with dark skin."
"Oh, like _____!" He nodded. (This is his best friend at school.)
"No, not quite. _____'s family is Filipino. He's of Asian descent. Someone that is considered black would be..." (I was running through his classmates in my mind.) I named a classmate he knew well. "A black person like _______ often has African ancestors, or Kenyan, or..."
"No, _______'s family is from Jamaica!"
"Yes! Absolutely."
"So what colour are we?"
I didn't notice, but my 7-year-old daughter had snuck in to listen to us, and she asked that question. 
"Well, sweetie, we are considered Caucasian. Or white."
She snorted. "We aren't white! We're darker than that!" She was putting her arm up to mine. "And we have these!" She pointed to different moles and freckles up our arms. This made me grin, as we are both hopelessly pale.
"I know. But someone decided to call dark-skinned people 'black' and light-skinned people 'white' and I guess it stuck. What's important is that it doesn't matter. Different skin tones mean that people that once lived in different parts of the world, now live all together. Because the sun is brighter in certain parts of the world, some people's skin developed something to protect them from the sun..."
At this point I started to lose them, lol. Their eyes read summer break, Mom. I knew I needed to wrap it up. "Okay." I made both of them look at me. "Does it make any difference what someone looks like on the outside, for the kind of person they are on the inside?"
They both shook their heads.
"That's right. What is INSIDE is what matters. Good people have all different skin tones. Bad people have all different skin tones. Skin colour means NOTHING towards what kind of person someone is. Right?"
"Right."

They ran off to play, but I was a mess. I was broken-hearted at having to talk to them about this, and worried that they would start seeing people different. I jotted down our conversation so I would remember. I just felt it was something I needed to have record of - that there are people raising their children without hate, or prejudice. Because I don't care what anyone says, prejudice/discrimination/racism - it's all taught. No one is born treating people differently. Assholes are made, not born. 

And I don't know what to do to make things better. And it hurts me. My cousin's son is black, and she is white. She posted one sentence several days ago on FB that broke my heart. She wrote: "If you've never had to explain to your child how to avoid being shot by the police, that's white privilege..."
I instantly felt sick. I had never thought about that. Her son is only a couple of years older than mine. It made - and still makes - me want to cry, and barf, and throw punches, and curl up to sleep. Because what can I do to make this world better?

So even if no one else ever reads this post, I have it. And I can read it and know that I am trying. I am spewing 2 more humans out into the world armed with love, 2 more humans that are confident in saying "racism is dumb." Because this hate seems so big, I don't know what else to do. 

So, just stop. Stop breeding this shit, stop enabling it in others. Stop letting it go when you hear it, or see it. 

Fuck. Just... love each other.

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