Speaking my Blackness
I'm hesitant to comment on matters of race; silence has always been safer. I'm a black man who was raised in a mostly white community where I learned the challenges of living in a place where no one looks like me. I don’t fault my parents for seeking a safe, quiet life in white suburbia. Realizing what my parents experienced growing up, it’s no wonder they chose that place.
Born in 1939, my dad was 8 when the first black baseball player was allowed to play in the major leagues but not without relentless harassment and death threats. He was 15 when the U.S. passed laws to end segregation in schools, which took years to see happen and only with federal marshals to escort black children to school for safety. Then there was the brutal beating and murder of teenager Emmett Till (who was close to the same age) after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. That was 1955.
My dad came of age in the days of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham Church Bombing, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, the rise of the KKK, Freedom Riders and the assassinations of many prominent black people. These are only a few of the countless acts of racial terrorism black people endured—and those are just from the last 80 years.
Since black people were stolen from their homes in the 1600's and forced into slavery, we’ve been treated as less than human. We were bought and traded like cattle, treated like machinery, beaten, tortured and killed on a whim.
My dad never spoke these words but the message was clear: “Being black is enough of a disadvantage, don’t give them any more reasons to discount you.”
It wasn’t enough to be nice, you had to be extra friendly and your manners better be impeccable. Being smart wasn’t enough, you had to be smarter and work harder to feel like you had a chance. Dress nicely, speak well, keep smiling and don’t rock the boat. Whatever you do, don’t draw attention to yourself.
Some call it assimilation; I call it self-preservation.
I was 1 of 7 black teens in a high school of 700. I didn’t fit their expectations of how black people should dress or speak, yet that didn’t spare me from taunts, "jokes" and blatant racism.
I’ll never forget an incident that happened shortly after the release of American History X, a movie about white supremacists and neo-Nazis. On my way into school, a dozen boys with freshly shaved heads formed two lines forcing me to walk between their Nazi salutes as they hummed "The White Man Marches On".
That was 1998. In Burlington, Ontario, Canada.
My experience isn’t unique nor was it the worst that could’ve happened. Ask any black person about times they’ve been followed around stores, watched by police, wrongly accused of crimes, been wounded by “jokes”, or been harassed and demeaned. Racism isn't new and it certainly hasn't ended.
Even in recent years I've felt the stares while in public with my white wife and biracial children, I've reassured my daughters their skin wasn't dirty like the boys at school said, I've fake-smiled through uncomfortable conversations with older white men, and confronted a manager about their racist comments in the workplace. Do you know how that last one ended? With leadership doubting that I was actually offended and asking if it was "really that bad" because it took me weeks to build up the courage to say something.
A friend messaged me to check in after George Floyd's murder, asking how it affected me. This is part of what I wrote in an emotional response:
Stories like this leave me torn. To black people, it’s not new, it’s been repeating for hundreds of years. Part of me feels resigned to the inevitability of unjust killings. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of the black experience that I feel helpless to change it on a large scale. As shocking as this killing is, it’s also not shocking at all. And that’s what’s really sad.
I could’ve easily been Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, Walter Scott, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown. Shit, I guess it’s still possible.
As a black person, events like this form you, they change you, they harden your heart and gnaw at your soul. Before you judge the riots and the chaos, take a moment to understand the centuries of pain that preceded them. MLK famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Racism is real and it’s prevalent (yes, even in Canada), yet it’s been denied, minimized and dismissed for so long. Not anymore.
We can no longer be silent or be silenced.
It’s horrifying to realize that it took a viral broadcast of a man’s murder to wake us all up. I hope it forever changed you. I hope for lasting change. I desperately hope racism isn’t forgotten once the hashtags stop trending. I appreciate the sentiments I’ve read from many who say they want to do better and I sincerely hope it’s true.
I want to point out two things that I hope will help you as you look for a better way forward.
First, from my experience racism seems to come from one of two places: hatred or ignorance. If you’re able to step back and hold your emotional response, you can see the difference. And it’s important to differentiate. Hate is hard to change; 400 years later and we’re yet to overcome it, though we've made progress. Sometimes it’s better to walk away rather than engage with depravity.
When it comes to ignorance though, we can educate and inform.
Making racist comments doesn’t necessarily make a person racist. I’m surprised how many white people don’t know it’s inappropriate to touch or comment on a black girl’s “crazy” hair, or assume we can dance and run fast, and think labels like “Oreo” are harmless. They need to be told these things but in a way that doesn’t indict their character. People get defensive and shut down when they feel accused so it helps if you’re able to separate the comment from the person. Saying something like, “You may not have meant anything by it but what you said/did is not okay”, then allows the conversation to focus on the words/actions and foster understanding.
Ignorance is fixable; hate is a different beast. Let’s start with what we can change and in time we’ll get to a point where love is so strong that hate is no longer conceivable.
Second, I’d love to point out some next steps for my non-black friends and family; things that help and things that don’t.
What does not help:
Belated apologies. Saying “I’m sorry you experienced that” is about as helpful as the knee-jerk “thoughts and prayers” reaction to tragic news. It’s passed, I’ve healed and we need to focus on changing what’s ahead.
Asking if you’ve done something wrong so you can clear your own conscience. It's not about you. It’s likely you’ve done or said something but at this point, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do better, then do it. Your decisive actions will undo whatever mistakes you’ve made in the past.
Talking and posting if it doesn’t lead to action. In many Christian circles I’ve seen things get talked about and prayed to exhaustion but without action, it’s of little value. Your actions needn’t be huge, dramatic or ‘gram-worthy but it does need to be something real.
What does help:
Researching a few of the stories and people mentioned above. Read some black history to get a sense of the frustration and despair we feel. It goes much deeper than the recent police-involved deaths and slavery that “ended” a long time ago.
Be willing to lovingly call out the small things with your friends, family and coworkers. That’s where change starts. We all have biases and prejudices and it’s better to hear from someone you’re close with than from a stranger who’s accusing you of being something you’re not.
Explore shows, books and movies from a black perspective. It can be documentaries like 13th (which I hear is really well done, by the way) or See You Yesterday, a comedy film or Dear White People, a comedy-drama series. All of them are currently on Netflix.
Be a vocal ally. I’ve heard white people say they should be the last to speak about racism. But I disagree. There were many times I desperately needed someone in the majority to speak up first so that I could know it was safe to do the same. If you’re silent, then I don’t know where you stand. I need allies that remind me that I am seen, heard and valued.
I’m feeling sad, lost, frustrated, numb, confused. For years, I said nothing, afraid of the consequences; defeated before even trying. I didn’t think my voice could change anything. But with all of ours together, united in love, we have a chance. I need to speak up, not just for me but for my daughters. I'm exhausted but I also feel hopeful and determined.
Together, we can humbly step into that uncomfortable place and make real progress that conquers hate. Forever.
UPDATE: A week after this article was posted I was interviewed on CBC London Radio. Here's the link.