This might come as a shock to people who actually know me well, who have seen me criticizing racist power structures that favour white people. But let me explain.
You see, racism isn’t innate; it’s something we have to learn. We learn it from our friends, from our parents, from the media, from classmates, from neighbours, from Sunday School teachers, from siblings, and from a whole host of everyday interactions with others.
The thing about racism is that it doesn’t need to be overt for it to be racist. Just because I never call a black person a nigger, for example, doesn’t mean I’m not racist. Likewise, someone doesn’t need to tell you that “Indians are drunk and lazy” for them to teach you racism.
Racism can be taught in several ways. It can be how a parent responds to a person of colour walking by on the street, or how a cashier responds to a non-white customer, or how a police officer changes how they talk to someone based on their skin colour.
It can be how your neighbour responds abruptly to an old First Nations person walking on the sidewalk because he doesn’t realize the Blackfoot he is speaking is simply, “How are you”. It can be your brothers making fun of your sister’s new friend because she happens to be Cree. It can be your parents mentioning that someone breaking into your house was “Indian”, as if that explained their actions somehow. It can be your boss charging a surcharge every time he has to do a cleaning job on the nearby reserve because a previous customer out there wasted his time. It can be your classmates saying Sikh classmates never shower. It can be your Sunday School teacher telling you to marry only white people. It can be your friend saying, “It’s okay if I say ‘prairie nigger’ because I’m part Métis.”
All these things add up over the years, and unchecked, can influence how you perceive someone based on their skin. And that can take a long time to undo.
Recognizing that you have prejudicial biases, I think, is the first step to eliminating those biases. What matters is being self-aware enough to notice when your biases surface, and changing your response to them. Instead of feeding and perpetuating those biases, we need to question them and prevent them from manifesting in our words and deeds.
Check it and correct it.
Ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable when three persons of colour are coming toward you on the sidewalk. Ask yourself why your circle of friends include so few persons of colour. Ask yourself why you view your person of colour friend as an exception; why you don’t use them to inform your opinion of others from that group.
I’m white. 100% European white. I’m the product of settlers, some of whom invaded Canada over 400 years ago. I grew up in white communities. White communities that, while predominately white, still had sizable populations of persons of colour. All this influenced what I was taught, both directly and indirectly. And all those lessons I learned stuck. And though my first memory of standing up against racism was 35 years ago, I still catch myself entertaining these biases.
And noticing them hasn’t been something that has come naturally. Just like I learned racism; I have had to learn how to recognize it and try to change it. I’m still learning. If I had to guess, I’d say that every day I’m exposed to new insights or information that help me to better understand the challenges persons of colour face living in a white persons world. And how my attitudes toward those challenges perpetuate white privilege.
So, yes, I’m racist. It’s how I was raised by my racist community. But I recognize my racism, and I’m trying to change it.