Sunday November 6, 2022
I’d better say this tight up front – I have never experienced prejudice against me because I am white. I suspect that no “person of colour” can say the same.
I have travelled widely. I have spent time in, by my last count, 66 different countries. In many of those, the local population had darker skin than mine. I have never been told, “Hey, whitey, go to the back of the line.” Or, “This is where WE eat; what are you doing here?”
And if anyone has called me derogatory names, they did it in their own language, and I didn’t know.
You may protest that you have no prejudice against brown- or black-skinned people. You may really believe that. But you cannot know it. Only the person experiencing prejudice knows it.
Yes, some people may seem paranoid. But I, as a privileged white, have no right to tell them they’re wrong.
My granddaughter is black. And beautiful.
People will come up to her on the street. “You have such lovely skin,” they’ll say, pawing her arm. Or they’ll run their fingers through her hair, and say, “I just love your curls.”
Would you take those same liberties with a blue-eyed blonde?
The fact that you, as a white person, feel you have a right to accost, even handle, a black person tells me that you’re prejudiced. You just don’t know it. Yet.
Tom Watson, a United Church minister and fellow-blogger, reported a news story from Alabama. Last May, Michael Jennings, a black pastor living in Childersburg, was asked by his neighbour to water the neighbour’s plants while the neighbour was away. Jennings did. Another neighbour called the police to report an unattended black man on an adjacent property.
The police officers arrested Jennings.
I read that story and fumed. At the petty-mindedness of the person who called the police. At the police for arresting him. Because a black man was watering some plants.
I can’t shrug that story off by claiming, “That only happens in the U.S.…” My family has experienced the same attitudes, here in Canada.
When my daughter lived in Edmonton, she received several poison-pen letters. Unsigned, of course. About how she and her family were violating community standards. About garbage pickup. Or dog training. But really, I suspect, because she had brought two black children into a 0formerly all-white block.
After Tom Watson circulated the story about Michael Jennings, a woman wrote from Toronto: “My son Christopher is black… The abuse and comments we received were eye openers. I got most of it, as I was the one who took the children out every day.
"Later, I worked with a woman for about 15 years whom I truly admired -- she was smart, very successful. I tried to be like her. When Chris was at University of Toronto he worked part-time at my office. One day I walked with him to the elevator. She got off the elevator and stood with me while he got on and left. She turned to me and said, ‘I don’t understand why you would waste your money sending him to university; there is no way in hell that he will ever pass!’”
Another black man described moving to London, Ontario. When he went into stores, he was ignored.
Don’t scoff. My family has also experienced this personally. Daughter and granddaughter go into a cosmetics store together. Black teen glows with skillfully applied makeup; white mother wears none. Guess which shopper the clerks offer to assist? Hint: not the black girl.
My granddaughter has learned not to react when she encounters this unconscious prejudice. She walks away. Or chooses her purchases without assistance.
It’s still happening. Here in Canada. In 2022.
Don’t meekly tolerate it
What should I do?
The second letter to a young man named Timothy, in the Bible – attributed to Paul the Apostle, although neither the style nor vocabulary matches other letters known to be Paul’s – itemizes 22 despicable traits. Then it counsels, “Turn away!”
That’s what my granddaughter does. That’s what I need to do, too. Refuse to endorse people’s prejudices by keeping silent. If that barber wants me to come back, if that restaurant wants repeat business, if that friend wants to keep having coffee with me, they need to know why I’m upset.
And to do something about it.
It may surprise them that what they see as normal behaviour comes across to others as prejudiced. The fact that they aren’t aware that their attitudes reflect their white privilege is no excuse.
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There was no Sharp Edges column last weekend, because for a week I was the combined chaperone, designated driver, and security patrol for my grandchildren in Vernon, 25 km north of my home. With at least two trips back and forth every day, I didn’t have time or energy to think of any insights into the world’s problems. (Although I expect something from that week-long experience to show up in this coming week’s Soft Edges column.)
So the mail is all from the previous week’s Sharp Edges, on the decline in the salmon run in the Adamas River.
I had closed with the line, “What have we done to you, my friends?” Mirza Yawar Baig retorted, “What have we done to ourselves? And done is the word. Like the dead salmon, there's no return. It's already too late.”
Tom Watson took a similar view: “The story of the salmon is the story of human short-sightedness. We did the same with the Great Awk. If it benefits us economically at the moment we do it; to heck with the long-distance effects.”
James Russell challenged that closing line: “’We’ did NOT do this, although we have not done enough to fight it. The ‘we’ who are to blame are those especially who have done their best to bamboozle the world about the consequences of wasteful and unthinking pursuit of individual and immediate personal gain no matter what cost to others, including all that other life that makes our own possible. And next to blame are those who voted for the enablers and servants of those miscreants, willfully ignoring what has been common knowledge for decades.
Nor is the question, “What have I done to you, my friends [fellow beings]?” Rather, it is “What am I going to do now to mitigate the damage being done and to support opposition to racing ever further and more quickly down this road? What must I stop doing today? Where can I throw my mite of effort where it might yet do some good.?’”
Frank Martens offered a vote of confidence: “We need more people like you, Jim, who have regular access to public media, and who are generally trusted to look at the facts on the ground.
You and I both are too old to be affected immediately, but the price of salmon on the grocery shelves will certainly have some consequence.
Sheila Carey: “Having seen the Adams River run in 2010 I am distressed by your news of the situation this year. I hope that the cooler weather that has moved in will cool the river enough that the salmon survive, but I’m not holding my breath.
“I feel helpless this year too – but we must not give up! Events like this need to jolt us to do more to take whatever actions we can individually and to join others in agitating all levels of government to take climate change seriously and work to stop the damage – to start the reversal before it really is too late for the sake of generations to come.”
Vera Gottlieb had a personal interest in that column: “I lived 15 very happy years in the North Shuswap -- where the Adams River flows into Shuswap Lake. I clearly recall -- and can still smell it, when the corpses of the dead salmon filled the air with that sharp ‘fragrance’. And also recall the times one of my dogs loved to wallow in the corpses and afterwards, going home in the car, all windows had to be open to air out. What fond memories.
“And now the danger of salmon not being able to return to their place of birth on account of very low water in the rivers they travel upstream. Very hungry times ahead for all the bears and eagles (and other creatures) who depend on this natural cycle to survive.”
Peter Scott: “Your Adams River column brought tears to old and failing eyes. This column describes in painful detail what our indigenous brothers and sisters have been telling us for all my 81 years about ‘all our relations’. It is clear that the die is cast. God save us from ourselves.”
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