Get Comfortable with Uncomfortable Conversations
Originally published on June 5, 2020
One of my favourite writers is James Baldwin. His writing is unapologetic, unfiltered and unique. If you want to learn more about racism, especially on Turtle Island, read him. His fiction and his non-fiction. (Do the work.) I often quote him. My favourite: “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” Those words have become my mantra; they have defined my experience not only with racism but with life. I strive to be a man of my word.
When Amy Cooper apologized for her acts, her first sentence was: “I am not a racist.”
The world is on the precipice of change. (I have goosebumps as I type these words. My eyes are watering at the momentous time we are witnessing. I am cautiously hopeful.) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Yves-François Blanchet, and Jagmeet Singh all stood up in the House of Commons to name and acknowledge racism in Canada and especially systemic racism. I saved the best for last because, I admire Jagmeet for taking the extra step by challenging his colleagues to do more than make “pretty speeches” but begin the difficult work for transformative change.
Unfortunately, not all of Canada’s leaders feel the same way. Many have come out to say: “Canada is not racist.” They “Amy Coopered.”
In the decades that I have been vocal about racism, in society and especially in the work force I have used the phrase systemic racism. I even tried to make it more palatable by calling it white privilege. Discussions of race often get halted in nomenclature (for the comfort of the white people in the room. Yet it is acceptable to continue watching the lynching of Black bodies repeatedly on our screens.)
I am not talking about overt racism like when I was in grade two and was hit across the side of my face with a bag of something sharp and heavy by a big kid and called a “f***ing n***er.” The first time I ever heard those words. (I live with the physical scar on my left temple today. I have dealt with the mental and emotional scars. But other “kids” have followed to remind me that I am Black and because of that I am less than human. I digress… or do I?) What I remember most from this incident was my father’s discussion with me afterwards. The Talk. It was the first of many Talks I’ve had with my parents about racism. I am used to uncomfortable discussions with my parents. I then had to have an uncomfortable discussion with them when I told them that I was Gay. I am comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. I’ve been having them my entire life.
That is what my consultancy is about: Breakfast Culture works where marketing communications intersects with diversity, equity and inclusion. In our #SafeSpace Discussion Facilitation we use five components to help facilitate these dialogues to help make organizations comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.
When I think about this early memory of overt racism from my seven-year-old self, I realize that this is what most people think of when they hear the word racism. This is racism… in a soundbite. Its horror is extremely easy to see, feel and condemn.
Systemic racism is different. In its way it is more insidious than overt racism. It is a collection of (sometimes) unintentional acts and even legislation all coming together in a perfect storm to prevent Black as well as Indigenous and other People of Colour from succeeding. Whether it’s access to health care, the C-suite, education, or in many places in Canada today for Indigenous peoples access to clean drinking water.
In middle school I was immediately streamed into basic level courses, no testing was done. My mother, a schoolteacher, understood the system and fought for me to be tested. I scored in the enriched level. When I went on to earn my B.A.Sc. in Chemical Engineering the five other Black students in the University of Waterloo’s Engineering program at the time were all streamed into basic without testing and it was our mothers, our aunts, the teachers and nurses who knew the system and advocated for us to be tested. (I salute and thank all of the Black women in my life. #BlackGirlMagic is real. ✊🏾🖤) This is systemic racism in action.
Whenever Black peoples call out systemic racism the first words out of brave peoples’ mouths is “I am not racist.” (I say brave people because the majority think it but dare not vocalize it.) This statement is the default. This statement tells me that you clearly do not understand racism. We have not called YOU racist. We have called the system racist. It is not about YOU as an individual.
To hear leaders like Premier Doug Ford, Premier François Legault, and Stockwell Day say Canada is not racist. They are “Amy Coopering.” And I know that many Canadians feel the same way.
To quote from Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” It’s funny because it’s true. As humans we aren’t perfect. We are all “a little bit racist.” Know that we are all on our own journeys. (Sigh.) Let me be your guide. When our federal leaders stood up on June 2 they were naming and acknowledging the problem. The first step in any healing process for individuals, for societies is to name and acknowledge the problem. (There lies my cautious hopefulness.)
For Canadians, like Day, Ford, Legault, and Cooper stating: “I am not racist.” No one called YOU personally racist. However, for many Canadians, especially Black (and Indigenous) the system is racist. Let’s name and acknowledge that. Let’s do the work and move forward together. Let me, let us, see what you do.