Though we all have textbook definitions of prejudice from school and mainstream news, I think racism is a deeply personal, cerebral, and emotional journey that evolves through our individual lives, as well as through society as a whole.
As a society, we know colonialism and slavery happened, and they were horrible, and we (most of us) now know that the flawed ideas behind those old systems are still baked into our communities and cultures today. We're discovering that there's no 'quick fix' to generations of brutal injustice and discrimination, and most of us are trying our best to uncover and dismantle the often-subtle layers of hate in our every day--though a growing percentage of shitty extremist outliers seem to constantly be f**king up those efforts.
I'm a POC (person of color), but I've lived a pretty charmed Canadian existence. I don't remember being exposed to racial slurs or overt discrimination until after the age of 12, and when kids started calling me a bunch of loaded words, I didn't understand them enough to even properly be offended. But I did start questioning why those words even existed in the first place.
When you grow up in a culture built by White, English-speaking Christians, and you are not a primary target of discrimination in that culture, you are naturally ignorant of that discrimination. At Catholic school in small town Leduc, Alberta, our 8th grade social studies class had a debate about whether Canadians of Aboriginal descent should still receive money from the government when they turn 18. The backstory was: they receive money as recompense from the Canadian government for 'taking their land', but the problem is a lot of reservation communities have high drug and crime rates and just giving kids money isn't helping that problem. We debated with what I thought was all the relevant information, but we were missing so many horrific details. The Canadian government doesn't issue checks as a generic apology for usurping Native lands. The money is part of an official apology by an administration that openly collaborated with Christian churches to run 'Residential Schools' for over 100 years, forcing Inuit, First Nation, and Metis children to 'assimilate' into Christian white society. Under the guise of making First Nations people "economically self-sufficient", 150,000 kids were sent away to these boarding schools where they were taught to scorn their own culture and 'fit in' with white settlers. Children were isolated, abused, and treated like second class citizens, and their age-old, non consumer-based customs were lost. An estimated 6,000 children died while attending these schools due to disease, malnourishment, abuse (often sexual), and generally poor living conditions, and those who survived did not readily fit in to either white or First Nation society. The attempted erasure of their culture and poor attempt at care of an entire race of people created a cultural rift that would last for generations and lead to the grim statistical 'high crime and drug use' among First Nations hotly debated by my ignorant 8th grade class in 2001 (just 4 years after the last Residential School in Canada closed down in 1997). If any of this was mentioned in my social studies textbooks, it was highly sterilized or only briefly touched on, because I don't remember these schools being part of our discussion.
It wasn't until I arrived at college in 2006 and was introduced to the poetry of Louise Halfe--an Alberta Residential School survivor and Saskatewan Poet Laureate--that I began to understand the bigger picture. White society has a barbaric history with racist roots, and though we celebrate and teach equality in 2020, our systems and 'harmless' stereotypes are built on those horrific mistreatments, and we are taught by unknowing (or knowing) parents and whitewashed history books that everything is fine, when it isn't.
It sucks. I wish there was a gentler way to say it. No one wants to grow up thinking life is relatively fair and societal values have everyone's back equally, only to find out later on that not only are things shockingly unfair, we are part of the problem. But here's the important thing: as law-abiding humans just trying to be kind and courteous and live well, the awkwardness of dealing with our own racism is really nothing compared to what the targets of such racism are dealing with in unpredictable degrees literally every day.
In America, implicit racial bias and ignorance exists against every non-white culture, but arguably the deepest, most violent and entrenched American racism exists against the African American community. Many white colonialists made their empires and fortunes on the backs of African American slaves for hundreds of years before slavery was abolished, only to be followed by segregation and overt discrimination--the latter still existing largely unchecked in pockets of America (and the world) today. Freed slaves were granted so little in the scheme of things: the (obvious) right to not be slaves anymore. Very little money, government influence, or even basic rations were shared by white 'elites'. These things were fought for and earned in punishing ways, or never achieved. Wealth discrimination is still a marker of our society today. So, not unlike the First Nations children in Canada, African Americans are not just victims of grisly initial trauma and injustice... they have been trying to simply make ends meet, wading through addiction, miseducation, police brutality, and scrubbed history books, in a society that refuses to accept them as they are.
Where do we even begin to help this situation?
-Educating ourselves continuously is a start (from better resources than outdated textbooks). -Calling out strangers, community leaders, loved ones, and ourselves, setting a better precedent for equality in our homes, schools, public institutions, and communities: this is important and ongoing.
-Listening and mindfully engaging, recognizing sh*tty old templates and building new ones: that's helpful to the world in general, not just from a lens of racism.
-Treating everyone we meet as a human being. Putting assumptions by the wayside and leading with people's interests, family stories, quirks, challenges, and dreams.
-Creating, passing on, and encouraging new opportunities for people of marginalized groups, not just because 'diversity looks good on paper or on screen' but because white, English speakers have a massive head start in our world and anything we can do to foster growth for underserved communities brings us a step closer to actual equality. Just because someone's skin color or customs or manner of speaking is different from yours, it doesn't make them less smart or capable. Believe that everyone has unique talents, instincts, and knowledge to bring to the world. Your belief in someone accustomed to being discriminated against could push them to new heights of opportunity.
-Remembering this uncomfortable but profound truth: if you're a white male in America, you are often set up to succeed in ways you may have always taken for granted. That doesn't mean you don't deserve love and a good life. That doesn't mean you don't also have struggles. It just means that there's work to do; society isn't perfect, and it needs your help--your voice, your education, and your actions--to get better.
-Don't simply ignore the examples of injustice that make their way into your news and social media feeds. Listen, sit with the feelings those injustices inspire and maybe even let a personal course of action float to the surface. Ask how you can truly help.
My personal journey of racism is still unfolding. I lived a sheltered, 'pretty white life' and never felt like the police or educational institutions didn't have my back. As a teenager I heard horrible racist jokes and pretended to laugh to fit in, even though their premise was lost on me. As someone who believes in the light and innate loving intention of human beings, I am occasionally a good steward of equality, and occasionally blind to the subtle stereotypes at work. I took an anthropology course on "Race & Racism" that kind of blew my mind in my second year of college, though its content might be considered rudimentary nowadays. I have gotten in the habit of actively searching for media that represents more of my global community: different cultures, cities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages, but I'm still an indulgent consumer of the very biased Hollywood machine. I often go back and watch movies or shows I used to love and see weird racist overtones that don't fit in today's culture. I feel more and more grateful all the time for my mixed heritage and a white mother who didn't overtly discriminate. It means that when I meet a person, I try to see a person first, not a bundle of preconceived notions, although I have been perceived as a little too innocent or ideal at times, or I've caught myself overcorrecting white people, or I've dissected the interaction and realized I was being ignorant in some other way. I have definitely said the wrong thing--sometimes realizing it silently later, sometimes getting called out in the moment. I have overthought my actions and under-thought them. I have had heated arguments with white male loved ones about implicit bias that left me in tears, feeling too helpless and emotional to make any real change. I have been gifted with truly amazing friends, family, and coworkers who help my perspective evolve, and bless the tension with forgiveness and well-timed jokes. I've been racist and definitely benefitted from a racist society, but I feel no nostalgia or comfort in the status quo. I want to help, to learn, to spread a kinder awareness for all struggling humans.
I want to be better.