I had 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 that 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 formerly 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, Ont. 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. 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.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.