Let’s begin with a story. Back when I was precocious twit–a kid in grade three who’d already been skipped a grade, went to one-day-a-week gifted a year earlier than the programmes usually began, and took math class with the grade sixes (who then beat and bullied said kid at recess: not that the older kids in gifted were any better)–I read a story in Jack & Jill magazine about a teacher illustrating prejudice by creating an arbitrary divide in the classroom. I didn’t know this story was based on Jane Elliott’s classic “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” experiment: a two-day classroom experience in 1968 that illustrated how quickly prejudice forms with just a little institutional encouragement. I also didn’t fully understand the ethical considerations that experiment hadn’t taken into account.
I just thought it would be a brilliant idea for our class.
I remember this moment so well because I had excitedly asked our teacher, Mr. Lieberman, if I could propose a lesson plan. (Did I mention precocious twit? I was seven or eight.) But even as I explained the story and suggested how we could implement similar, a detail snagged at me. In the story, the children had been given white or black stars to wear. When I spoke to Mr. Lieberman, I noticed that he wore a star already. And even though Holocaust discourse wouldn’t enter the curriculum until the next year, when my gifted class put Hitler on trial, It immediately hit me that the story I had been so excited about, the idea that was mere theory in my head… might not be so theoretical to others. Other people were actually living what I was treating as an “educational moment.”
Today, on my second-year anniversary of emigrating from Canada to Colombia, I’m reflecting on how much Western cultural discourse still treats as white as a baseline and everything else as… “diversity.” But if we really want to enact a humanism that can meet the challenges of the 21st-century–a century of huge displacement pressures, declining empires, and persistent genocides–we’re really going to have to do better than that.
So–where better to start than from within?
White Child in a… Wonderful World
I grew up in a region of Toronto (City of York, York South-Weston) that for a time had the second-highest immigrant population and the second-lowest household income. It was Keele & EglinGton (later Eglinton), not far from the more notorious world of Jane & Finch, and especially as a teen I developed a certain way of “walking” the streets where candles and flowers would often mysteriously appear near police tape on various street corners. It was good training for Colombia, to be honest!
When I was younger there, I often considered myself the “zero culture” kid next to the West Indies children, who had distinct music and food and patois and pentecostal church; and the Middle-Eastern Muslim children; and the children from Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish backgrounds. I wasn’t the only “white” child in my neighbourhood, but the children I played with most had backgrounds different from the one I was still too ignorant to realize was the backdrop to everything in our milieu.
(Funnily enough, one of my best friends was a girl named Ramona, West Indies, so when I read the Ramona Quimby books I just grafted her into them. I was stunned years later to see a white girl on one of the editions’ covers. Brains are funny.)
Race was something I grew up with intrinsically, even if I had a misguided sense of my place within the concept. I ran screaming as a kindergartener from a black child missing a hand, and later was stricken with the fear that he’d thought I was running because he was black (I desperately wanted to tell him it was just the hand, as if that would have been any better!). Conversely, when I was 12 and taking my little brother to baseball, I was cornered by a black man around 19-20 in the playground, who kept asking if I was just uncomfortable around him because he was black. Another parent intervened, but I chewed over some very confused feelings about that situation for years.
Mostly, though? Mostly I understood race in relation to this notion I kept hearing applied to myself, as the “smart” person. Walking encyclopedia, walking dictionary… My classmates–my black classmates from the neighbourhood especially–would tell me, “You’re so smart. You’re going to get out of here.” Out of here? Out of here? What was here?
I hated that label, “smart,” because I quickly realized how incorrect it was. I had had the good fortune of a day-time stay-at-home dad who made early education in literacy and numeracy a top priority. That was an external factor most of the kids I played with did not have–but boy howdy, were they ever “smart” in other ways. Why didn’t anyone see that? Why didn’t they get told that they were “smart,” too?
I volunteered one year in a summer-school programme for kids behind in their studies, and there I helped black Canadians in grades 3 and 4 who could not yet read. Couldn’t read?! At 8 or 9? I was stunned to learn that they’d just been passed along, without proper resources, without support. That’s when I realized, too, how privileged and unjust the entire gifted system was: a system of further advantages given to children who already had the advantage of parents who could (and did) loudly advocate for them.
Precocious twit that I still was, I came up with a better scheme for the school system: an enrichment class added on to the end of the day, which any child could attend who wanted to extend their learning; and a system of increased mixed-grade classes so that advanced learners could develop added skills by learning how to tutor others in the class.
(Precious cynical twit that I was also becoming, I also quickly realized why that system would never come to pass: too many parents who believe that their child is special and deserving of better treatment; and not enough state funding for the staff needed for such an afterschool programme. This was my early education, too, into a mentality we often see with liberal white parents creating new sites for segregation in U.S. schools: claiming to want racial equality but also getting nervous about their own children going to schools in “difficult” milieus. Racial equality requires a willingness to work to raise up a whole educational paradigm, and to trust that the lessons your child learns from seeing you make communal betterment a priority will be the best education of them all.)
A Turning Point for Personal Storytelling
When I started high school, I also started volunteer-tutoring a girl in my neighbourhood, Latoya. It was in her household that I learned proper patois (and as I was in high school two years ahead of Drake–yes, literally, Drake, fellow Vaughan Road Academy student, in a region with strong West Indies, Tamil, and Somali presence to one side, Jewish to another–I should also clear up a local myth about the impact of his celebrity: I promise you, patois was locally understood before he became famous; we even had notorious plays for Black History Month, wherein the white teachers had no idea what was being said so the school would howl with laughter at all the swears slipped in).
It was in Latoya’s presence, too, though, that I realized some hard limits to my experiences, and the limits of the stories I was trying to tell about our shared world.
After all, I had always known better than to say “I have a black step-grandmother, uncle, and aunt,” as if merely belonging to a blended family gave me any damned justification for whatever entitlement I enacted in a white-normative culture. If and when I screwed up, I screwed up as an individual, and there was no cause to bring other individuals into play as some sort of buffer from the social consequences of my screw-up.
As an atheist, too, I had also never been quite sure how to respond to the strong Anglicanism among black family members; to me, religion was something other white people had brutally forced upon regions rich with distinct cultural and religious traditions. Wasn’t Christianity a tool of oppression, even if it had also been reclaimed as a comfort and a salve in ever so many communities caught up in slavery and related forms of dehumanization? So, I gave their spirituality a wide, if confused berth.
But still, much as I thought I had a lock on what stories I could and could not tell, Latoya gave me a tremendous shock one day. She was a reluctant reader at eight, so I brought her a book one day that I had loved very much at eight. It was the story of Harriet Tubman, who had been very much a hero to me when I was her age (along with Joan of Arc; thankfully I went as Joan, not Harriet, for a school presentation in grade four… because I’m not sure if my parents would’ve been savvy enough to keep me from doing the unconscionable if I’d said I’d wanted to go as Harriet instead!). But when I gave her the book, Latoya gave me a blank face. She didn’t know who Harriet Tubman was.
And in that moment I felt the world shift a little–just as it had at seven, when seeing that glint of a Star of David around my grade-three teacher’s neck when I had proposed putting white and black stars on different halves of our class. In that moment, I felt my subject position, and I felt the way it changed the act of storytelling.
A story wasn’t just a story.
It was also who told it, and to whom.
And who the hell was I to be the first to tell Latoya about slavery, about what people who looked like me had done to people who looked like her in the past? Also–she was a West Indies child, her family part of a mass migration in the 1950s-70s to Canada. Did I even have the historical chops to tell the story properly, with all the nuance that white racism in the West Indies required?
(Reader, I did not. I hardly understood that there was a nuanced political history to Bob Marley, I hadn’t yet learned about British depravity in Jamaica in the 19th century, and I had no idea about the specific African origins of persons from Trinidad and Tobago, even though with my extended family’s make-up I should have.)
I knew enough, then, to know that I didn’t know enough. And I spent many years on extremely wobbly ground because of that.
The Consequences of Divided Cultural Narratives
In Toronto, I was surrounded in my formative years by people from different backgrounds, different contexts. But even in that rich multicultural landscape, some very weird coding abided. For instance, if I read Greco-Roman mythology, that was… just mythology. But if I read Anansi stories (as I did around the same time), that was “ethnic.” In later years, the term would soften to “diverse.”
Likewise, as I noted above, I was the person my neighbourhood friends expected to “get out” while they got pregnant young and became hair dressers and nail technicians (not bad work unto itself! just, also the only things that many thought they were capable of). Latoya was a perfect example of this, because she confided in me all the horrible things her teacher told her–that she was slow, and stupid, and not likely to achieve much. I was furious to hear this, but her mum worked two jobs while raising two children solo. Who was going to advocate for her? How much more pain would I add to her overburdened mother if I told her that her child was being bullied by her teacher?
I was only 13 to 14 myself, and struggling with a lot of pain in my own home at the time. I could have dug into that pain; I could have told myself that the pain I was experiencing was equivalent: that life was just tough all around and everyone just needed to suck it up as best they could without “bringing” other factors into the hardships they faced.
But no. I am so fortunate that I had learned somehow, somewhere, from some incredibly kind people in my life, that I had a choice to entrench myself in my pain, my hardship… or to deepen my empathy. And so I knew, when I heard stories like Latoya’s, that as hard as my life was for other reasons, I was nevertheless struggling in a system still designed to favour the success of people like me in general. I knew that the gifted system and people calling me “smart” because of an external advantage existed alongside this bullshit.
How on Earth could such a system ever be just for all?
Even with these early examples in a divided approach to community narrative, though, I was still blown away when I moved from Toronto’s overt multiculturalism to Kitchener-Waterloo for university. KW is a region with third- or fourth-highest “diverse” population in Canada (depending on how you measure multiculturalism!) that nevertheless often sidelined BIPOC communities from a clear white “core” in local narratives. Oh, sure, there were ethnic “events” and “restaurants,” but little in the way of centres of non-anglo-Canadian activity noted in the media and dominant culture.
Likewise, in the university itself, my skin colour leapt out in ways I found as surprising as my atheism. In Toronto, being secular hadn’t been a problem; in my residence, among people from quite a few rural communities, I’d routinely hear Evangelical discussions that centred me as “The Atheist.” At the same time, I was also having baffling encounters with white people who assumed that because I was white I came from a mainly white community, too, and so felt comfortable being incredibly racist around me.
At last, “zero culture”-me had found their “people”! And many of them were… not great about their prejudices. And even worse about handling criticism of them.
(Relatedly: In dorm, I also met multiple persons from India who loudly declared that they “hated” brown people, a “dirty” people, and I was so stunned by these first encounters with that form of internalized racism that I hardly knew what to do or say. Was I supposed to call out an Indian for being racist against Indians? Huge learning curve!)
The Lie of “Diversity” in Western Discourse
Here, then, is the lie that I swam in while living in white-normative Western communities: namely, that a just world is attainable so long as we “let” diversity into our narratives. If we teach Black History one month every year. If we read widely. If we resist homogeneity in our workplaces and schools.
The tribalism yet remains, though, doesn’t it? I had a fairly “diverse” childhood “for a white person”… and I still kept running into moments when I could feel that talking about different backgrounds and living histories wasn’t enough. Places where “being informed” and “seeking knowledge of other lives” didn’t change the underlying power structure.
Here in Colombia, I’m part of a new social contract, and I can feel that different social contract when I share in cultural narratives. Colombia is a place in which race is a far more overt part of society: where people identify people as “oi, mona! monera! negra!” on the street like it’s nothing, and many cheerfully call themselves “genetic mutts” because of the mixed ancestry for most people going back centuries. And there is still tribalism, of course–plenty in Medellín, for instance, who see Venezuelans as a scary monolith the same way that Syrian refugees in Canada and Central American refugees in the U.S. are treated as “faceless brown [criminal] masses” by some.
But when I walk the streets here as a gendered-female white person, and someone harasses me… I don’t feel scared for them the way I used to when a black man would harass me in Toronto, where the police were always far more likely to intervene than if a white man harassed me, and where black men face far more violent ends in consequence of police intervention. Can you imagine how strange that is, to be both victimized and also fully aware that a greater victimization, a greater punishment than is due for any given transgression, could easily also transpire around the site of your body?
Likewise, when tears spring to my eyes here because I know I’m being mocked for my Spanish accent–when I get frustrated, that is, over some people’s automatic assumptions that I’m a tourist, an oddity, an exotic object, a simpleton, or otherwise easy prey–I feel a deepened appreciation for the struggles faced by ELL immigrants in Canada.
And a powerful awareness of how language is used to gatekeep and divide us, as much as in any blue-eyes/brown-eyes experiment of old.
Yes, humility–because after those situations have ended, when I have a chance to review what happened and how I responded, I always remember that when feel objectified here, it’s still partly by choice. It hurts, sure! It’s awful, yes! But I chose the hardships attendant with long-term integration in another cultural and language context. That makes my experience of momentary powerlessness very different from that experienced by those forcibly displaced by war, violence, environmental catastrophe, and persecution. Even when I suffer, I suffer within the parameters of a highly divided socio-political tale.
In consequence, my patience with this term, “diversity,” is rapidly dwindling. It’s still so common in literary and political discourse, though. It’s the water in which so many of us swim–and often, with the best of intentions, too! But Toronto is now a city with more first-generation immigrants than native-soil Canadians, so why can’t it escape the rhetorical divide between “white” and “diverse” storytelling? And in Kitchener-Waterloo, where so many BIPOC communities exist with strong internal centres, why does the overarching cultural narrative still so strongly favour white cultural happenstance?
I’m still in process here, as just another white atheist in Colombia.
I still have so much to learn. So many questions I’ve only just started to ask.
But I can tell you this much for sure–fellow white readers especially:
There are other ways to hold power in the stories we tell. And these alternatives will become clearer once you’ve take stock of all the ways in which you currently hold power–in stories about yourselves, about others in your communities, and about the histories of the communities themselves.
Yes, life is hard enough for most of us; we each have our private stores of grief and strife, and hurdles that daily affect how we move through the world. So, yes, it’s a lot to ask to add so much self-reflection to the mix. But being humanist requires that we recognize all the ways that tribalism divides and diminishes us. Religion is often one such tool of division, absolutely… but not always, and not only.
Rather, our greatest struggle, as humanists of all spots and stripes, lies in our ability to keep learning: to keep availing ourselves to new data points (from all corners of the world, as well as all the worlds in our local neighbourhoods), and from those new data points, to keep expanding the reach of our empathy for the struggles of all humankind.
To that end, dear fellow global citizens, both near and far:
Happiest of Sundays and Black History Months–but above all else, happiest of shared time-and-space on this, our pale blue dot.