This week I’ve seen lots of white allies publicly declaring their solidarity with people of colour on social media. I was nominated on Twitter to do this. I could spend 10 seconds cutting and pasting a tweet, add “hashtag Istandwith[…]” and then nominate some other white folks. It would not put me out much. But if I want to show my solidarity with Black people in the U.S. and elsewhere, and my opposition to structural racism, it’s important that my actions don’t begin and end there. Anti-racism is not a feeling or a political leaning; it’s not a brand or a tweet or an Instagram post. For white people to be true allies I believe we need to hashtag less, listen more to what BIPOC are saying about their experience, do more and talk about it less, and be willing to just sit with a whole lot more discomfort. White people tend to want to feel good about ourselves while we say we’re anti-racist. What we need to get better at is feeling uncomfortable.
I was born and raised in apartheid South Africa in the 70s and 80s, so racism is ingrained in me and it would be pointless to deny it. My frontal lobe developed in that racist medium and white privilege has been my lifelong experience. Which means that for me to be anti-racist requires daily awareness and commitment to challenging automatic reactions and thoughts.
I was 19 the first time I voted – in a referendum that asked those eligible to vote (white adults) whether apartheid should end or not, yes or no. I’d been to a segregated school with all white kids but at university I learned alongside people of all races and had new Black, Indian and Coloured friends (that’s how apartheid categorized racial groups). My Black friends’ futures depended on the will of a minority white electorate and I was all ready to be a white saviour. I voted yes in the referendum and the Yes campaign won, which made me feel virtuous. One of my Indian friends challenged me: “You expect us to see you as our hero?” she said, “It’s going to take more than voting in a referendum…” People of colour were not so naive as to think things would change overnight. At 21 I waited in line for hours to vote (euphorically) in South Africa’s first proper democratic national election that brought Mandela to the Presidency. But quickly I learned the work was not ‘done’. As a medical student and junior doctor working in Johannesburg’s public hospitals I could see this very clearly. You cannot end centuries of racist society simply by giving everyone a vote. In the late ’90s, as I watched the developments of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I began to understand the importance of oppressors listening to the experiences and pain of people long oppressed and feeling discomfort. It’s too easy to think, “I didn’t do the oppressing,” and want to just move on, until you hear and read the stories and understand that your white experience made the oppressed person’s experience possible.
Since the early 2000s I’ve lived in other countries that don’t have explicit ‘named’ government policies of racial segregation and subjugation but do have structural racism and prevalent ‘us vs. them’ thinking. It’s almost harder to tackle when racism is not overt government policy because people often just deny that racism exists, say “I’m not a racist,” and look away while they continue to benefit from a system that oppresses others.
Racism is a social construct that I and many other people who think of ourselves as ‘good’ people help to perpetuate every day by accepting the status quo and by not doing enough to break it down.
Of course my white guilt is not going to help fix our racist society, but I can do something more than virtue-signalling my white allyship on social media.
I can listen to what people of colour are saying about their experiences, learn something and feel uncomfortable, I can not hide from the discomfort. If others have lived under oppression for their whole lives, I can damn well sit with discomfort and guilt and become willing to act, to deliberately challenge the status quo the way I would if it were my own kids’ health and wellbeing that was being undermined by it.
I need to ask myself every day what actions I am taking to bring change to a system that privileges white people over others. Am I asking why the company I work for doesn’t have an explicit anti-racism and reconciliation strategy? Am I pointing out the lack of diversity in my workplace and asking what we are going to DO about it? Am I making doing something about it my responsibility?
In my role as a medical editor, am I actively working to ensure that the CMAJ includes, promotes and publishes the voices of people of colour and Indigenous people? Am I willing to do this even when we receive letters from Canadian physician readers saying that the CMAJ has become ‘too political’?
Am I prepared to listen respectfully to feedback from people of colour especially when they challenge me on what I am doing, tell me I’ve got it wrong or say I am not doing enough? Am I willing to lean in to the discomfort that criticism brings, confront my bias anew and change the way I think?
Am I taking every opportunity I get to point out white privilege to my white children and teaching them how they might dismantle it?
I can say with confidence that I have not done enough, that there is more work to be done and I need to do it.
Someone once pointed out to me that there is a difference between looking good and living, and that we spend far too much time engaging in the former rather than the latter – to our own and society’s detriment. If you’re white and you really are committed to ending structural racism, then I must tell you that ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ is not the action that will do it; find out what will actually make a difference and start living it.
I appreciate this article for a number of reasons but the most important is the call that we are all racist – the nuances in how that was ingrained does vary a bit depending on where you are from but it is there. And a brief comment to Gordon Friesen – people from South Africa actually came to Canada to learn about the residential schools system which helped them develop apartheid. So maybe we aren’t as different as you might think.
This thread began with a post claiming that virtue-signalling, alone is not sufficient to effect change, and therefore nothing of which to be proud. I agree with that position. I hate hypocrisy as much as the next man.
However, the author goes on to belittle herself with regards to the historic vote in her country which finally endowed all citizens with the franchise, and all which that franchise eventually entails. In this case, I believe she is treating herself much too harshly. To explain why, however, requires the mention of a couple of tangential issues which I will try to compress as much as I can..
To begin with, Terri-Leigh claims that “we are all racist”. I would rather condense that to say that we are all human. And as humans we have built in social reflexes of territoriality and tribalism. That is a given. Now I have a very old book called not simply “Racism”, but “White Racism”, as though this flavor were something different and special. However, I believe that such reasoning is spurious. Obviously different circumstances produce significantly differing variations on the human theme. However, I have no data whatsoever to suggest that “whites” have treated their fellow man, overall, any more badly than any other group has. And quite the contrary as concerns the last two or three hundred years.
I believe that some might dispute that in detail, but in the aggregate, I think not. (And if anyone thinks they can : Have at it, by all means !)
So now, returning to the South African vote, our author, and indeed a true majority of her white contemporaries, voluntarily renounced political control of that country. In doing so, they followed their best moral compass, although future events were by no means certain. They had no way of assuming that their own desire for fairness and harmony would be met by similar feelings in those they were enfranchising. On the contrary, a glimpse into their own hearts and that of their compeers necessarily exposed (as all of our hearts do) the baser human attributes of which I have already spoken. In other words, the white majority at that time had no way of guessing whether their offer of equality would be met with a positive will in return, or, as has been witnessed in many other situations, by a mere reversal of roles and injustice.
This I maintain was a truly heroic and entirely untypical thing to do. And while simple legal equality is not everything, it is by no means trivial. With the demographic proportions of South Africa, there was no doubt that the ruling group was ceding effective control to an ethnically and culturally different population. And that, once again is totally extraordinary. As far as I know, one can search in vain to find similar examples in human history, and if, by miracle, one were to be found, the rarity of such would become evident from the search.
Therefore, I think it is irrelevant what further exploration into the dark recesses of the psyche of that particular group of humans might reveal. Believe me, no other population, can sustain that examination any better than Brit or Boer colonialists. And irrelevant, also, is how they might have felt, on a deeper level, towards their African counterparts.
Imagine for the sake of argument, and in the interests of fully confronting the worst case, that these white South Africans actually despised and hated black Africans (which is not, I think, the truth). In that case, it is all the more praiseworthy that they should have been able to master their worst evolutionary tendencies in order to follow the moral and ethical ideals which had led them to the conclusion that fairness and equality of all human kind is a goal which justifies any risk. Therefore, no matter how prejudiced one might be against other groups of fellow humans, the willingness to “walk the walk” in accepting the legal equality of all, remains a heroic stand, and one of which all who partake should be proud.
There is only one argument which might seem to invalidate the above reasoning, and that is the notion that black South African power was somehow inevitable. This might seem to be a powerful argument indeed. However, I would submit that it provides no reason for the dominant group to have surrendered willingly. The examples of Mongols in China, and the Norman lords of Saxon England come to mind. But much closer in time and knowledge is the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, who is demonstrating, even as we speak, that power can indeed be held with an iron hand before all odds, if one has the will and the means and the wickedness to employ it.
I do not pretend that this is ultimately a winning strategy. I simply repeat that in human affairs to contend is typical. To renounce contention in the name of higher human purpose, is extraordinary. The leap of faith is real. And until one is put to the test, one does not know if one will pass.
Above all, those who have passed this test, even if they do not feel any easier about their other-tribe neighbors, still deserve to feel good about their own intentions.
As far as I can discern, it was enough, and more than enough, to cast that vote. And we can only pray that future events will validate the faith expressed therein.
Gordon Friesen, Montreal
Reading your response I believe the best thing I can do is refer you to this organization: https://www.lifeafterhate.org/about-us-page
Best of luck to you.
Thank-you for the link to “life-after-hate”. Unfortunately, I am incapable of replying to you in kind, because there is no ideological “mothership” that aligns uniformly with my positions. At my somewhat senior stage of life, I have finally acceded to a “user defined” political stance. I no longer just pick a “side” and then conform myself to its’ contextual and tactical contortions. I take things one issue at a time.
Of course, there are binary choices, from time to time, at the ballot box. And at the present time, the left-wing side has made themselves impossible for me to support, due to what I consider more or less insane policies on basic Canadian energy and economic issues. But that would be fodder for another day’s discussion.
In any case, the main point is this : People often repeat the truism that resolving racial issues will require serious, sincere, and frank conversations. Well, I am here. No links. All personal content. At the very least my points will be expressed in my own words.
I have always found that the best check on myself and on others, concerning the reality and depth of commitment to ideas, is the requirement that one be willing and able to cogently make a case for what one purports to believe in.
Simply put : the exchange of cult links can provide no replacement for dialogue.
Thank you for your letter. I agree, and can only speak for myself, as a Caucasian. The idea that I was born into a degree of privilege simply by virtue of the colour of my skin is not something that I was really aware of. I was born and raised and continue to live in a rural part of Ontario that the majority of residents are white. I had coloured friends as a child, but I was not conscious that the opportunities that I could have were not the same as theirs.
I think we do need to become cognizant of the privilege that we are afforded and acknowledge that and until we do there can be no equality. You cannot solve a problem until you recognize that there is one.
If any Canadian would presume to deny that there is racism in Canada please ask an indigenous person or drive through a reservation.
Thank you for enlightening me. I think we, the white minority, could use some humility and learn to it with our discomfort.
I am in total agreement with all that Kirsten has written. I certainly have not had the experience that she has had through her upbringing in South Africa, as I am white Canadian born and raised in a city with quite few persons of colour. However, at various and probably too few times in my life, I have wondered about my attitudes toward race and tried briefly to think about how I am biased. Recently I recalled the song from South Pacific “You have to be carefully taught” and thought that, without some effort to teach truly the fact that we are all of one species and therefore should have the same basic rights to survival and opportunity, we will never solve this racial situation. Certainly simply adjusting a system (e.g. policing) has been tried and not successfully accomplished. Somehow experience of this sameness has to be included for us to make progress toward “race” as an issue.
Normally, I do not like to offer personal advice. However in this case, I think I might usefully make an exception.
As a white doctor growing up in South Africa, you will have gained what I must imagine is a priceless and inimitable experience and skill set.
However, it is not perfectly portable, in the sense that the Canadian experience is not the South African experience. After all, white people are not all the same just because they are white, and black people are not all the same just because they are black (and still less for “colored people” because they are all “colored”). Quite obviously, the colored people of Canada have come from all over the world, possessing extremely varied cultural attributes. And so have the whites.
In a word : the situation of cultural and social diversity in Canada has no counterpart in any African country, or European country, or Middle Eastern country, or any other place on earth. And that is a simple fact.
Plus which, there is also a specific Canadian culture which one must consider in order to deal with the majority already living here, for the last centuries, whether they be white or aboriginal, Asian, or other.
It is not that obvious on the surface, but we do have a shared cultural space which is specific to us. And we are attempting to develop that space in a non-racial, legally egalitarian fashion. It is not an easy thing to do. As far as I am aware it has never been done before. There simply is no blue print. In fact, what we ask, above all, is that all immigrants check their prejudices (and their sacred “struggles”) at the door.
It is definitely not helpful to import stereotypes and paradigms from other lands. To be blunt, we have very little to learn from someone such as yourself, on the extremely important subject of cultural interaction. Because, unfortunately, the South African situation cannot be used to inform our experience. Our whites are not your whites. Our blacks are not your blacks. In fact the true depth of racism is to believe that people are in some way different just because of their color. They are not.
Therefore please forgive me if I might sound patronizing. I fully understand why you would wish to immigrate to Canada. I also am a trans-cultural ex-pat, because I made a move as culturally significant as your own (from Africa to North America) when I moved from Winnipeg to Montreal fifty years ago. Indeed, I fully understand the pleasure of movement across cultures. In addition, for you, I can easily understand that life is much less dangerous and much more prosperous in Canada than In Africa.
However on a collective and non-individual level, it is worthwhile pointing out that South Africa is in much greater need of doctors, than Canada. As a matter of fact, in the post-apartheid world, Canada very aggressively vacuumed up a large share of the white doctors, from your country. Many Canadian and American and European (that is primarily white) doctors have felt personally touched by the medical discrepancy between our continents and have elected to do at least some work “over there”. But in your case, you have not only the skill set, but a built-in sensitivity to conditions on the ground that no one else could match. Without doubt, your contribution to the flowering of your country of origin would be truly remarkable.
Therefore, rather than try to engage you on the very difficult terrain of exactly why I believe you are out of your depth in counselling Canadians about racial matters, I would rather point out, in all respect, that the expertise that you will spend the rest of your lifetime imperfectly assimilating here, you already possess in superlative measure, over there.
Gordon Friesen, Montreal