When I was three years old, my best friend in daycare was a kid named Carl. Carl and I did everything together – we shared toys, collaborated on macaroni art projects and ate lunch side by side, every single day. It wasn’t until later that Carl’s skin colour became something that seemed to matter, something people actually paid attention to. Carl is black, but when I was three, he was just Carl.
Jesse Lipscombe, the recipient of shocking and repulsive racial slurs caught on video last week, is also a friend of mine. But up until last week, he was just Jesse to me.
When something so shocking happens (and it happens far too often) but when it gets captured on Hi Def, it can cause tensions to flare and the conversation to turn emotional and adversarial almost immediately. However, thanks to Jesse’s grace and leadership (well documented here by Macleans), we now understand a little bit more about what it means to be black, and to be black in Edmonton.
There is no doubt that this is an awkward conversation for all of us. We have a conception of Canada (and Edmonton) as a deeply caring and wonderfully inclusive place, one founded upon multicultural values and traditions. And that’s a fine preconception if you’re like me – a white guy. However, being a part of the dominant cultural group has its privileges, and being part of the excluded group has its price.
That’s why I work toward inclusion — toward building a city for the uplifting of all people (to borrow from the University of Alberta’s raison d’être). Building economic inclusion is a goal the End Poverty Edmonton started with, but as we consulted with experts and community leaders and Edmontonians living in poverty, we were reminded of the ugly truth that economic marginalization is all too often a consequence of other forms of discrimination. Looking for a job, finding a place to live, feeling at home in a city – all of these outcomes are impacted by your appearance.
Data from a 2012 study we conducted with the University of Alberta showed that among immigrants, the more recently you arrived, the stronger your accent, and the darker your skin, the greater was your experience of racism. It also showed that indigenous community members experience racism on an even deeper level, including, sadly, lateral discrimination from some newcomer communities.
Not surprisingly then, we see an overrepresentation of immigrants and refugees in our poverty figures. Even more troubling, poverty rates among Indigenous families are double the general population.
Our founding story is only lately coming to be revised in order to recognize the strength of Indigenous cultures that preceded colonization, the welcoming and largely peaceful collaboration as colonizers arrived, and the bond we made through our treaties. We’re also reconciling our dark legacy of assimilation and the trauma of Indian Residential Schools* that has cut a horrifying swath through generations of families in our country.
In other words, the inclusive Canada we like to celebrate doesn’t exist yet. There is too much evidence to the contrary, from Bashir Mohammed’s experience earlier this summer, to the Boushie shooting and its disapointing aftermath in Saskatchewan. I need to believe things are getting better over time, but I am concerned that xenophobic divisive political rhetoric in the States may be enabling more of this. Either way, I firmly believe we have further to go than most Canadians would like to think.
Thankfully, we have people like Jesse to help move us along.
Jesse and I are both fathers of primary school kids and our families are mixed. So when we spoke the day after he’d posted the video of the incident, our minds both turned to engaging youth in making change. Partly so our kids can grow up in a city and country with less and less of this nonsense, but chiefly because children tend to have absolute moral clarity about these issues. They know what’s right, and what’s wrong.
For kids, other human beings are just human beings. Curiosity (even confusion) over difference is natural, but the clench of hate, mistrust, bigotry — all that is learned from somewhere. It is passed down from influencers and elders and soaked up from systemic manifestations, overt and subtle. I also believe this applies to gender roles, to sexual identity, ‘ableism’ as experienced by persons with disabilities, and any and all other forms of discrimination from Islamophobia to Transphobia. It is learned behaviour. It is not innate in our kids.
I think #makeitawkward was appealing to so many in its first few days because it gave us an easy way to start thinking about breaking racism at its source. We can’t lose the momentum we’ve built, or waste the conversation we’ve unleashed. Jesse and I and many people who’ve volunteered to help have been working all week to plan the next phase of the campaign. Over the next few weeks we will be rolling out a plan to extend the campaign into a larger space and to include even more people, and especially more kids.
We don’t need millions of dollars to do this work, we just need to put our hearts and minds to the challenge. That’s why I will be ever grateful to Jesse and Julia Lipscombe for the simple notion of #MakeItAwkward, for igniting a conversation this country needs to have, from the dinner table to the locker room to the camp fire to any old downtown street.
*For more information on treaty obligations, I recommend Alanis Obomsawin’s ‘Trick or Treaty’ available free from the National Film Board; for more on historical trauma and residential schooling, the truth of what occurred and its inter generational effects has been well documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.