This was going to be another post about my life between France and Switzerland, and the latest developments in our new home search. But then things in the world went sour and I just don’t have the heart for it right now. To talk about such things as the world explodes with injustice seems a little, well, tone-deaf.
For most of my life I rejected the idea of privilege. Even as a kid, I remember being told I was fortunate. To think of all the starving children in Africa when I wouldn’t, couldn’t finish what was on my plate. To be grateful for having two parents, a stay-at-home mom and a father who left for work each morning carrying a briefcase. For being able of body and sound of mind.
I rejected outright the guilt that came from this accident of birth, which struck me as entirely unfair. I hadn’t asked for any of it. To be born in Canada to parents who had enough to feed us and have a nice home. Appearances can be deceiving, I would say. My so-called lucky white middle-class family struggled in different ways. Besides, there were so many other people who had so much more.
I never accepted being identified by my race, gender or whatever other labels people threw at me. Catholic. Blonde. North American. Single or married. You don’t know me, who I am or what I think, I raged, whenever I felt seen through such filters. Don’t judge me by your standards!
In return, I did my best to do the same, to see the person before the skin. No racist or gender stereotypes for me. Which was, of course, delusional.
The first time I heard the words ‘Black lives matter’, my reaction was true to form: “What? Why only Black lives? All lives matter!”
Many years ago, I lived in a well-to-do suburb and a bastion of white privilege outside Minneapolis. In Edina, people of colour were rare birds indeed. But in the twin cities (Minneapolis-St.Paul) the racial divide was extremely evident. You could draw a line between the rich and poor, white and black parts of town.
Coming from Toronto, a city that defines itself on diversity and what we then called the ‘cultural mosaic’ (as compared to the American ‘melting pot’), the reality of segregation, of outright racism, was shocking. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know what to do about it. They were formative years for me, in my early to mid-teens, and a time of huge social unrest in the US. I remember the Kent State shootings as the first time my eyes were opened to the terrifying power of the state and how it could be turned on its citizens.
Now I see ‘Black Lives Matter’ differently. All lives can’t matter until Black lives do. White privilege is real. Acknowledging these truths doesn’t make us any less valuable as human beings. On the contrary.
I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened. It has certainly been gradual. Perhaps my eyes started to open while watching a Netflix series called ‘Dear White People’ that portrays a group of black students at an elite, mostly white university. Recent events in the US, culminating in last week’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, made me realize that the issue of race, which I had naïvely assumed to be a thing of the past, is still very real.
And not just in the US.
In Paris yesterday, demonstrations turned violent when 20,000 people gathered to protest against racism and police violence.
“Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016.”
Racism is different here in France, but it is still racism.
Inégalité — inequality — is real. So are poverty and hunger, as the long lines for aid from our food banks attest.
It’s okay to feel guilty. It’s okay to feel outrage. It’s not okay to act like it is normal or acceptable.
How are you feeling?
Indeed. It’s on the other hand hard to know what to do on a personal level. We live in an area where a non-white face is unusual. So what is happening in America, in France, in the UK – almost everywhere – isn’t around as an ever-present inevitability, and outrage almost feels like virtue-signalling. What usefully to do with that outrage is the question for me.
I completely agree. Hesitated for those reasons before posting. I don’t feel directly concerned enough to have a right to comment. On the other hand, I know there are people who don’t get it and I figured my perspective could only help! What to do with the outrage seems to be a recurring theme though.
What the protests are highlighting in the United States is resonating in Australia, too. And in many, many other countries. It is, as you say, totally unacceptable. I confess I feel lost…
Really interesting that this is resonating around the world. While the US example seems to be the most flagrant, clearly every country shares the problem of historical ad institutional racism. Canada included.
See SOS RACISME in France google it. Its all over even in Spain! The US never change, Wil Smith said it best, the problems were always there now simply we filmed them! All lives matters!
Thanks, Pedmar! If filming this reality can help spark change, then that’s a good thing. Hard as those images are to watch, we need to be shocked into doing something.
That is why so much news media because somebody filmed it otherwise again unnoticed sad but true.
I am deeply troubled by what’s happening in the US. I wonder if the human race can ever get over racism or whether it’s inherent in our DNA? Where I grew up in rural Bavaria, the only colour was white, but there was a kind of racism directed at people who where from northern Germany or from Austria. Here in France it’s similar, people from the next village are ‘etranger’, never mind if they have the same skin colour. And don’t get the locals started about Parisians! So when colour comes into it the whole thing gets worse.
We’ll need to make a superhuman effort not to be judgemental, because discrimination is always unjust and hurtful!!
You’ve touched on the crux of the matter. In a sense it is inherent. We know the brain interprets information in patterns, much like a computer. Instead of ones and zeroes (or perhaps alongside) the brain forms groupings of similar and dissimilar. Familiar is safe, unfamiliar is dangerous. Mariano Sigman who’s a brilliant neuroscientist has written extensively on the practical effects this has on humans. In one of his studies he was able to demonstrate that the more similar characteristics a criminal defendant had to a judge (ethnicity, age, weight, background) the more likely it was he would get a lenient sentence.
Othering may be part of the way the brain works, but if that is the case then the way to get around this /flaw/ is to reduce as many aspects of difference as possible. By that I mean social, economic, and legal difference. No one can change skin colour, but perhaps one day we’ll all be a lovely shade of cafe au lait, and it won’t matter.
Your comment made me wonder: are racism and xenophobia the same? Either way it’s discrimination but Merriam Webster seems to be getting a lot of requests on this topic. They had an interesting answer: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/xenophobia-and-racism-difference
Very interesting thought!! And interesting answer on Merriam Webster!
This is a very big topic and like margaret21 don’t really know what to do on a personal level except treat everyone the same way without thinking about colours or origins.
The current pandemic isn’t helping getting people to see their neighbours in positive ways; people are getting afraid of everyone they don’t know for fear of catching the virus. I see a lot of fears building up and I am concerned that it will exacerbate the current tone of racism. People seem to react more strongly these days to people who are different.
Being black is on a different level and I can even fathom what their life is like being white and privileged. I do think that the first step is for everyone to admit the problem exists. In Canada, there are too many people including our leaders who denies it is even happening but we have to be able to face the situation and address our failings. The situation won’t improve until everyone admit that there are bias in all we do and put solutions in place to diminish the impact of those bias. (Suzanne)
You are right about the pandemic playing into our fears of outsiders. What’s ironic is that black-skinned people are more at risk with Covid, not because they catch it more often or are more contagious but because they tend to get more severe cases. So if anyone should be afraid, it is Blacks not Whites! Like you I am not sure how we can address this problem at a global level but it is certainly an example of where we need leadership to unite all over the world to join together. Or maybe we as individuals need to address it somehow. A huge opportunity for a brave humanitarian to lead the way.
It’s been a week of shame in the US, painful to confront. I so appreciate your perspective. I poured my thoughts into this response: https://bbreaden.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/what-have-we-learned-what-have-we-forgotten/
Thank you! I am glad to provide what little perspective I can on this terrible drama. Having read your post, I wonder if you might like this podcast from Michael Moore. I listened to half of it yesterday (it’s long, almost an hour) and he brought the whole story of race in the US to life for me in a way that I found incredibly moving. https://radiopublic.com/rumble-with-michael-moore-6p2vzJ/s1!146d8 (Episode 85).
Hello, I have never written but it is not because I don’t enjoy each and every one of your posts. You often bring me great enjoyment. The pandemic has been so poorly managed and now the racial murders and disparities being brought into full broad examination has indeed made the past many weeks a frightening and disheartening time. I fear for our democracy and have a deeper level of despair and sadness and grief than usual. I am so pleased to see young people of all stripes out to protest….now they MUST vote. I am grateful so many military leaders are speaking out about the poor leadership and the dangerous policies that are being promoted by our president and I so hope that we can even survive another 7 months of what has been wreaked upon our federal government and that there is a peaceful transfer of power. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and brave post.
Hi Nancy, welcome and thanks for your words of support! I understand your fear, even if far from the US, as I sense that the explosive situation you are living through could so easily tip over into civil war. I feel so badly for all of the good people in your country, some of whom are my friends, who want nothing but fairness and equality for all. Bon courage!
This: ‘All lives can’t matter until Black lives do.’ Yes, yes, yes.
I can’t take credit. But it totally crystallized the situation for me! 😌
Yes. For me too.
Well said. I’m exhausted by people who can’t see how deep this problem lies
I hear you. To be honest, I am not exposed to those views in my immediate entourage but I do see them echoed online. The upside of the social media onslaught is, in at least some cases, a better appreciation of other views.