Racism. Alas, My Racism.
Part 1 of an Ongoing Conversation.
Sometimes, you have to write about difficult things.
This is one of those times.
I have been asking myself what role I play – as a white person – in the systemic racism that keeps manifesting itself in Canada and other countries. Am I complicit in the racism that Indigenous people, Black people, and other People of Colour experience simply because I’m white?
I have been listening, reading, thinking and weeping about this question.
And my answer is: Yes, I am complicit. Appallingly and remorsefully, I am complicit. Which means I am a racist. A polite, well intentioned racist, but a racist nonetheless. By default.
It is now time to write about racism – my racism. This essay is the beginning of the beginning of that conversation.
These thoughts – these untidy, confusing, shameful thoughts – are wholly my own, and I am speaking only for myself. Some may think I am virtue signalling. Please believe I am trying hard to avoid doing that. I am just trying to understand.
If you do not agree with what I am saying, especially if you identify as white, please take your disagreement elsewhere for now. I hope, however, that you will return to my words at some point and reconsider them.
If you do agree with what I am saying, please let my words live in your heart for a time. Combine them with your own wisdom and see what takes root.
First things first: I was born white. And I was born into a predominantly white rural Ontario community. As the cliché goes, “To the fish, the water is invisible.” I was not aware that I was white. When I made decisions, I did not have to consider my race. I did not fear being followed by a store clerk when I shopped. I did not fear being stopped by a police officer. I did not fear having other people assume I was doing something illegal. And when I saw ‘Flesh-Coloured Band Aids’ in our home, I did not think twice about the fact that the colour of those band aids matched my skin colour... because white was the norm. And I was white. Therefore, I was the norm.
I now know that everything in that last paragraph adds up to white privilege. Invisible White privilege.
As a result, I simply did not think about being white during my childhood. Photographs in The National Geographic showed me that far, far away, there were people who looked different from me. But these National Geographic people were exotic exceptions who had nothing in common with me or the other people in my community.
Because everyone in my community was white.
Except, of course, for the Hill family, the Indians (the term we used then) who lived in the tenant house on our farm. I did not understand why they lived there. But I did understand – without being told – that I was not to visit them. Of course, I did visit them because I liked the Hills, and I liked playing with their daughter, Betty. They were nice people who did not seem that much different from me...except that my clothes were cleaner than theirs. And their house smelled – the smell of poverty, I now realize. I do not recall my parents ever saying anything negative about the Hills, but I knew that there was a line – my family and I stayed on one side of that line and the Hills stayed on the other. We all knew our places, without anything being said. Nothing was ever said. Because, of course, nothing needed to be said.
And I remember the first time I saw a Negro (again, the term we used then). My mother and I were walking in our local village when we saw a Negro woman across the street. I was curious because she was clearly ‘not one of us’. When I turned to ask my mother about the Negro, I saw my mother staring at her intensely. Not unkindly or fearfully. But staring, nonetheless. She then looked down at me and whispered, almost in awe, “That woman is black.” And then she resumed staring. And nothing else was said.
Bottom line: I lived in a cocoon of invisible whiteness.
My parents were good people. Loving, kind, generous people. I heard no overt racism from them; I saw no overt racism. The concept of race in our community was dealt with in silent agreement about who belonged and who did not. Everyone knew the rules. The Hills were allowed to stay because they were invisible. And they knew the rules. The visiting Black woman was an exception who would soon be gone – because she knew the rules too.
Over the next months, I plan to write more about my understanding of racism and my white privilege. There is no schedule. I need time to listen, read, think, and process. I hope my photography will illuminate the journey.
For now, I am using two guiding principles to examine my racism and my white privilege:
Guiding Principle #1/The Prime Directive:
When exploring racism, I will:
A) Stop talking.
C) Believe the lived experience of racialized people.
Guiding Principle #2/The Other Prime Directive:
A) By not having to consider my whiteness when making decisions about my life, I exhibit white privilege.
B) By denying my white privilege, I switch from being implicitly racist to being explicitly racist.
Thank you for reading this post.
Larry Tayler Photography