I remember Gordon. He was a little boy who sat behind me in grade one. He was kind and funny, and made me laugh. He gave me his eraser which was an elephant with boggley eyes. We became quick friends. One day I reached back and found a huge glob of bubble gum stuck in my long blonde hair. I tried to get it out in vain. ‘Teacher!’ I cried, I have gum in my hair!” She invited me to her desk where she tried to work it out before giving up. She took out her big, long-bladed scissors and snipped out a large chunk of my hair. Then she lifted her gaze to Gordon and began shouting at him, shaming him. He denied responsibility but she was unrelenting. I pleaded with her. “Teacher, Gordon is my friend. It wasn’t him, and if it was, it was an accident!” She seemed inordinately angry, unfairly set on punishing him without evidence. I can’t remember if she hit him. They did sometimes in those days. She moved his seat and he wasn’t allowed to talk to me anymore.
Gordon was black. I had barely noticed.
I knew from my Sunday School lessons that whether ‘red and yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight.’ It took a while to realise that in practice, some were more precious than others. I began to realise it when my high school Sunday School teacher warned us against mixed ethnic relationships. “You don’t see a blackbird in a bluebird’s nest,” he said. We didn’t have any black kids in the Sunday School. No wonder. But I didn’t really notice.
I grew up in a neighbourhood which was diverse by Atlantic Canadian standards. It was an area of concentrated government housing that was poor and marginalized. There were a lot of African Canadians living there too. Sharing a common Loyalist heritage that worked out differently in history, we became friends with some and enemies with others, just as we did with the white kids. But I never once had a black friend over to play. And I never noticed.
Racism was part of growing up white in the Maritimes. My grandfather was particularly free with the N-word. My grandmother counseled me when I left for university to be sure to take up with my ‘own kind’. To do otherwise leads to all sorts of trouble she said. (I didn’t understand at the time that this was a comment of personal experience having an indigenous person in her own background.) I didn’t like what she said, but neither did I give it much notice.
Training for ministry I learned an immense amount from our ministry mentor who was black, as he sometimes told stories in his entertaining way about experiences of racial confrontation. In class we had a small number of colleagues who were from the African Baptist Association. The white students often would say of them, ‘they have a chip on their shoulder about race. Why don’t they just get over it?’ I hadn’t thought much about these things. And I didn’t still. It didn’t seem polite to bring it up.
In ministry, racism was rife in our area, and out in the open. There was one black RCMP officer at the local detachment. In the white communities they called him ‘the Coloured Mountie’. Apparently he didn’t have a name like the others. There was a road that everyone locally referred to as the ‘N-line road’. People never batted an eye. And I understood there were many such place names throughout Nova Scotia. By now, I was starting to notice. I would squirm, and wonder if I should confront people with this. There were so many other battles to fight. I let it go. It wasn’t polite to notice. And under the veil of politeness, racism flourished.
So why did I start to notice?
I started to notice selfishly, because as a woman in ministry leadership I experienced sometimes overt, sometimes subtle sexism. Through education and experience, I learned not simply to understand it. Rather, I learned to notice it. ‘That strange thing that just happened, that was because I’m a woman, isn’t it?’ I would think to myself, as I processed it in prayer. I learned to notice how systemic, all-encompassing, unintentional it could be; and how harmful, how discouraging, how painful. It led me to notice not only how I am treated by others, but how I treat others, how I see them, and the judgements I make. I became aware of my own racism; structural, inherited, and enacted.
I met and worked with people of many diverse cultures and backgrounds and heard their stories of abuse and mistreatment. I travelled to Cape Coast in Ghana and visited a slave castle where many thousands of Africans were stripped of the image of God and shipped as chattel to far-away lands. I experienced the gift of being with people who saw the world just a little differently from the way I saw it, and my life was deeply enriched. Being away from Canada for a long time returned me with fresh eyes that noticed more than ever before.
And now I notice – certainly not everything, but some things. I notice the black man pulled aside at Halifax airport security while I am waved through. I notice colleagues from other regions of Canada who suggest that issues of black and white reside only below the 49th parallel. I notice the stories I hear of patients requesting white doctors. I notice and cringe at my own prejudices. I struggle with what to do in campaigns of justice against racial profiling. I stopped shopping at Sobeys….So what? The issues need a bigger response from me, surely! How I can use whatever power I have to leverage change around me, in my areas of ministry? I don’t know exactly. But there is work to be done. Noticing comes with responsibility.
The harder job is raising my son, who will be a white man of privilege in a world of inequality. He will be told the lie I often hear, that there are jobs for everybody but a white man these days. He will be told he needs to fight for what’s his. He will be told not to notice.
I am trying to raise him with confidence, but also with humility and knowledge. I don’t want him to grow up not noticing. Sometimes this means it is uncomfortable for his identity development. “Mom, why are the Brits always the bad guys?’ which he feels acutely as a white Canadian and a British citizen. I tell him why, and how he can do it differently: How he needs to recognize that he will have unfair privilege, and that sometimes he will need to surrender that privilege for others. How he will need to use whatever advantage he has in life to include others and empower people around him. And I try to impress on him what a big responsibility this is. He can only do it with God’s help.
The biggest challenge is the same for all of us though. How will I help him to recognise his own prejudices so that by the grace of God he can find a way for love to reign over hate and fear? I don’t know but I am trying to be hopeful. I am sad that my boy, at 7, has already heard the N-word before a councillor in one of our Nova Scotia towns said it. We had this conversation just the other day, before the news story broke:
‘Mom, I think the two worst words are the f-word and the n-word. What do you think?’
‘I think you’re right’ I told him.
‘Which is worse though? The F-word or the N-word?’ he asked.
‘I think the N-word is the worst word.’ I told him. ‘Because it is so harmful to people.’
‘I think so too Mom. I think the N-word is the worst word there is.’
I am encouraged that his generation has a chance to do something different. Something empowering. Something just. And that keeps us on the hook too. At least (can we say at least?) in this recent incident, somebody noticed. It affords the rest of us a chance to notice: And to say, ‘I refuse not to notice anymore.’