For Those Who Can’t Breathe

I wrote this over a week ago, but have hesitated to post it, not wanting to add more noise to the conversation. But I have come to the conclusion that saying something, as mistaken as I may be, is better than saying nothing.

When I look back on what I’ve done and where I’ve been in life, it’s easy for me to reflect on all the hard work.

The first year we were married I worked 40 hours a week loading food on airplanes at the airport while taking more than a full load in my final year of college. We worked our tails off fixing up houses with three toddlers underfoot. I worked like a dog to finish my Ph.D. in four years.

In my MBA program, I remember feeling like I was the one who was behind everyone else. The guy who worked as an accountant for 8 years could breeze through our accounting courses, same for the math guy in our stats class. The woman who worked for years in wealth management could blow off the finance class, the lawyer coasted through the business law class and even the guy with 10 years of work experience had a leg up in the management class. I had a BA in History/PoliSci and one year as a volunteer in Kazakstan working with the struggling local church.

What I don’t reflect on so automatically is all the privilege that allowed me to get those places as easily as I did. I tend to want to explain my position of privilege, to justify it.

Yes, but…

Yes, but I’ve worked hard.

Yes, but wasn’t handed anything.

I remember a few years ago when this video was making the rounds

it got me thinking more deeply about how much of an unfair head start I had on so many other people.

I don’t know much about George Floyd, the black man murdered by a white police officer over a complaint he maybe used a counterfeit $20 bill. Other than sharing a first name, being the same age and having two daughters, there’s perhaps not too much similarity. And that’s part of the problem.

My life experience and his had drastically different paths.

The only even remotely similar experience I have had to what many members of visible minorities suffer was when we were robbed. As confusing as that entire attack was, there were some ways you could make sense of it. The guys who robbed us turned out to be a group of hired thugs from the city, a ring of professional thieves. I was told that in one of their previous hits they killed a child while carrying out a robbery. It makes sense that one of them would physically attack me. I wouldn’t expect them to help me. I remember while I was being strangled, an incredibly powerful feeling of helplessness. There was nothing I could do, I was losing consciousness, and was unable to stop that. I couldn’t breathe, and not being able to do anything about that was the worst experience of my life.

But to have the very people who supposed to protect you, instead, hurt you is an entirely different situation.

Every time another one of these incidents occurs, I’m honestly conflicted about how to respond. It feels like critiquing the systemic racism that leads to these stories that make global headlines is not my place, as a non-American. However, when I reflect on it, that may be a bit like side-stepping larger issues.

Every country has a racism problem. Yes, some more obvious, more extreme than others. Wherever people gather in groups, we find ways to discriminate. It’s a sin we all seem to gravitate towards. It could be neighbours sneering at a Sikh family moving in next door, or First Nation’s people being the but of jokes, or a woman of Asian descent being taunted due to the geographic origins of COVID-19.

Canadians (like me) should remember this lest we get too smug, looking south at our neighbours and ‘their problems’. If we need to be reminded there are things like this article in Maclean’s a few years ago or this article in the Huffington Post from a couple of days ago.

Sure I worked hard to get where I am, but focusing on that hides the benefits that I’ve gotten from racism my whole life. Of course, climbing whatever ladder is in front of me has been hard, but I’ve never had to defend my right to be somewhere, or justify my position.

I can go about my life peacefully oblivious to the struggle of a significant number of my fellow citizens. However, even if I choose to ignore it, it is still there.

The reality is, as a straight, white, native English speaking male, I’ve had privilege my whole life. Yes, maybe I could have still attained what I have if none of those things were true, but man would it have been so much harder. I had the privilege of being born to a family that valued and encouraged university education. I never had problems paying attention in school because I was hungry. I grew up in communities where the public school system worked. Head start, after head start, after head start.

How much harder is it for a black man to get all the way through medical school. How much harder is it for an Asian immigrant to get treated equally when a promotion comes up. How much quicker would my job applications be passed over if I had a name that was not so ‘neutral-Anglo’ sounding as the one I have?

There are times when I’ve been walking through neighbourhoods in certain cities like Nairobi and I realize “I shouldn’t be here.” It looks menacing, it’s unfamiliar, and clearly everyone is looking at me as I’m the only white person on the block, and it’s pretty obvious I don’t belong. I can pick up the pace, get out of there, and basically avoid that in the future. I simply cannot imagine living that way. It is unfathomable for me to think some people feel like that where they live.

So I don’t know what the best way for a person like me is to respond to yet another murder of someone due to systemic racism.

To state that violence is not the answer is too easy. Whether it’s looting businesses owned by members of the community, or police injuring yet more people. Violence just can’t be the answer.

What’s harder is the appropriate response. I won’t pretend I know what the best response is.

I honestly am not sure that I have anything really helpful to add to the discussion right now.

Nothing other than this:

I can’t say nothing.

Saying nothing cannot be an option. At the very least – and truly I mean the very least – we all have to be voicing our support for justice. At the very least we need to add our weight to the side of the marginalized, who the scales are currently stacked against. At the very least each of us needs to make it abundantly clear that we are not ambivalent to the plight of those who have suffered from systems of injustice that we have benefited from. We can’t be just non-racist, we have to be anti-racist.I have no advice, no solutions, but I have to say at least this.

I hear you, and I’m sorry.

The church – as a whole – certainly needs to be speaking loud. Shouting from the rooftops that real Christianity has always been, and forever will be against racial discrimination. Whether or not people want to use the church as an institution to hide or rationalize their racism, it will never be what the message of Jesus is about. Even if people want to use the bible for their own agenda it cannot remove the deep themes of compassion and justice and the numerous times the Bible specifically says to look after the immigrant, the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, the marginalized.

I have lived a life that has benefited from systems of injustice, and not done enough to fight against them. The problem is that my position of privilege comes at a price, it is not a neutral thing. If I am getting any kind of privilege in this life merely due to the colour of my skin, then by definition there are others who are being discriminated against for the same reason. One group can only be given preferential treatment if there are others who are not. If I gained an advantage, someone else was disadvantaged. I benefited from the system, and I have done so little to change it.

This is what I have learned more clearly, that it is embarrassing to admit I have not learned more deeply earlier in my life.
It is not enough for me to not be racist when people are suffering from racism.

It is not enough to be against the idea of white privilege while at the same time benefiting from it, and not doing anything to dismantle it.

White privilege is something that it’s easier to either deny or feel guilty and sorry about. But neither one of those attitudes is helpful. We can all see that denying reality is not helpful, but also just feeling bad about the inequity is also not helpful. Those of us who have a stronger voice due to unfair systems have to speak up.
Yes, even if we didn’t ask for that voice.
Yes even if we have already agreed it’s not fair we have that voice.
Yes even if we feel we didn’t cause the injustice that gave is that voice.
We have to use it.

This has to change