Racism Exists Around (and in) Me

Friday June 5 was exhilarating; being part of the Black Lives Matter protest, joining with thousands of Islanders to listen to the experience of racism and commit to acting to eliminate racism in our community. Islanders can be grateful to the Black Cultural Society who organized the biggest protest ever held on PEI. The message was both clear and poignant, ‘Racism in so many forms exists around us, racism is violent, painful and everybody can contribute to its elimination.’

Racism is again back in the news. Let us hope that it stays there and helps us to keep a conversation going. The stark reminder of what this means is George Floyd’s three words, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” while the police kill him; the same words used by Eric Garner before he was killed by police. These scenes are too common and play out far more often outside of a camera lens. Surely it is past time we acknowledge that BIack Lives Matter and  well past the time that we address racism in and around us.

I want to add my voice in support to the leaders in PEI’s Black and Brown community on how racism exists here in our own community. 

I had an epiphany last year when the stories of Trudeau’s use of blackface hit the news. Trudeau was appropriately embarrassed and ashamed. The epiphany happened when national attention pivoted to Jagmeet Singh, the only federal party leader who is also a person of colour. Jagmeet’s response to Trudeau’s request to meet with him was met with generosity, kindness and clarity. Jagmeet made it clear that he would not be a part of Trudeau’ public exoneration tour and only meet with him in private where they could speak in confidence without public scrutiny. 

Jagmeet’s response reflected the type of person he is: intelligent, aware and generous of spirit. His autobiography describes some of his own experiences as a racialized Canadian and how these experiences shaped his life. His response to Trudeau was not about sitting in judgment but rather as a person who profoundly understands racism, the damage it does and the depth of the challenge that comes from the commitment to change racism in and around us.

It was only about a day later that I realized that I had self-censored my family’s experiences of racism on PEI and that most of my family and friends had never heard these stories from my life, even though most of my life has been an open book to those same people. It is as though my self-censorship was a way I could deny awareness of racism around me. It is easier to deny than make the changes sometimes. I decided one step I could take was to challenge the assumption that racism doesn’t exist here and add my voice as an ally. 

White people must do better to address and resolve racism. People like me must be willing to change and accept leadership for this change from people of colour.  I am a White, middle class, middle-aged man. In our society that is pretty much the definition of privilege. I can understand intersectionality  intolerance and discrimination although I will never experience it firsthand. On the other hand my family is interracial. The incidents described here were not directed towards me, but towards my wife and children. Talking about racism has been part of our family conversation and before writing this I received their consent to publish it. I don’t know why I didn’t share these incidents at the time they happened. Since last fall I have decided that part of my role is to share these experiences because, even from my perch of privilege I have learned more about my own racism, racism in our community, country and world through them.

I grew up in a multicultural, multilingual community. Twice in my life I have lived in places where few people spoke English or French so I had to learn a new language. Despite being a minority as a White person in a predominantly Black and Brown society in the Dominican Republic I still walked around with immense privilege.

The first time that Rosa (my spouse) was followed in a store it was weird. I even thought she may have imagined it. She was hurt and it wasn’t helpful that I didn’t explicitly understand that experience and immediately agree with it. The second time it happened I listened, by the time it happened 4-5 times Rosa began to confront the person following her. ‘Are you following me because I am Black?’, is the right response. It still happens to her but it never happens when we are in the store together. I don’t need to speak for my wife (trust me, she is well-prepared to do that herself).

One Spring day almost 20 years ago the three children were playing in the park across the street. Three white children from our niece’s class started harassing them – yelling racist slurs and spitting on them. The kids came home crying and we reported it to a teacher the next day. The teacher and principal were amazing and dealt with it directly with each of the students and their parents. They acted quickly and kindly. One of the children came with his parents to apologize to Pati, Daniel and Claire. I recall him standing before us, crying and stammering out the words. It was difficult but right,  and we appreciated their acknowledgement of the pain that racism causes. However we continue to deal with racism that still happens around us.

Our son Daniel called several years ago when studying in Ontario to tell me that the police had stopped him three times in two days. They were looking for a Brown man about his build in Oakville and cruised the campus at Sheridan. Weird. The first time Daniel excused it as police just doing their job, the second time it was annoying and the third time he told the police off and warned them that if they kept profiling him they would have to talk to a lawyer. He has the courage and confidence to stand up to the police. I am a proud Dad to know that he can do this.

There are other stories and they are not mine to tell. I am telling these stories now because too many of us still get surprised when racism on PEI or in Canada is brought up. We should not be surprised – we have to get to work at changing the system that feeds racism.

I am White and do not know what it is like to face racism directly. I am trying to be an ally to the cause. I will keep learning about our colonial history,the treatment and genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the racism directed to Black and Brown  people. I will be open to examine my own racism and privilege as well as educating and calling on my white peers to do the same.  We have to be willing to recognize our privilege, understand that systemic exclusion is part of it, and make the changes to include everyone. Racism is not just exclusion, it is about power and control. Eliminating racism means changing our society and economy.

Our commitment is action oriented: change the structural racism in housing, incomes and immigration, encourage employers to hire Black and Brown people, call out racism wherever and whenever we see it. We must  support and be involved in the work of anti-racism, allow the leadership from Black and Brown people to guide us through this process, listen to the words, the stories and the advice.

A better, more inclusive world is possible. Change is what can make that happen.

Joe Byrne

Joe Byrne

Here on PEI, Joe has worked on numerous social programs in rural communities. He has done field work on issues faced by university and college students, has been Director of Youth Ministry, and has also coordinated pastoral planning for the diocese. He remains active in the Latin American Mission Program, and is President of the Cooper Institute, a grass-roots collective for community development. He also counts among his volunteer and community work Charlottetown Abbies soccer, church Youth and Music ministries, Voluntary Resource Council, Peace Vigil Group, Atlantic Council for International Cooperation, Canada World Youth, and Katimavik hosting. He keeps up his interaction with young people as a part-time instructor for the Abegweit Driving School. All of this, he does in addition to his work in the NDP. His vast array of church and community experiences have helped him cultivate his skills in communication, organization, and consensus building, and also brought him the joy of forming hundreds of friendships.

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