When my sister was around 5 years old, a girlfriend of mine was calling her Aunt, before she could complete the call my sister asked her “is your Aunt black like you?.” My Girlfriends answer was priceless, she said, “no, she is green with purple polk-a-dots”.
We grew up surrounded by people who looked like us, in Canada, in a small village. At one level, it was an innocent question my sister asked. I remember at the time feeling very embarrassed. Yet, my girlfriends answer was priceless. We all laughed.
This is small town Canada, so having a black girlfriend made me different.
I remember the day she walked into my grade 6 classroom, with her black nappy hair and wearing this stripped shirt with overalls. I remember that day very distinctly. I recall thinking how strong she must have been that day, to walk into our room, a new girl, and I remember thinking how much courage that must have taken, and how strong and sure of herself she seemed – I loved her, and I admired that strength.
Growing up in small town Canada meant, for the most part, we were rather isolated and generally the matters concerning race and colour were somewhat foreign concepts. However, as isolated as we may have been in Canada, the otherside of our heritage was American. Every few years we would travel down to the southern US to visit my Dad’s family in North Carolina.
Now, down there things were somewhat different. For example I learned that if you were sitting in your car outside a country store and a group of black kids were hanging around out front, you locked your car doors. If it was just after dark, and you happened to be in a park with your cousin, that group of black boys on the otherside of the park you saw, I learned, were somehow dangerous. My great Grandma had a best friend who was black, they could sit all day and all night on the front porch and shoot the breeze, but society wouldn’t allow her to invite that same woman into her house – least not through the front door.
To my Canadian mindset this seemed very strange. I remember thinking, and not just once, what is wrong with these people? Not the black people, but the white people who had made up all these stupid rules. Why were black kids outside a country store dangerous? Why were black kids that my cousin would hang out with during the day at school, all of a sudden dangerous after dark? Why couldn’t my Grandma invite her bestfriend into her house?
When I was older and in my twenties I remember having a big old blowout, knockdown, say it like ya mean it, ol’ fight with my Dad about what I thought of as his racism. Well, lets just say he set me straight.
My Dad is a humble man. He’s quiet, and he treats everyone respectfully. He was never the disciplinarian in our household – that job was Mom’s. Actually, growing up, I realize that I really didn’t know my Dad very well. That day I called him a racist though? Well, lets just say he taught me a lesson or three.
He, in a rage that he could barely contain, turned to me and said “YOU Canadians think you know it all. You know that story you were taught in school about the black kid sitting at the lunch counter? You know all the stuff you were taught about the race riots in the south? That happened in MY town. It didn’t happen in some fairy land, no, it happened in the next town, it happened down the street. I grew up surrounded by it. I didn’t read about it in my history book, girl, I LIVED IT. So don’t you, in your lily-white Canadian mindset, look at me and call ME racist, cause you have NO IDEA what your talking bout”. Oh was he angry at me, I really hit a nerve.
And, he was right. I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. My Dad’s family were not the sort who made a stink. He wasn’t marching on Washington, or protesting race relations at the Town Hall. No, he and his family just lived their lives and were taught to be respectful…to EVERYONE… regardless of their colour. They were respected in their community and they did well for themselves over the centuries. My Dad’s family has been in the United States since it was a colony of Britain, almost 400 years – probably more if you include my 1/16th Cherokee blood.
This last week one of our centuries protagonists’ of hatred died. The leader of the Westboro Church died. Instead of protesting, a group instead held up this sign
It represents to me a much more powerful message then hatred. Like my Dad’s quiet protest, it speaks to the very heart of our humanity. If we could just treat each other in the manner in which we would ourselves like to be treated, it would be a better world.
Hatred and prejudice is a throw back to our ancient ancestors, when fear of “the other” could be essential for ones survival. Today, far away from the Savannahs of Africa and the Tigris and Euphrates, far from those nomadic hunter gatherers, it is more than time for some of us to evolve. Time for some to walk upright, and throw away their misguided hatred, stop dragging their knuckles in the dust of their mistrust, and their prejudices towards colour, religion and lifestyle. Time to accept, and enjoy the diversity of that which makes us human.