“I saw color (theirs). I just didn’t see mine.”
So wrote my friend Wendy in White Girl, her searingly honest blog post on being white. More than a year ago, when she and I first began talking about race, I assumed that we in Canada didn’t have the same degree of racial discrimination as in the States. Lately, as I read more and more on the issue, that assumption stands on shaky ground. In the last three months alone, six Indigenous people have been killed by Canadian police, a brutal line of blood underscoring the discrimination that Canadians of colour routinely face. And not just from police practices. From practices across everyday life – in schools, the work place, and health care, to name a few.
Wendy’s comment struck home. Squirming with intense discomfort, I look in the mirror. It’s true. I don’t see my own colour – white. But when I see a person of colour, skin colour is the first thing I notice: Black, Asian, Indigenous. Tellingly, that never happens when I look at a white person.
When I was a young student at a Catholic elementary school, we prepared for weekly confession with “an examination of conscience.” Sitting quietly at our desks, we placed our heads face-down on folded arms, shut our eyes, and mentally reviewed the sins we had committed over the week. We were to enumerate them – name of sin, degree and frequency – so that we could accurately and honestly make our confession to the priest.
I have long since lost faith in the Catholic Church and haven’t been to confession in decades. But these days, I find myself “examining my conscience” on the subject of race. What racist thought and actions have I, a white woman, committed? Seemingly innocent, blindingly unquestioned. Even though I consider myself liberal and non-racist, it’s shocking to catch racist assumptions flitting across my mind. Like watching a black man getting out of a high-end luxury BMW and thinking, “How does he make enough money to drive that car?” Prejudice on my part. Pre-judging. A year or so ago, I attended a Truth and Reconciliation circle, organized by local Indigenous leaders. The event ended with a potluck dinner. I chose to eat with a white friend rather than join an Indigenous woman sitting by herself. Cowardice on my part.
I cringe as I write this. It’s hard to get beyond the shame. What’s worse is to remain blind. Now, as I read poems written by poets of colour, and listen to podcasts with Indigenous and Black writers, I try not to duck the flame of their justified anger. At this moment in history, if I truly want to “live in truth with who I am,” it is my turn to squarely face the flame and acknowledge the oppression my white legacy has caused and continues to perpetrate, and take responsibility for my own part in it. And then make the effort to get educated, keep open to diverse perspectives and to change.
One of the new poets I’ve recently discovered is Gbenga Adesina. I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances in this complex, multi-layered poem. But the force of its language, its striking images, its very title, calls me to accept its guidance in examining my mind and heart.
Ode to What I Do Not Know
Two animals, doe-eyed, slick across the road
into the femur of the night. Their feet learn
the reptile skin of earth, dark roots, and the tethering of dream.
I wake up away from myself.
The fast animals of my eyes crouch through thickets
into a sky-colored beach where I suddenly look up and see
that my tongue is a country of birds.
This water twists like a snake to taste itself. Water says, you know,
I have never tasted of myself. I do not know myself.On a morning radio show about lines and colors, a man phoned in. There was a
in the house of his mouth.
He said, Please listen to me. Please. I’m prejudiced. His voice cracked.
I need help.
What spilled out of the stereo lay on my floor. Breathing.
It had furs. Dark. Lord. The fizz of it.
Some nights I wake up panting, knowing
that I’m a stranger—with accent, homeless—
in the childhood country of my body.
Some nights I clench my fist, my teeth. I try hard to not turn on my bed. I
lives in me might spill out and darken the floor.
A knife. Not silence. Slice through us.
What is loss, if not your body refusing to give you back to yourself.
~ Gbenga Adesina