Confronting the reality of racism

As an American ex-pat living in Prince George for the past three years, it's not uncommon for others to ask me whether I'm happy I no longer live in the U.S. This question seems to come up more frequently now, especially in light of all the protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd. It's a tricky question when you think about it.                                

If I say no, I run the risk of offending my new neighbours and coming across as ungrateful for all that Canada has made possible for my family and me. But if I say yes, which generally feels like the answer locals want to hear, I feed a false reassurance that many Canadians seem to rely on, which is that we are immune from the social challenges the U.S. faces. That, or we convince ourselves that while such problems may exist here as well, they are not nearly as severe for us. If the U.S. is violent, we are peaceful or at least less violent. If the U.S. is racist, we are tolerant or at least less racist. The truth is much more complicated and depends mostly on how you look at it. I can only share my perspective as a person of colour who has struggled with racism in both countries.

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My first conscious encounter with racism happened when I was ten years old. While riding the school bus, another boy taunted me by saying how "America was going to kick my country's ass." The context was the U.S. had just invaded Iraq and launched the first Gulf War. I remember being confused because I'm not Iraqi. My family is from South America but I'd lived in the U.S. since I was one-year-old. My DNA is a mishmash of Spanish, Italian, Indigenous, and other European ancestries, but I just saw myself as American at the time. 

More bizarrely, no one came to my defence, not even my friends. For me, the painful thing wasn't being called Iraqi - there's nothing wrong with that, of course. It was the realization that my peers, even my friends, had all bought into this idea that I wasn't American simply because of my skin colour. It didn't matter that Iraq isn't a Latin American country. Their logic had no basis in geography, culture, or history. We (and I wasn't part of that "we") were at war with brown people and I was brown. That's all they needed to know. I saw myself as another typical American kid on the bus. But everyone else there saw me as a stranger in their midst. And strangers, as you know, can't be trusted.

This feeling of alienation has persisted into adulthood, reinforced by the usual litany of dehumanizing encounters. Do any of these experiences sound familiar to you? Here’s a sample list. Store clerks following me while shopping to see if I was stealing anything. Security guards questioning my motives for being in an office building where I work. A neighbourhood vigilante interrogating me as to why I'm hanging out in front of my apartment. Police officers cornering me with weapons at the ready to make sure I'm not breaking into my parked car. In all these instances, the only common denominator I can see is my physical appearance, specifically my skin colour, which provides an excuse to treat me with suspicion. 

I'd like to say that since moving to Canada, things have improved dramatically for me. They have not. Not long after starting a new job here, a customer reached out to my employer to express dissatisfaction with my organization's decision to hire an American. This person has never spoken directly to me, and all they know about me comes from an article that the Prince George Citizen published at the time, which includes my photo. I can't help but wonder if the customer would have taken any issue with my hiring if my name sounded more English and I had a lighter complexion. Regardless, my national origin seemed to be the issue once again.

Fast forward one to two years later, I'm in my house in College Heights when police officers mysteriously show up on my doorstep. They claim to be looking for a specific individual and request that I verify my identity. All this is happening in front of my wife and children. I provide the officers with my driver's license, and while they inspect it, they ask my wife if everything is okay. Everything checks out, and they leave. The interaction, while awkward, goes relatively smoothly, and my peaceful reality eventually stabilizes again. 

To this day, I have no idea what happened. Were the officers trying to verify my identity, or was that all a ruse for them to investigate my house because someone had reported suspicious activity? And if the latter, what was I doing that was so suspicious? And who reported it? Regardless, I've yet to meet a white person in my lifetime who has had these sorts of experiences, certainly not here in Prince George. But the same is not true for people of colour. You can talk to almost any Black, Indigenous, or Latino person at random, and you're likely to hear variations on all these themes. Only the time, setting, names, and outcomes seem to change. 

It may surprise you, but I think I'm rather lucky. I've successfully deescalated all these situations by maintaining my composure and generally playing along with the whole charade. In all those circumstances, I behaved as if what was going on was normal and reasonable. The last thing I wanted to do was give the other party an excuse to cause me further harm, which, as we can see from the cases of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, includes getting murdered. 

But deep down, I assure you that I'm furious. It's very tiring to constantly have to be on the defensive and proactively monitor your behaviour so that white people not feel threatened by your very existence and presence. It is humiliating. Truly I tell you that one of the easiest ways to upset some white people is to present them with a self-confident and assertive person of colour. The idea that a person of colour would dare challenge their beliefs or authority is unsettling and subverts their innate understanding of how the world should operate. To be fair, many who react this way understand that racism is wrong, but then proceed to resolve the cognitive dissonance by convincing themselves that the issue isn't about race at all, and instead about manners and decency. It's not okay to mistreat someone because of their race, but it is okay to mistreat them if they are disrespecting you.

The result is an almost universal expectation that people of colour always be polite, respectful, and, most importantly, obedient. The refusal to abide by these unspoken rules can lead to the end of a friendship, a reprimand, a legal citation, an arrest, or in extreme cases, an officer of the law placing their knee on your neck and slowly depriving you of the air that keeps you alive. The truth is that what happened to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery could've happened to me. And more frightfully, it might happen to my son one day because history teaches us that the perpetrators of such violence usually get away with it, which itself incentivizes the repeat of such aggressive behaviour.

This article is not an indictment of law enforcement in general. I only seek to bring attention to the perspective of people of colour who, because of our growing numbers and political clout, will continue to demand that the terms of the social contract equally apply to us. I want to live in a land where I can trust that the laws and courts also exist to protect my interests. That vision obviously must include a role for the police, but more importantly, it requires that we dramatically change the structure and dynamics of our society. That is the message underlying the popular refrain, "No justice, no peace!" 

I'm certain some readers will quickly dismiss some of my points and argue that I have provided no conclusive evidence that I have experienced any racism personally. At best, they will suggest I am speculating and unfairly ascribing ill motives to the actions of otherwise good people acting reasonably in challenging circumstances. I must have said or done something that led those other people to act the way they did. Or they might say I'm overly sensitive and point out that white people also experience prejudice. I cannot persuade those who refuse to listen, nor will I waste my energy trying. To quote the scriptures, if that's what resonates with you, I will "not cast pearls before swine."

My only hope is that some readers will pause and reflect and perhaps come to realize that racism against people of colour is very much still alive and strong in our society. Perhaps they will see that such racism can manifest itself in many forms, some much more subtle than others, and that sometimes it's hidden in plain sight, as this graffiti currently on display in College Heights demonstrates. It's no exaggeration to say that realization may save a person of colour's life one day. I encourage you to see the world with open eyes and ally yourselves with the cause of social justice. We will all be better for it.

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