I struggle with the term “race” as much as I do “African” or “European”. For as much as an Italian and an Irishman may be considered European, these countries’ citizens are incomparable in culture, language, and generally, physical appearance. As for the term “African”, how can one lump a continent’s peoples into one group when its massive geography boasts 55 nations and almost 2,000 Indigenous languages?
And then there’s the slippery matter of race. It’s a ball of wax wrapped in an enigma, covered in a conundrum, and bound by history, societal forces, classism, and a hierarchy of influences ranging from academia to the church to anthropology (in whatever order you see as appropriate).
If asked my “race”, I would say that I am “white” and my son is “black”. My son’s skin is dark and my skin is light, as is my wife’s. Outside observers would generally call our family “mixed race”. (At home we refer to my son’s skin as “beautiful chocolate” and my skin as “delicious vanilla”. There’s something far more palatable to these descriptions than tones that simply convey the presence or absence of light. After all, at least according to way physics describes it, black and white are not true colours.
As a “white” person born in South Africa, a country that unapologetically institutionalized racism for decades, I benefited from privilege due to the colour of my skin. My “race” gave me a leg up on other citizens. It afforded me access to schools, social networks, and other benefits unavailable to the majority of the population. As a small reminder of my ridiculous “race” classification, I still have a piece of paper issued by the South African government that categorized me as a “white person”. Tucked in an old passport, the official document still horrifies me.)
Today, I am the father of an adopted boy, who is, biologically, of mixed heritage (Congolese and Cape Coloured/Xhosa). While I might call myself an Afro-Canadian, my heritage is similarly mixed: English, Scottish and Norwegian. Most might simply refer to me as a “Caucasian”. Again, a ridiculous term if one considers that Caucasia is historically, a geographic area that encompasses Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.
The Other Plague
As we face a global pandemic due to COVID-19, I can’t help but be reminded — due to the outpouring of anger on the streets of America and other countries in the world — that there is a similarly pernicious plague afflicting the globe. It is a manifestation of a fiction called race, a societal malignancy that perpetuates socio-economic inequities, and a classification system which polarizes populations. Racism is an aberration that should not exist, but it does. The invention of “race” has created a nasty by-product called racism. As one author puts it: “…there is no such thing as “race” — only racism.”
The fundamental problem is that “race” is a non-scientific social construct. My DNA is 99.9% identical to my son’s. As Jonathan Jarry from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society points out, of the 0.1% in genetic variance between “races” (i.e. me and my son): “ almost all of it (95.7% to be exact) is found between individuals within the same race.” Despite what our eyes perceive as difference between skin tones, there is actually more genetic diversity within a “race” than between “races”.
In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific death under the unrelenting the knee of a police officer — among other horrendous deaths of Afro-Americans at the hands of police — I am struggling with the concept of “race” and more specifically, the ‘embeddedness’ of racism in society. Looking from the outside in, it seems that institutionalized racism — a subtle dilution of the country’s slave-owning past and an economic cornerstone of the world’s most largest economy — has lingered as a sad reality in the United States for decades. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has not disappeared. It has had no reason to be satisfied with America’s progress away from the underlying belief that fellow humans are lessor, simply based on the colour of their skin.
The protests that have erupted — in America and around the world — since Floyd’s death reveal a considerable amount of pent-up rage and frustration after years of anti-black abuse and harassment. (Canada has by no means been immune from this angst.) The current reality is that in the US, its black citizens are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police. Year after year, incidents of excessive force from the ‘brotherhood in blue’ are reported, documented and then lamented. But little has changed.
Today we are seeing a mix of frustration and anger conflagrating into protest, with some of it infiltrated by anarchists and looters. By and large, however, protests have been peaceful, encompassing people from all walks of life. As America prepares to elect its next President, I would also expect the Million Man March (Take Two) in the coming months. The fact is, racism remains a substantive issue in America more than 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, a man volunteered to represent his people, an oppressed and disrespected portion of the population.
The consequences of racism — from the slave trade, to Nazi Germany, to the genocide of First Nations in the “New World”, to the present plight of refugees around the world — remain horrific and real, even in 2020. Pronouncements of “us versus them”, framed by politicians in the fear of ‘otherness’, linger in the air like a bad smell. The stench of pepper spray and tear gas on the streets — the most powerful platform for protest and public attention — are extensions of this rhetoric.
Fortunately, there are signs that the term “racism” is being rethought as something more than about discrimination or prejudice from one person against another. It is an important recognition that racism is an institutional reality and that systematic oppression is real. This change, recently announced by Merriam-Webster (producers of dictionaries since 1828) is mainly thanks to the efforts of Kennedy Mitchum of Drake University, a woman who hails from Missouri, the state that saw the Ferguson Uprising almost six years ago, sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a “black” man, by a “white” police officer.
Coming to Terms with “Race”
As a “white” person, I have to come to terms with the fact that I have benefitted, and continue to benefit, from a system that has perpetuated a view that one “race” is inferior to another. As my son grows older, I will have to explain to him that he will need to be extra careful when dealing with law enforcement officials, and that the colour of his skin may be a liability in some environments, and even a threat.
Those won’t be easy conversations, and I can only hope that I won’t have to have them because society has evolved. But that will depend on all of us thinking about the roles we play in perpetuating systemic oppression of people because of the colour of their skin. Making progress will be less about the defunding of police or changing laws.
It will come down to all of us. The jokes we tell. The people we hire. The friends we make. The partners we choose. The media we support.
I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking, researching, and writing this post. It has been necessary introspection. A painful rumination. It has been somewhat cathartic. And as much as it may have taken you less than nine minutes to read it, I can’t help trying to imagine what it would be like to feel the full weight of a police officer pressing down on my neck with his knee, unable to breathe, for eight minutes and 46 seconds*.
*The Netflex special 8:46 is an extraordinary (outdoor) performance by Dave Chappelle who ‘goes off’ on the issue of institutionalized racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Storytelling from a master comedian and social commentator, it is an extremely powerful perspective, and I would argue necessary viewing (if you can handle a bit of profanity), from a modern-day jester of Shakespearean significance.