What do riots and protests have to do with a pandemic? Quite a lot apparently.
What does systemic racism have to do with me? Apparently also quite a lot.
I didn’t want to write about this. I didn’t think it was “my” issue. I count people of various skin colours amongst my friends. I live on the West Coast of Canada. We have a large South Asian population, but until recently, few black people lived here. Minorities didn’t seem to be experiencing much racism or so I ignorantly thought. Indigenous people? For a long time, I thought—and I cringe to admit this, in a country like Canada, surely they could rise above victimhood. Couldn’t they?
I also reasoned, there are so many other “issues:” the death of unborn children, child slavery, human trafficking. In terms of other black people in the world, Nigerian Christians are experiencing terrible persecution. Their lives also matter. Plus, George Floyd’s life was complicated. (Though don’t get me wrong here, his death was not complicated.)
The rioting, looting and general anarchy that followed the events of that murder put me off. Protesting during a pandemic when we are supposed to be keeping apart, ignores the health of other vulnerable people around us. Even though there might be merit in the ideas behind it, I don’t agree with the slogan “defund the police.” It sounds like people are trying to get rid of the law and order that Western civilisation is built on. When the populace is willing to follow the moral consensus required for democracy, it is the best system of government. If you don’t believe me, take a look at history and at government in other parts of the world. Talk to people who have lived under dictatorships and communism. Or read my novel, based on true events.
Rioting and marching is newsworthy, but while these events draw attention to issues and might eventually affect external change, they don’t change the root cause of discrimination and racism.
Protesting will not change people’s hearts, for that is where racism begins, and the only place that it can end.
What began to change it for me is the power of story.
Last year I worked with marginalised women, many of whom were indigenous. Much of my job involved just listening, without judgement, to women who had suffered. I often found myself interjecting, “really?” or “why didn’t you?…” One of the hardest things was to convince minority women to go to the police and report the crimes that had happened to them. The laundry list included offences such as these: assault, sexual assault, rape, sex trafficking and unlawful confinement.
The first time I saw the shrug and heard the “police don’t do anything,” I thought it was just personal defeat. I could not fathom that the RCMP or the city police—many of whom are wonderful by the way, would not pay serious attention to these women. I didn’t get it, but the more I listened, the more I observed a pattern to their stories. I could no longer be naive. A lifetime of trauma and abuse, both inside and outside their communities, was often followed by either indifference or hostility by social services and multiple levels of the legal system.
Discrimination was their true, lived experience. As hard as it was for me to initially believe, systemic racism exists, here in Canada. To fight a system that is simply against you, is terribly difficult, if not impossible.
Yes, we got rid of residential schools. No, we did not get rid of racism. The same is true in the US. Segregation laws are officially gone, but racism still exists. Why?
Because hearts did not change.
I begin to understand why people march. People are angry enough to make the rest of the world take notice and it gets headlines. But noticing will not change anyone.
Instead, I believe it is the power of story that will move people hearts. Tipping me over the edge to write this was a Facebook post from a man I once met. He is a talented musician, a man of faith with a friendly demeanour. He shared his story of growing up as a black man in Canada. He first heard the “n” word at age six. As a college student, he was injured by beer bottles thrown at his head. He was pulled over by police for a minor infraction and had his entire car searched. These are just a few of the incidents that mark his life here. Even people who wouldn’t consider themselves racist have made stereotypical hurtful remarks.
His story leaves me to wonder if I have done the same to others. Actually I don’t need to wonder, I just need to apologise for things I’ve said and wrongly thought.
What is it that causes the virus of racism?
It is not the actions of police pulling people over based on race or beating black people until they die. It is not the signs of “Coloured only” that existed before Civil rights. It is not the drunken slurs of young white men hurling bottles or white officers asphyxiating a black man. Nor is it a political system or a legal system. These are only the symptoms of the virus of racism and not the root cause.
Racism, like all sins, comes from a dark place in the heart.
A place in the heart that separates “me” from “them.” A plague in the heart that makes judgements based on outward appearances and values my rights over the rights of others. Racism is nothing new.
The Apostle Paul addressed it in the first century like this:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written,
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-18
The thoughts, words and actions of racism are described here. Interestingly, this passage also describes the actions of looters and rioters. We all have this plague of sin and stand guilty of something. I do. You do.
Paul goes on to say in verse 19, that through the law comes the knowledge of sin. As with all problems, we must acknowledge our part in it before we can change.
King David is an example. He had an affair with Bathsheba and got her pregnant. First he tried to cover it up. When that didn’t work he murdered her husband. Blood was on his hands, but he refused to admit his sin, until a prophet named Nathan told him a story. (2 Samuel 12) The little parable Nathan told might have initially seemed innocuous to David. A poor man had a single pet lamb. Another man had lots of sheep, but when he needed to serve a meal to a visitor, he killed the first man’s pet instead of one of his own sheep. At hearing the story, David was incensed at the wealthy man who had killed the only lamb of the other man. It was at the moment that Nathan confronted David with his own sin and David was able to see himself in the story.
Stories have the power to change hearts.
So, dear black, brown and indigenous brothers and sisters, please tell us your stories. Like David, the rest of us need to look for ourselves in that story —whether we are the ones who have purposely hurt you or have acted thoughtlessly. We have been naïve way too long.
Perhaps, we will become just a little less ignorant of the ways you have suffered. Even better, maybe we will begin to repent of our offences and slow the spread of this insidious disease.
Tell us, I think we finally have time to listen.