A call to action – have you heard this before?
Not so long ago, a small brown girl attending a school in Abbotsford in a mostly white, privileged neighbourhood found herself being paraded around classrooms by her white teacher one morning. The teacher showed her off with great flourish to the other white teachers, saying “look how beautiful she looks, she just cut her hair, now she looks like all of us”. The girl bravely smiled and held back her tears at the ignominy of firstly being paraded around, and secondly against her identity claiming, imposing, and shaming. She was a Sikh girl whose parents had held on to their religious belief of hair as one of the articles of her faith – Kesh (unshorn hair). But she had been clamouring for almost three years to have it cut so she could fit in, wanting to somehow belong to the white norms all around her. She had been bravely facing consistent ridicule about her long black braids. The parents had finally relented. She was 10 years old then.
Many Black Indigenous People of Colour in Canada have told similar soul-damaging stories and worse, much worse. We have heard these stories before.
Biological and philosophical beliefs are the first things under attack when racism raises its ugly head and strikes. Some things we are born with, some things we learn and attain, some things we can unlearn and change, some things we cannot (and don’t want to) change – like the colour of our skin. The damage done to the identity of another who cannot find an environment in which to love him/herself no matter the difference is something we ignore when we impose our hegemonic beliefs and create structures that ridicule/shame other’s experiences that are not like our own. Since May 25, 2020 and the tragic, completely unnecessary death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, we all shook with rage and pain and said: We have heard/seen this before.
In 1964, author John Howard Griffin was severely beaten by white men in a form of brutal literary criticism for writing Black Like Me. This was a book about his experiences as a white man who had deliberately darkened his skin and spent six months traveling the southern USA to document the lives of black men in harshly segregated states. His saving grace was he could return to his whiteness after the experiment, black men could not. Today in 2020, black experiences don’t need to be negotiated and explained by white people, they can tell their own stories in their own words with much greater impact. Everyday we hear about the extreme and violent injustices BIPOC peoples face all over the world: like the Uighurs in China, the Dalits in India, the Maori in New Zealand, the Sami in Sweden, the Rohingya in Mayanmar, the hundreds of Canadian Indigenous murdered and missing women – the list is long. We have heard it all before.
So you might say: what can we (I) do? We have heard this too, many times before.
We hear you and we say: You start with YOU.
A clear and urgent call to action for our own backyard at our University is not just made up of a bunch of words – implicit in this call is the desire to confront structural violence, systemic racism, individual privilege, police brutality, societal shunning, etc. etc. Denouncing racism is just rhetoric because it has been said too many times before and nothing has changed. We need action that backs up the statements, a true commitment to change by all UFV units that tackles the difficult and uncomfortable journey of undoing our past mistakes/omissions/erasures/silences. These kinds of actions will dismantle structures designed for a few, replace systems that perpetuate the status quo, finally name that which we resist naming, give accountability to the most affected, and share in as well as acknowledge the real pain that your colleagues and friends at UFV are experiencing. This we have not experienced or heard.
My goal in writing this blog is to share with you the tiredness I feel sometimes when I think of the long row that still needs hoeing, the thorn-filled paths that still need to be cleared, the twisted terrain that still needs charting in our evolution as humans. The disappointment I feel, along with others, on the superficial shallowness of our experiences when skin colour defines our humanity and actions. I feel like we are better than this. And I live and work in hope. But time and time again, time stops and we take a sharp breath and brace for the onslaught of old traumas, past and new injuries, and ongoing anger to our psyche of the repeat cycle. This is what we have heard and felt.
Are we all open at UFV to do our part in this renewed call for action? Do your part in affecting change. Act – so you can be seen and heard.
Satwinder Kaur Bains
She/her/person of colour