Protests, History and Black Equity
I am Black gay Jamaican man married to a white ex-cop and we both live in Canada. To many people this disqualifies me from commenting on the protests and riots that started in the United States, which were sparked by (another) instance of deadly anti-Black racism perpetrated by American police. But the circumstances that led to George Floyd’s murder are not alien to my lived reality.
Having travelled the world over for my job as a human rights lawyer and activist, I have only ever been called a nigger in Canada. Ironically, this occurred while I was studying as a guest of the Canadian government on a Commonwealth scholarship. And compounding the irony, the incident took place in Calgary, a city Disney made famous in the movie Cool Runnings for welcoming Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team. Canadian anti-Black racism maybe more polite but it exists. And in many ways, it is more insidious, as you cannot always predict it, or its consequences.
I am accustomed to being racially profiled, watched and subjected to extra scrutiny in stores, airports, banks, hotels, at border crossings, and on public transit. Most of the time I put up with these irritating acts of micro-aggression as simply part of daring to be Black in a Eurocentric world. However, for my husband, whose blinding white privilege usually shields him from my daily oppressions, witnessing these blatant acts of discrimination always shocks him, no matter how often they occur.
Even in the heart of Europe where Blacks are a relative rarity, the viral strain of anti-Black racism is very present. On a recent trip to Austria where my husband hails from, we were both shopping at a popular furniture store and we both sported backpacks. We entered the building together and were visibly a couple as we tried to select a small dining table. However, when we were leaving, the cashier insisted that I open my bag to be searched while my husband who was standing next to me was not even questioned. He was livid and demanded to know why I was being searched. Was it possible that I had smuggled out a dining room set in my knapsack? He therefore demanded to be searched as well. The shocked cashier quickly waived us through but not before my husband swore loudly for all to hear that we would never shop in that store again because of their racist behaviour.
My husband often threatens to write to anyone in charge of establishments where he witnessed me being discriminated against, but I always dissuade him. I never saw the point of protesting as the odds seemed so stacked against me.
But the worldwide riots and the toppling of racist monuments from America, to the UK to Europe, has given me cause to rethink my previous passive responses.
As a history-grad I preferred a nuanced response to dealing with colonial and racist imagery. For example, I previously advocated for the full story to be told about monuments to persons who engaged in anti-Black barbarity instead of simply erasing them. So, instead of taking down the statues of slaveowners I suggested erecting a larger towering image over them to represent the victims of their atrocities. A similar approach was adopted by the South African embassy in London. After democracy returned to that country, the decision was taken not to white-wash (pun intended) the Apartheid depictions inside the embassy lobby but rather to overlay them with paintings of those who suffered during that brutal period of the nation’s history.
But that tactic is simply not possible to address the global scale of racist memorials.
From triumphal sculptures of the genocidal maniacs Christopher Columbus, Leopold II of Belgium, and Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald, to slave trading champions like Robert E. Lee and Edward Colston, the world is littered with totems venerating white supremacy. And they must be erased. Because, as long as they exist, they will encourage and serve as flashpoints for racists. This is not censorship. It is equity. Otherwise we must restore every single Nazi representation that was destroyed after WWII to avoid a valid charge of hypocrisy.
And for those persons who choose to focus on the fringe elements who are using the legitimate global protests to loot and engage in wonton destruction, please check your privilege and your motives. Blacks have been trying to peacefully protest against racism for centuries and we are still being persecuted and killed. Anti-Black racism is systemic and ever-present, whether or not you acknowledge it. Blacks frequently fall victim to it. How whites show their solidarity will be determined by their level of AUDIBLE support for their Black friends, neighbours, colleagues, parishioners, clients, etc. We are watching. And we will not be lulled into a false sense of security again. For in the words of Eli Wiesel, your
“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”