I had intended to write more about this throughout last year. This post is long, I know, but it was either long or not at all, and it’s been “not at all” for months because I couldn’t do short.
Part of why I haven’t written more frequently is because I had the idea that as I did my reading, listening, learning and sitting with everything that I would naturally come to these plateaus of a-ha moments where I would have something specific that I could write about and share with you: “Hey – check out this thing that I just learned!”
But, it hasn’t worked out like that. There were just so many things that astounded me or punched me in the gut that I didn’t know where to go with it.
For example, I was floored…totally floored…to learn that the last federally funded residential school in Canada didn’t close until 1996. 1996!!!!! How is that even possible? Surely people knew. And obviously we didn’t care. So many heartbreaking things.
Anyway, there were so many things that I just got kind of paralyzed with it, I guess. A weird kind of writer’s block where, instead of not having any idea of what to write about, I had too many ideas and didn’t know where to start.
However, that is not to say that I hid my head under the sand with an “Oh well – there’s too much and what difference can one person make, anyway?” attitude.
If we were to all adopt that attitude nothing good would ever get done in this world.
So I kept reading and watching shows and videos, going out of my normal way to expose myself to things that would not have naturally shown up in my daily life, or that Instagram’s, YouTube’s or Google’s algorithms figured that a middle-aged white woman wanted to see. (As an aside – I think we all need to do that – we can’t wait for learning moments to just drop in our laps…we have to seek them out.)
Also I’m a firm believer in the power of making changes in our own individual little corners of the world. Specifically in this case, starting with myself. After all, I’m the only person that I have any real control over so the most sensible place to start is with me.
For myself, the thing I’ve been really working on is becoming more aware of my own unconscious biases. I know some people are struggling with that concept, but while it hasn’t always been easy to uncover what they are, the concept itself was easy for me to grasp and accept.
I mean, we have biases – conscious and unconscious – in probably all areas of our lives. At the most basic, they are like preferences. I grew up on the coast of Newfoundland, for example, with the sound of the ocean lulling me to sleep. To this day, my ideal peaceful moments involve being near the ocean (hence my Irish holiday for my 50th birthday in 2019) or at least near some sort of body of water. Conversely, people I know who grew up in or near the Rockies find the same thing with being near the mountains. Had we each been switched at birth somehow and I grew up in the Rockies and they grew up by the ocean, our preferences would very likely have changed with us.
Ditto with the types of food, music, language, traditions and so on that we all grow up with. Even if you celebrate Christmas, my idea of what an ideal Christmas involves is probably at least slightly different than yours.
If my preferences can be influenced by things I’ve been exposed to, then for me it was easy to extrapolate that idea to the opinions – biases – that I developed throughout my life in relation to people of other cultures and races growing up.
While I think I’m pretty awesome 🙂 I’m not, in fact, anybody special. I’m not the only one who has those preferences or biases. We, all of us, have thoughts and ideas about people based on what we learn as we progress through our lives. Some we learn in school and from our families, some at work, some through people we encounter along the way, and so on. Some we might not even be aware of.
The first important step, I think, is for us to acknowledge that we have those biases.
Part of that is realizing that having them doesn’t make us horrible people.
We ALL have them. It’s how our brains work. We are exposed to something; our brain makes sense of it based on previous knowledge/exposure – ideas are either changed or reinforced; and on we go. I’m not a psychologist so I’m sure I’m oversimplifying that, but you know what I mean. 🙂
It’s easier to combat the biases we are aware of. Not so much, though, with the ones we aren’t aware of.
As a next step, then, we can start to look at those things that we are aware of. There are a LOT of stereotypes about different groups. We can start with them. Think of the stereotypes about different groups of people. Think about a race, culture, group that is different from you, and come up with the things that “everybody knows” about that group.
A “nice” one is that “Everybody knows that Canadians are so polite.” Obviously we aren’t all polite and certainly not al the time. 🙂
Once we’ve done that, we can start to dig a bit deeper to see what unconscious biases we have.
Here are some questions that I’ve been asking myself and that might help you on your journey:
- What things automatically come to my mind when I think about [X group – any group that is “other” than me]?
- Where did those ideas come from?
- Are they true? (Hint: No one thing is true about any complete group of people other than the fact that they are people. Hence the expression: We can’t paint everybody with the same brush.)
- Do those ideas influence what I do or say or how I feel? (Do I cross the street when I seem someone from that group, for example?)
- Am I willing to learn different things about that group?
- Am I willing to try to change any of those ideas, beliefs or actions?
I’ve been doing a lot of this type of reflection the past several months.
And, yeah, it’s a lot of work. And nope, I don’t “have” to do it. Meaning that my life, as a white woman, won’t on the surface be negatively impacted if I don’t.
For example, I’ll still have my job. I had no issues recently renewing my mortgage. On paper, my name would put me as clearly white for many, if not most, people. I’ll go to dinner (once that’s allowed again!) and movies; park my car without someone writing a racial slur on it (which happened to a friend in the past three years here in Ottawa); and shop without someone following me around the store (which happens regularly to a friend of mine). Other than occasional sleights and issues because of misogynism and religious intolerance, my life is pretty comfortable and will stay that way.
So I could close the book now and call it a day.
But even though the surface of my life wouldn’t change if I did that, it would definitely impact me negatively as a person if I didn’t do this exploration.
This time last year, I wouldn’t have even thought to mention about how “white” my name is – and conversely how having a “Black” or “Indigenous” name can put someone’s application for a job or financing into a “Not gonna happen” pile. I was aware of those types of things – far back in my brain somewhere. But now it’s in the forefront and I truly believe that makes me a better person – a better member of my community, hopefully a better friend and also a better ally.
There’s still a lot for me to learn. But what I have learned so far has already helped me have conversations with people who don’t understand what this is all about and why people can’t just “get over it already”. I feel much more confident in my ability to explain things and have discussions that, hopefully, encourage people to think about things even just a little bit differently.
And, again, as I said earlier, I can’t change anybody but me. So this is where I have to start – and where I need to continue working.
I can change myself and at least influence things in my little corner of the world.
There’s a lot of power in that.
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