My Racial Awakening

In this brave new era people who discuss racism are viewed as society’s greatest dividers and agitators. Meanwhile, the people who’s lives are structured around racist assumptions and beliefs use the excuse of “colour-blindness” to shut down any discussion of racism. I have discussed this in my previous piece, which Talib Kweli was gracious enough to read and retweet. Since that piece discussed my current passion for the topic of race, I wanted to use this piece to discuss the reason I joined the discussion.

Until I was about thirteen, my view of the world was similiar to most conservatives. I thought racism was something historic, with only a few outliers remaining, such as the Klu Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. Elementary and high school taught me about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and Jim Crow, but never taught me about the more subtle forms of racism that are far more prevalent. My lessons on stereotyping and racial profiling were all extra-curricular ones until University. My experiences fortunately did not subject me to violence, but I don’t think they should be ignored simply because they didn’t result in violence or death. No matter what justifications people will want to use, my experiences show that people are not as “colour-blind” as they claim.

When I was thirteen my stepdad (at the time) and my mom announced that they were moving to England due to a work transfer. While they sorted out the move, I lived in Jamaica for one year with my uncle.

I think my time in Jamaica actually offered the most stark contrast possible to the experiences I would have in England. I moved from a country that was over 90% black to one that was less than 5% black. Of course, Jamaica has its own issues of discrimination, with colourism becoming a growing phenomenon, which is also leading to more skin bleaching as people try to lighten their skin to something they view as more beautiful.

However, when I was in Jamaica, I definitely didn’t receive the same level of scrunity for my skin colour as I did in London. At thirteen, I wasn’t as self-conscious as I am now. I initially ignored people staring,  people crossing the street or holding their purses tighter when they saw me. London has a decent black population, but the area I was living in was apparently one where they weren’t as welcome. Some people will be quick to say that this is an issue of class then, not race. However, I retort that this is an issue of race and class intersecting. What I experienced would not have happened to a white thirteen year old living in London.

I was one of the few black people at the first school I went to in England, and I think this also facilitated my release from blissful ignorance. Of course, being one of the few black people did not guarantee racism. I didn’t mind that people noticed I was black. I was never conservative enough to view their ability to see me as a mark of discrimination. Contrary to conservative doctrine, seeing someone’s colour isn’t racist. The issue is how you treat them due to their skin colour. I never felt discriminated against at the school like I did on the streets or in my own apartment. The issue at school was a more harmless form of ignorance, that nevertheless made me realize how different my race made me. As mentioned before, my mother didn’t want me growing my hair long, and this is a habit that has stuck with me. However, I would usually grow my hair out for a few weeks before getting it cut. I’d have a nest of curly hair less than an inch long on my head, which still managed to fascinate some of my classmates. I can remember plenty of them running their hands through it.

Yes, London may be a relatively diverse city but these kids didn’t grow up in that London. Southbank International School was a home for the children of wealthy Brits and expats, many of which apparently didn’t mingle that much with people of other races. There was even a rumour that I was related to the only other black person at the school, a girl a few grades older than me. This girl and I never spoke. I didn’t even know her name. It seems like people assumed we were related simply because our skin was the same tone. At the time, I didn’t consider this a subtle manifestation of racial ignorance. Although I realized how ignorant the assumption was, I found amusement in it. I didn’t find amusement in what greeted me outside the school.

I loved the gated complex we lived in, courtesy of my step-dad’s company. It was amazing seeing so many high end cars in the parking lot, everything from Aston Martins to Maseratis. The building’s staff were very familiar with my parents, and knew me well. As I look back on the experience, I realize how warm and welcoming they were to us. While I revelled in this new environment, certain things started to annoy me after a while.

“Do you live here?”

This was a question I received from other residents. This question was never an attempt to start a conversation. It wasn’t followed by a request for directions, an introduction or any form of small talk. Usually the only response I received was a stare or maybe “Just checking.” I answered this question with a smile on my face the first few times, not thinking that my skin colour could make someone question my presence. Sometimes I may have walked through the gate after someone else, and I thought it was a fair question since I didn’t enter the security code myself.  Other times, I thought that maybe my casual dress begged the question. However, some of the residents asking me were also dressed casually. Before racist assumptions come into play, I have never been one to wear excessive jewellery or baggy pants hanging low. I don’t wear hoodies often either.

Sometimes I was dressed more formally than the residents interrogating me. The uniform for one of the schools I went to was a suit, complete with a green blazer. This uniform was nothing like the uniform worn by the staff and also should have signified that I wasn’t a homeless person wandering into the building. Additionally, I was often clean cut and sported no facial hair at the time (mother’s orders). As I look back on my justifications for the questioning, I wonder what the residents thought I planned to do if I didn’t live there. Did they think I was planning to sneak past the security at the front desk and ransack as many apartments as I could find?

These experiences continued to pile up, and after a while, I could not help but ask why I kept getting asked this question. The answer didn’t really come to me until a flight back to Canada during one of my school breaks. My stepdad and I had first class seats and while I enjoyed the privileges that came with it, the experience was somewhat overshadowed by an encounter with a flight attendant. I went to use the first class bathroom, and she stepped in front of me and pointed to the bathroom in coach.

I was confused, but didn’t think to argue. I had to pass my stepdad to reach coach, and he stopped me to ask where I was going. When I explained that I couldn’t use that bathroom, he assured me I could and told me to walk back towards the front. When I did, the same flight attendant stopped me and pointed to coach again. My stepdad saw everything this time, and angrily pointed to my seat “He sits here.” With that said, the flight attendant finally let me use the first class bathroom.

It took me a while to accept what happened. I remember fuming in my seat, wanting an apology from the flight attendant. Once the initial rush of anger passed I tried to justify what happened. Maybe my age had something to do with it? This proved to be a faulty justification since teenagers have parents who could have possibly paid for their ticket. My dress?  I remember that the weather was warm at the time so I know I wasn’t wearing a hoodie. I was dressed casually but there was no afro, low-hanging pants, excessive jewellery or metal gilded teeth in sight. There was no valid reason for this flight attendant to assume I was a delinquent sneaking in from coach to use the first class bathroom. She didn’t even ask me if I was in first class or ask me to present my boarding pass. She didn’t say a word to me. She just blocked my path and pointed to where she thought I belonged. The fact that I COULD be in first class didn’t even register in her mind.

Needless to say, by the time I moved back to Canada at age fifteen, I wasn’t a blissfully ignorant person anymore. I was embittered, injected with righteous indignation. Although I am still committed to exploring and denouncing racism, I know that this period was one where it dominated my life in an unhealthy way. I wasn’t just aware of how the world worked, I saw it as a poisoned entity. There were times in the years ahead where I genuinely saw racism where it didn’t exist. However, I think this stage is a natural one for anyone who was taught by his insitutions that racism is long gone, and then gets kicked in the teeth by reality.

By the time I entered the University of Ottawa, I still had more to learn. I was followed while shopping for the first time while in a SAQ in Hull, Quebec. A white friend and I entered the store, and an employee rushed over after a few minutes to ask if I needed help. I had my hands on a bottle of Appleton and advised her that I was fine. As I waited for my friend to make his selection I noticed the employee leaning on a shelf near to me, keeping her eyes trained on me while ignoring my friend. Although I was well aware of racism, this was a specific type of profiling I had either never experienced or never noticed.

There are plenty of minorities that will often argue that a racist incident, or a form of racism, must be a fabrication because they’ve never experienced it themselves. I never denied that black people could be watched more intensely than whites when they shop, but I somehow thought Canada was immune to such idiocy. Most of the time I saw it in entertainment or heard about it, the employees made some attempt to be subtle. I thought that maybe she was watching me because I had a bag on, which could be used to conceal items, but my white friend had a bag as well. Maybe some part of me wanted to believe she was just admiring me for my good looks.

I went to SAQ for a second time years later. My friends and I were travelling through the area and decided to stop in. While they were mainly focused on cheaper alcohol, I was eager to see if my first experience with SAQ was an isolated one. Lo and behold, I see an employee on the other end of the store move to a wall that gave him a good view of the entire hard liquor section. He folds his arms and leans back as he watches me move down my desired aisle. Two of my friends were in another section of the store and the employee ignored them. A group of at least four white girls walked in a few minutes after us, and they were also ignored.

There was no bag on my back this time, so it wasn’t like I could shove a 40 ounce bottle of liquor down my pants and try to walk out. I don’t believe in God, but I can’t help but feel like some force conspired to give me the perfect circumstances to test out SAQ’s racism. I say SAQ’s racism because “watch black people when they shop” appears to legimitately be a company policy. Two different employees, years apart, adopted the same protocol. Either they support the racist ideas that fuel that policy or they disagree but feel the need to just follow orders like the Nazis did. As soon as I left SAQ that day I knew I would never step foot in one again.

I remember watching Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, and hearing a modicum of hope from James Baldwin when he says (don’t remember the exact phrasing) “I must have optimism because I am still alive.”

Believe it or not, there are many people out there who have and continue to be experience far worse racism than I have. There are unarmed men shot dead by cops or wannabe vigilantes, whose deaths are justified due to their status as dangerous “thugs”. The concept of arresting someone without killing them seems to disappear when black people are in question. “So what if two cops were lying on top of him before he was shot? He was a thug anyway.”

Society has a conscience, but its conscience has a blindspot. I have my own obstacles and experiences that bombard me with the truth about our utopic post-racial world. They exist, and no amount of willful ignorance or right-wing slander will change that. They impact me, but they don’t kill me. I’m alive, and going strong.

Talib Kweli’s Twitter Fingers

As a child, most of the music I listened to was whatever my parents were listening to. I heard the pop and rap on the radio, but also older R&B and reggae. When I was thirteen, I started listening to music independently, getting into the alternative rock that was popular in England (my home at the time). As I grow older, I continuously seek out older music of many genres, wanting to diversify my tastes.

I first heard about Talib Kweli Greene (known professionally as Talib Kweli) when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa. I forget the context for his name being brought up, but I believe he may have been doing a show somewhere in the city. Years later, when I joined Twitter, I was randomly motivated to find his account. To this day, I have not listened to his music. I will, but this post isn’t about his artistry. Anyone who follows Kweli knows he isn’t afraid to engage anyone who tweets to him or about him. Some of these tweets come from people criticizing his career or music for one reason or another, but a lot of the ones I’ve seen are people who accuse him of being racist.

As I’ve discussed before, “colour-blind racism” is the modern racism. It is a naive mindset that racism, both instutional and individual, is dead now except for those pesky people wearing white hoods. It treats any mention of race as being racist, while also defending comments, mindsets and behaviours that rely on racist assumptions. People will say they don’t see colour, and then argue that black people would get killed by cops less if they just obeyed the law. People will say they don’t see colour, but then refuse to date anyone whose skin doesn’t match their own. People will say they don’t see colour, but then assume a black person with a good job isn’t qualified for it.

Racists are drawn to Kweli like moths to the flame. There is a sort of vicious cycle at work, where someone attempts to call Talib out for perceived racism, e.g. Talib’s declarations of being proudly black or his previous responses to another racist. Then once Talib dismantles this racist’s arguments, another jumps in to attack him because he dared to discuss race. Such is the hypocrisy of the colour-blind racist. While they have their own racist assumptions and beliefs, they are quick to throw out the word racist for those who call them out on it. “I’m not racist, you politically correct social justice warriors, (other right wing buzzwords) race-baiters are the real racists. I just think I should be able to say I don’t want more black people in my neighborhood without libtards attacking me. Black people are violent after all! That’s not racist, I have black friends.”

I have sometimes wondered why Kweli bothers to respond to these people, and some tweets from fans have also expressed the same question. Some of the haters accused Kweli of doing nothing but tweeting all day, but a look at his touring and musical output shows he is a productive artist. He handles time well, but I guess I still wondered why he bothers. Then I read Kweli’s own answer to the question, and it all made sense.

People are always quick to label racist online comments as the work of “trolls”, people who write inflammatory comments and derive enjoyment from the uproar they produce. The word “troll” implies that the poster doesn’t actually believe what they wrote, they are just saying it to see how people react. This kind of mindset, where we just ignore online racists, is downright irresponsible in this day and age. As Kweli points out, the alt-right is an entity that was birthed online. Real people reside behind the alt-right sites and comments that have proliferated online. These people have jobs, families and the ability to vote. They got Trump elected, with their own votes and their ability to spread misinformation that reinvigorated the resentment of minorities that many people in America harbour. Kweli combats racism through campaigns and events and he knows “twitter fingers” may not be for everyone, but it is one of the tools he employs to combat the ignorance that is stoked by this new climate of right wing backlash.

The people who decide to accuse Kweli of racism demonstrate one racist assumption after another, and a straw-man understanding of concepts like white privilege. User @adamant919 had the audacity to use the term “black privilege” to describe black people’s supposed natural gifts and our “handouts” with programs like affirmative action, which actually benefit white women more and don’t lead to unqualified applicants getting selected for jobs. Funny enough, the user appears to have deleted his account since. This isn’t the first user that has deleted his account following an encounter with Kweli and it gives me some hope that some people might realize the error of their ways. However, someone can delete their account out of a sense of embarrassment, without actually reflecting on their views.

This Slate article offers an interesting case study of the infamous Hunger Games (2012) racist backlash, where supposed fans were upset that the character Rue was played by a black girl, even though Rue is described as having dark brown skin in the book. One fan began collecting these racist tweets, such as “Rue being black ruined the movie” and created a tumblr account to showcase them. This article follows up on this tumblr account, reaching out to some of the twitter users to get their thoughts.

The user who wrote this tweet argued that she didn’t mean to be racist. She was just surprised that Rue was black since Rue was supposed to remind Katniss (the white, main character) of her sister. Firstly, “remind her of” doesn’t always mean “look like”. If she was truly “colour-blind” then Rue’s skin colour shouldn’t have even registered with her. Aside from the terrible excuse offered by the twitter user, the author brings up a point that a lot of people like to use for defending racists online: “This kind of drive-by scapegoating does not seem conducive to genuine reflection (and it definitely doesn’t encourage reflection in the individuals it scapegoats).  It allows us to point the finger at other, younger, relatively powerless people, rather than consider the ways in which we’re implicated in a problem that is much, much larger than a few misguided teenagers on Twitter.”

I have heard people say the same thing to Kweli about his Twitter comments, and it usually comes across as very disengenious. Some of the users from the Hunger Games example may be teenagers, but some of them are grown men and women. The same goes for the alt-right. People who throw out the “don’t shame people” argument out act as if there are no attempts made to examine racism on a much larger scale. There is plenty of information online, in classes, on tv that sheds light on the much larger problem of institutional racism. People choose to ignore these sources. People choose ignorance. They reject enlightenment as left wing propaganda, the work of libtards or social justice warriors. People surround themselves with friends and sources who share the same views and refuse to challenge any of their assumptions about the world. How exactly should their racist comments be dealt with?  Conservatives love to throw out the argument of free speech to defend bigotry and no one is saying they don’t have the right to make such comments. My question is: If someone is willing to go online and criticize someone’s skin colour or attack a rapper for his liberal beliefs, why are we discouraged from exercising our free speech and shining the spotlight back on them?

As Kweli says, if someone is already racist “when I respond to them, it doesn’t matter what facts I give or how much sense I make. They’re going to be who they are.” Being kinder to the racists won’t make them more prone to ‘reflection.” The real purpose behind responding is to avoid having your message become silenced. There were probably millions of people, viewing one racist comment after another from the alt-right and thinking that all those comments wouldn’t have any impact on their lives. They stayed silent, and let misinformation and racist rhetoric fill the void. They may as well have packed Trump’s things and moved them into the White House for him.