Towards an Inclusive Edmonton: How can we go about having a meaningful and productive conversation about racism?

I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin – save for a few childhood trips to India, where I “blended in”. Even then, I was contemplating my identity as a Canadian Indian kid and I knew that I still had not found my place of belonging.

As a child, I can remember listening to my parents sharing their stories of experiencing racism. My father recalled a time when, soon after landing in Canada from Bangladesh, someone called him a “paki” on the streets of Toronto. Little did the perpetrator of the racist act know (or perhaps he did) that my father was a Bangladeshi whose life was torn apart by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. As a Hindu Bengali, he and his family experienced atrocious acts of violence and oppression at the hands of the Pakistani army. So imagine his experience when he was called a paki. I sure can’t.

My mother came to Canada as a 12 year old girl to the small town of Revelstoke, BC. I don’t need to go into the details, but I am sure you can imagine how welcoming a small town was to an Indian family in the 70’s. It causes me a lot of distress to know what they went through.

Looking back, I think the story telling was their way of preparing me. Their way of telling me at a young age,  “Robin, the world is not as you think it is. Some people won’t like you because of how you look. Don’t let it break you.”

I can remember doubting their lesson. My naivete was quickly shattered as I had my first contact with racism in elementary school. And that’s when it began. And it’s continued on, in different ways, ever since.

All of my experiences, subversive or actively violent, culminated in a poignant message that communicated: “We don’t like you. You aren’t normal. You don’t belong.”

And so, as I said earlier, I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin. I often wonder if the way people treat me – good or bad, is connected to my complexion. I’ve learned well that the dominant perceptions of race informs how we see beauty as much as it shapes who we see as violent.

Lately, I’ve found myself in somewhat of a quandary. I believe that it is important to actively engage in conversations about race and privilege, as I think it is the only way we can attempt to unravel (and hopefully at some point dismantle) the complex issue of racism. A boy can dream.

I’ve attempted this conversation primarily through social media, which I am quickly learning is extremely ineffective at having a nuanced and sophisticated discussion on a topic that requires more than a Facebook comment or 140 characters on Twitter.

Most recently, I shared an article on Facebook that was posted on the GigCity website. The article explores why some people have been offended by the recent “Manner’s Movement” initiated by Sonic 102.9. It’s a well intentioned initiative that aims to help make people more polite in Edmonton. Great idea, in my opinion. We could all use a brush up on our manners. However, the intention isn’t the point of contention for those bothered by it. They are bothered by the method in which the “movement” is communicated – a parody rap video with a white cast of “rappers” dressed up in gangster rap outfits. It is unclear as to who they are parodying, but given the timing of the initiative and the recent release of Straight Outta Compton, one could surmise that it is a parody of the NWA. Describing the parody, the writer of the article states “it’s amusing seeing white dudes from Edmonton in 2015 aping black dudes from Compton circa 1986.” I’m perplexed by the choice of words…

The writer asks local musician Brett Miles (who is black) what his thoughts were on the matter, and Brett indicated that it was just shy of black face. I can see Brett’s perspective and understand how he sees it that way.

My biggest issue with the matter was actually how the the article was written in a generally dismissive tone and concluded with a suggestion for those offended to “lighten up”.

That was what really bothered me. It’s what I hear time and time again whenever I share my opinion about race and racism. I’ve been told that there are more important things to worry about. That I’m being “too sensitive”. That not everything is about racism. I find these comments invalidating and bereft of compassion. I am puzzled by the staunch defensiveness I encounter. And I’m not special in receiving this type of feedback. I’ve seen countless others get it too. At times this comes from people I care about, and people I know care about me. It’s become apparent that many people who hold these beliefs just may not have had them challenged – and so it yields a strong response. Or so I sometimes wonder.

I can’t imagine that any caring person would act in these ways or say these types of things if they truly understood the experience of being a person of colour in this country.

My intention was that these types of conversations could incite a curiousity and empathy about the experiences of the people involved in the discussion, but they usually fall apart into a finger pointing match and an awkward e-silence. I find this very disheartening, as I do have hope that we can evolve in our understanding of racism – and oppression as a whole. It is very necessary if we expect to move forward as a society.

But, I don’t see this evolution of understanding happening online and I am at a loss as how to facilitate a real-life conversation on the issue of racism and privilege without it turning into something that only makes things worse.

This is my formal request for assistance: If you would like to help or can think of a way that we can host a meaningful forum and conversation on the subject of racism in Edmonton, please let me know. I think the time has come that we expose these types if issues and develop collaborative approaches to addressing them.



p.s If you’re interested, you can share suggestions or your experiences related to this post on Twitter, using the hashtag #yegracism.

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