Shé:kon sewakwé:kon, Robbie Brydon yónkyats, o’serón:ni ní:’i. Hello, my name is Robbie Brydon, I’m a white Settler and have been part of this community for almost 30 years.
I speak (somewhat nervously) about the conversation that happened two weeks ago regarding our soon-to-be new home. During that conversation, the most common concern raised about the building – I believe it was raised by four people – was whether they would feel safe walking down the street in the neighbourhood around the building.
I listened to this uncomfortably. One of the things I have learned in the modest amount of anti-racism work I have done is that when people talk about “good” neighbourhoods, they are almost always heavily white and when they talk about “bad” or “unsafe” neighbourhoods – or poor schools, which is something I heard when we were buying a house a couple of years ago – they are talking about places that have a lot of people of colour.
Just before the pandemic shut down our in-person gatherings, Shawn led a group of about 30 white members of the congregation titled “What does it mean to be white?” with Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility as our initial reading material. There were a couple of important lessons in that book for me. One was that the intention of our words can be completely disconnected from their impact – we may not think that what we are saying has anything to do with race, but it is heard as such in a profoundly harmful way. Another is her description of how defining racism in terms of “racists” has hindered the work of equality, as opposed to working to understand how our place in a racist society shapes our words and actions.
DiAngelo writes: “After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist… While making racism bad seems like a positive change…Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. [This] makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism.”
With some of this in mind, as I listened to us talk about our new home, my brain struggled with how to frame a response. Should I call this out directly as coded race language? That would be sure to put defences up and could derail the important conversation about the building. Should I try to rebut the specific arguments made? The argument for crime statistics seemed thin; I rapidly calculated rates for our new neighbourhood and the city as a whole and found that our new neighbourhood was right around average. Another person mentioned three bars up the street as a potential safety concern. This seemed like a good entry point for a rebuttal. We already have three bars in between 175 St. Clair and the subway station at Yonge. If the fear is not actually about bars, then what is it about?
The conversation continued with a mixture of mostly unrelated questions and the occasional reference to feeling unsafe that made me cringe. Equally uncomfortable for me were the white folks arguing they felt safe in the neighbourhood and awkwardly trying to tiptoe their way around directly saying that it was about race. I watched the raised hands dwindle and thought – both at the same time – “okay, here’s my chance” and “Wow, this has dragged on. I better not drag it out any further.”
What I was experiencing is called White solidarity. I understood that my speaking up would be uncomfortable for me, would be uncomfortable for others and could even derail the business matter at hand, so I had a large incentive not to. A question briefly crossed my mind: if there were people of colour in the room, how would they be reacting to this? Notice the “if” in that thought. I guessed that there were, but I didn’t see anyone in the small Zoom window of people who had recently spoken and I didn’t even look through the attendees. Part of me was trying to protect myself from having to take responsibility. That thought was the closest I got to pressing the raise hand button…but I continued to hesitate.
Instead, another white person spoke and simply invited the white folks in the room to reflect on our privilege. Shortly afterward, two people of colour shared their voices and removed any doubt about what they heard and felt in those comments. The takeaways are important for us, so I’ll share the snippets I remember here, hoping that my memory does them justice:
- This is the community I serve – these are wonderful people.
- We keep thinking about signing the membership book, but then something like this tells us that we’re not fully welcome here.
- I can’t invite my peers here.
- I don’t feel safe walking down St. Clair. Where was your concern for my safety while the building was in this neighbourhood?
DiAngelo writes about ways to shift our perspective. One of them is: “Giving us white people feedback on our racism is risky for people of color, so we can consider the feedback a sign of trust.” If you are struggling with taking in the message you just heard or if you are feeling attacked, I would ask you to hold onto DiAngelo’s thought. This message was not an attack, but an expression of trust and investment in relationship with the congregation.
The Canadian Unitarian Council is hosting a series of forums on dismantling racism in the lead-up to the national vote on adopting an 8th principle. One of the topics they discuss is being able to bring our full selves into a space. What happens when part of our full selves prevents others from bringing their full selves? This is where the work gets real and gets hard. How do you hold together truly being afraid and acknowledge that fear is situated in a culture that teaches us that Black and Brown people are threatening, a culture that privileges the comfort of white people over the safety of people of colour?
As DiAngelo notes, those of us with more privilege default to defensiveness. If we are going to become a place that lives into our values, a place where people of all walks of life are truly welcome, those of us with privilege are going to have to learn to override our instinct to defend ourselves – to protect ourselves – and get curious about what’s going on for the other person. (And to be clear, we can have more or less privilege depending on the identity in question, whether it’s race, gender, ability, income, or otherwise.) The gift of doing this work – when I’m doing it well – is that it frees me from having to defend myself against being perceived as a racist. My character is not under attack when something I’ve said is identified as being harmful. I am simply a white person in a culture that elevates white people and I’m on a journey to learn how not to harm people of colour. There is no expectation of perfection, but there is an expectation of commitment.
If we are going to become a place that lives into our values, we’re also going to have to get better at stepping up for each other. The responsibility for making safe space for people of colour in this congregation cannot belong to the people of colour in this congregation. Those of us who are white need to own that burden, while creating space for people of colour to speak their own truth when they feel called to do so.
This is what I failed at in that instance; I did not speak up even when I had identified the problem. Clearly, I have work to do. I have taken a first step, signing up for Hollaback’s bystander training to interrupt racism (their mission focuses on Asian Americans, but I am hopeful that the toolkit has broader relevance, too). There will be many more steps to take.
We also have work to do as a congregation. We must accept that our business as usual needs to be interrupted when we make members of our community unsafe or unwelcome. We have done a lot of work to address the homophobia in our culture, creating safer space for our queer members, with allies supporting the work of queer people in the congregation. Mark Mosher deWolfe closed his ministry to this congregation by coming out in the pulpit, an act of bravery that has rippled forward forty years in time. Art Brewer led Welcoming Congregation workshops here and right across the country. The people who spoke out about their experience of racism two weeks ago were doing incredibly brave work. We owe our members of colour the same work we have done (and are still doing) for our queer members. We haven’t built the skill to talk about race in the congregation yet and we need to build that skill.