Racism can be unlearned. How do I know? I lived it; I once held very racist beliefs.
However, this is a happy story, and one that gives me great joy to share.
Picture this, it was 1993 and I was entering Grade 9 at a rural school. It was the first time I was ever to attend school off-reserve. At this point I had been to several different reserve schools, and had met a considerable number of white teachers and their kids, but I had never before had a truly close white friend.
There were two Grade 9 classes. One was full of only white kids and the other class was mixed with white and First Nations kids. I was the only First Nations kid placed in the all-white class, which sort of puzzled me, although I assumed it was because I’m fair-skinned. Yet I wondered if I should transfer to the other class.
The reasoning behind the split was that it was easier to send all the white kids to French while the First Nations kids went to Saulteaux.
I was sort of an anomaly, being Cree and all. I decided that I should ask my mother which class I ought to be in. Her response was: “You’re not Saulteaux. You don’t have to take Saulteaux just because you’re Indian. Take whichever language class you want.”
That was that. I was secretly relieved because I was always curious about French. I happily remained in my class and thoroughly enjoyed my French lessons all year.
Naturally, over time I made friends with the girls in my class. I had grown particularly close with one girl, Kerri, and we had a sleepover at her house one night.
As girls do, before we drifted off, we laid in the dark and whispered our deepest secrets, thoughts and fears. I confessed that sometimes I had a hard time trusting white people, having been raised with stories of the residential schools, and other stories rife with racism and injustice.
Kerri sat straight up, offended, and said to me: “Jessica! I would never do those things! I am not those people. I would never do anything like that to you and what white people sometimes did in the past upsets me too, just like you! Please don’t ever again think of me like those people just because I’m white.”
I was utterly speechless. I think we were both teary-eyed and silent for awhile. I still feel tears well up in my eyes to this day when I think of her impassioned speech. It was a life-changing moment for me. I realized that I could never look at people that way again. It was just as racist of me to judge others, based on their race, without first giving them a chance. She was absolutely right. I had to consider each person on an individual basis, and then I also had to cut people some slack, as we all learn and change and grow throughout life.
I realized from that moment on, if my own attitude could change, and it did, that I would always try to help others in the same way that Kerri helped me. Of course, it’s a delicate subject, but I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where someone decides to make a racist comment or joke, and if you don’t want to make everyone uncomfortable with a confrontation, then you might just force yourself to chuckle along, all the while feeling like a jerk for not being more courageous.
If you’re having a private conversation, and it’s deep, then by all means, use Kerri’s method. I’ve done it. It works. Correct racism with equal passion.
Say you’re in a group setting though, and someone cracks a racist joke. You could try my method, which is not nearly as classy as Kerri’s, but is also effective. I laugh at that person and point out how incredibly racist their comment is. Tables are turned, and the joker will without a doubt become uncomfortable too, but you will have made your point clear. Likely, you won’t hear any more racist comments from that person, because everyone hates the word “racist” and rightfully so.
I know this works because of a friend of mine, whom I’ll call Stan. Stan is white, and often says the most outrageously racist things I’ve ever heard. He does like First Nations people though, sort of a ‘selective racism’, which is still not cool. However, Stan is often dramatic and just likes attention. I know this about him. He is also a very wonderful, caring, and considerate person. I know — he’s a total contradiction. I don’t give any credence to the ignorant things he says, but I always tell him when he’s being a racist jerk. He thinks his racist jokes are funny but I don’t. Instead, I battle his ignorance until he stops and we can change the topic.
Well, you can imagine my surprise when, earlier this summer, at a wedding, he was seated at a table with a few minorities. I groaned at the sight. I knew the minorities and happened to really like them.
Amazingly, hours later, he was outside with one of the minority men, helping him fix his car. Stan’s wife was incredibly surprised and she came to find me, telling me all about Stan’s new friend — they had been hanging out all night. Stan really, truly liked his new friend and he proudly mentioned the encounter to me a few weeks later. He was invited to his new friend’s wedding, and is considering attending. I can hardly believe it, but I am overjoyed with his change of heart.
All it takes is making one new friend to change someone’s attitude. I can attest to it. As you read this, I will be thousands of miles away, at Kerri’s home in Taiwan. It wasn’t easy for a writer and a musician to save up for such a trip, but we did, all because of how thankful I still am to have such an incredible friend, nearly 20 years later.