Heather Hunter July’20

Race Relations in My Lifetime

By Heather Hunter

For 21 long seconds, our Prime Minister stood in stunned silence with cameras rolling at the June 2 press conference. He was asked how he felt about President Trump’s dealings with the protesters after the police murder of George Floyd. I held my breath, willing Trudeau to speak. Was he okay or had the multiple crises of late been too much for him?

When he spoke, he chose his words carefully. I understand the PM’s reticence. To criticize Donald Trump is to risk a trade war with the United States. I am afraid to speak at times, afraid of saying something that will be misconstrued or deemed politically incorrect. Regardless, we must all dare to speak out against injustice and racism.

I am disgusted and outraged each time there is an incident of white police brutality against visible minorities. It makes me ashamed of my race. What can I say that will make any difference? What do I know? I am a member of the privileged white majority, a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who cannot presume to fully understand the pain a victim of racism feels.

I have an inkling though. I have experienced rejection on the basis of my heritage. I am an English Canadian who lived in Quebec in the 1970’s during the October Crisis and when the Parti Quebecois came to power. I married a French Canadian and was never really accepted by my in-laws. I was taunted by my husband’s siblings during rowdy political debates at gatherings. His large separatist family blamed my kind for historic injustices perpetrated against the French in Canada. I couldn’t take it. I was out-numbered. After 8 years of living in Montreal, I moved back home to Toronto. I escaped just before the Referendum of 1980.

Now I worry about my granddaughter. Will she experience discrimination, be excluded and insulted based on her Filipino heritage? Her multi-coloured classmates and friends don’t seem to discriminate due to their differences. This gives me hope, but Anti-Asian sentiment was evoked by the COVID Pandemic. In trying times, people seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Chinese people have been targets of late.

While walking my dog in Thompson Park, I pass a black family on the path. Their little boy on his bike stops to ask if he is friendly. We begin to chat about dogs with mine straining at the leash to get close enough for a pat. I love children. They are all so endearing. They lift my heavy heart especially now during these isolating times. His mother smiles, but his father looks wary and anxious to move on. Does he think I harbour an unconscious bias which makes me a contributor to systemic racism or do I suffer from a collective guilty conscience? When I see a little black boy, I am afraid for him? Will the world treat him justly when he is older? Will a racist police officer intimidate him, beat him or kill him? Has he been taught a script (“Yes, officer … No, officer.”) to placate a cop who may be racially profiling him? What does a black mother feel each time her teenaged son goes out the door? I can only imagine.

I feel for the police officers too, the vast majority who only want to serve and protect. Frequently they are targets of verbal abuse and physical attacks. We cannot generalize about anyone, judge a group by a few. Under the uniform, they are human beings whose job it is to walk into dangerous situations. The call to defund the police and send social workers into volatile situations is an ill-considered, knee jerk reaction.

I was a child in the 1950’s. In the southern states, segregation was brutally enforced. “For whites only!” signs hung in public places. I chanted the racist rhyme,“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a (not tiger) by the toe”, without even knowing what I was saying (but my parents must have). I visited cousins who lived in Detroit. The little black children who rode their tricycles past their house smiled trustingly at my uncle when he patted them on their heads and gave out humbugs (candies). He referred to them as “Piccaninnies” (Creole for small child, now an offensive term) and so we thought black children were a different species from us.

I remember the turbulent 60’s. I saw images on television of Detroit burning and violent police clashes with civil rights activists. I remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s triumphant March on Washington and him being gunned down on that balcony in Memphis in 1968. A charismatic, eloquent and inspiring leader – he was and is a personal hero of mine. He represents justice, peace and the love of God for all. Malcom X was more militant and at odds with MLK’s belief in peaceful resistance. He, too, was assassinated in 1965 at the age of 39. The Black Panthers were founded in 1966 to protect residents of black neighbourhoods from police brutality. So how can it still be happening?

Canadians were nervous observers of the civil unrest below the border. But we didn’t have a “black problem” here. My world was white. There was only 1 black girl in Thompson Collegiate when I was a teenager. In the 70’s, things began to change. Multi-culturalism was institutionalized by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government by increasing immigration to Canada. There are people who decry his actions today.

At U. of T., my eyes were opened by new friends who came from Trinidad to study. “Black is beautiful” was a slogan and Afros were in style. We fell in love with Sydney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and intermarriage gained acceptance with the younger generation.

King said, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” The necessity for protests against systemic anti-black racism persisting today is a sad and shameful fact. Prejudice is a pandemic, a social ill as widespread as COVID. Covert racism in Canada is being called out; we cannot afford to turn a blind eye any longer. As King said: “it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

The rallies and protests have a different tone from early days. The police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked outrage, not just in the US, but worldwide. MLK said: “We cannot walk alone…. We cannot turn back.” His vision is being realized. Diverse groups are marching and protesting together to raise the consciousness of society. There is a real will for change.

70 years, my lifetime, is not that long, and yet, too long. With the perspective of age, I see slow but sure progress in race relations. There is a societal movement toward higher ground.
We are awakening.