The Risk of Tolerating Racism

Over the past month, I have continued to use my voice to bring attention to issues that I feel are important for Edmonton’s Indigenous community. Every time I speak up, conversations are sparked, different perspectives are shared, and learning takes place. I also hope that by stepping up, I will encourage others to feel confident in pointing out things in the world that rub them the wrong way. These outcomes are my only rewards and hope they will also benefit others. I know that my opinions are not the be-all, end-all but sharing them is important to me.

My presentation to Edmonton’s City Council Community and Public Services Committee and  last blog post (which has now been viewed more than 4000 times) led to local media coverage and a lot of conversations, online and in-person. Since presenting to Council, I have been contacted by more than 60 Indigenous artists and allies who are also concerned about the lack of Indigenous involvement in the City of Edmonton’s newly approved 10-year Cultural Plan. Many of those who share my concerns say they are afraid to speak out publicly over possible repercussions for doing so, including a fear of being blacklisted from receiving grants for themselves or their organizations in the future. This is a real risk with real consequences for their  livelihoods.

And just before Halloween, I shared some photos on social media of a costume that I found offensive. My post on facebook and twitter led to local and national media coverage. It also brought out a lot of opinions about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation – a conversation that is not black and white and evolves with every grey example that pops up. In this situation, I was disappointed to see the swift backlash that came from a variety of people telling me I was being too touchy and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Like most times when I am met with opposition, I’ve been reflecting on the spectrum of responses a lot.

I consider myself to be fairly self-aware but I know I, too, have blind spots. I make a conscious effort to consider the implications of my decisions and my words before taking action. However, as I get older and gain confidence, less and less do I let possible repercussions stop me from speaking my truth or calling out acts of racism and discrimination. For me, this is about challenging myself and others to consider how everyday words and actions are a way to influence larger societal shifts. I truly believe that intentional, daily efforts is what will ultimately disrupt colonial systems.

The opposition that has come from strangers, acquaintances, and allies in the past month, has led me to have some deep conversations about my own intentions and end goal of this work. Some have been willing to do this deep dive with me, while others have avoided the discomfort all together – all leading me to more self-reflection. For those of you who have followed along via the news coverage, social media, or my blog and have formed opinions about my intentions without engaging with me directly, I wanted to provide you with some insight.

I know that there are different levels of tolerance for racism and that people sometimes see (or don’t see) how it manifests around them. As I connect more with my own Indigenous identity and learn about the power of truth as a foundation for resiliency, I am more aware of the racism that exists in our city. My eyes are open and I now see it almost every day. I also see people who are afraid to open their eyes because seeing what I see will force them to look at themselves and, perhaps too, be compelled to do something about it. As I witness those who chose to look away, my tolerance for acts of racism grows closer and closer to zero. I feel that seeing it without acknowledging it and making others aware it’s happening is a way of condoning it. Each time we turn our heads and carry on, we tell the world it is acceptable. Perhaps we believe that we don’t hold the power to change the world but we do, one action and one word at the time. This requires standing up and speaking out. Every time we witness an act of racism, we have a choice to tolerate it and silently agree or do something. I have that choice, and so do you.

However, we also live in a society that breeds conformity and punishes those who challenge norms. There are risks, both perceived and real, for those of us that speak up and call out racism and discrimination. The risks can range from simple feelings of discomfort and awkwardness to loss of relationships, employment opportunities, and even threats of harm. The risks can impact all parts of one’s being – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Because these risks can be so detrimental, they further encourage us to mind our own business and stay out of it – tolerate it and pretend it’s not there.

These risks are ones that I am well aware of. From the first time I tweeted, I realized that sharing my thoughts in a public forum has its downfalls but also its rewards. I know that my low tolerance for racism and high tolerance for risk makes me different from others. I also know that these ratios have changed throughout my life, and continue to fluctuate based on a variety of factors. Being different in these ways does not make me better than others who make a conscious effort to choose silence more often than speaking up, it simply encourages me to do it more often for those who do not have the current circumstances to overcome the risks.

I know that the boldness I exhibit by speaking out in a public way frightens some people. I have been told by some other marginalized people that I should just be grateful for what I have and not rock the boat, founded in a belief that what Indigenous people have been able to gain could once again be taken away. I also know that there are other ways to combat racism besides a call to the local paper and I do those, too, although you may not hear about it. I have many one-on-one private chats, I point out who is missing from conversations at the boardroom tables I am asked to sit at, and I ask a lot of questions to deepen my understanding of opposing viewpoints. What bothers me most are those who don’t engage in the hard conversations, publicly or privately, and are not willing to challenge their own tolerance of racism and consider the risks in facing it head on.

If you’re uncomfortable with my forward approach, perhaps consider starting with some reflection on what you might be comfortable with:

  • What are your own tolerance levels?
  • What acts of racism are you willing to let slide?
  • Which ones cross the line and, in your eyes, must be called out?
  • What have you witnessed that, looking back, you regret not doing something about in that moment?
  • What were the risks that came to mind in that moment that stopped you from speaking up?
  • What is the worst case scenario that could have resulted from your action? How would you have handled it?

I encourage each of you to consider these questions and start a conversation with someone close to you that you trust. They may see the situation differently and gently challenge you to challenge yourself the next time you’re confronted with a similar situation. Through the process, you’ll likely learn a lot about each other but someone needs to be brave enough to start the conversation.

Pointing out acts of racism and discrimination takes away from my personal time and can be emotionally, mentally, and, sometimes, physically draining. When I choose to speak up, I have to be ready to engage in the conversation I am starting and have the supports I need in place beforehand. I have learned to enter these conversations with intention and the confidence that more good will come from it than bad. The more situations that prove this outcome to me, the more willing I am to start the conversations I feel are necessary for our collective well-being and for a respectful, just society.

In a recent conversation I had with a friend about the risks I face in speaking out, she pointed out the broader need to increase everyone’s risk tolerance. This is the question I am contemplating today – how do I encourage others to take on more calculated risk to call out racism? For me, this has always come in modeling the behaviour for others in hopes that it will spur others to speak up. Now, I am realizing that maybe it’s having the opposite effect. Perhaps others are watching from the sidelines, only seeing the negativity it stirs up which validates their assumptions about the benefits of avoiding any personal risk.

In thinking about our past, there are figures who stood up and spoke out when others allowed atrocities to happen. They may not have changed the course of history at that moment but they didn’t ignore the wrongs around them. Right now, I am thinking about ally Dr. Peter Bryce who wrote a scathing report on the welfare of Indigenous children in Indian Residential Schools, first shared in 1907. His report was a truthful account of the poor living conditions and disproportionate mortality rates in this federal system of forced assimilation. His report eventually led to his discreditation and ended his career in public health. More than a hundred years later, his findings were validated through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. If the Bryce Report would have resulted in the immediate closure of residential schools, my grandmother and my father – among hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives – would have never been forced to attend. But instead of listening, three more generations of Indigenous peoples in our country were subjected to this genocide.

The risks are real and each of us have to consider our own ability to manage those risks. But fearing possible repercussions doesn’t have to stop us from speaking up. I would like to find ways to encourage a society that is less risk averse, where the possible impacts don’t keep each of us frozen in a place of compliance. If modeling behaviour around speaking up is not the answer, what is? I’ll continue to reflect on this and how I can play a part in encouraging others to engage in conversations about racism and understand each other’s perspectives on this complex issue.

While I don’t know the solution (yet), I do know that the consequence of inaction is a continued tolerance of racism. I want future generations to look back on us and see those shining moments when we were creating positive change in small and big ways every day, even though it made us, and others, uncomfortable. I want them to be proud of those of us who stood up against injustice, racism, discrimination, and inequality. I refuse to be remembered as one of the bystanders who knew better and chose not to act. This is not a risk I am willing to accept.

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