The thing about being overly self-conscious, as I have been all my life, is that it makes one truly reflective. I may make it seem that I can deliver remarks ‘off the cuff’ or unscripted but, in truth, if I know I’m being called upon to speak, I spend an inordinate amount of energy on planning what to say. In fact, I am probably a life-long runner partially because it gives me uninterrupted time to think, to plan, to review, to reflect.
Self-reflection is something I would highly recommend for everyone. It may not come easily but, with practice, it can become automatic. The benefits are obvious but the downside is it plays havoc with one’s self-confidence, especially when the reflection reveals one’s flaws and shortcomings.
In hindsight, though, the depth of my self-reflections has been rather shallow and my focus has tended to be quite self-serving. I realize that I was not always motivated to be reflective necessarily to improve myself or even to contribute to the greater good of my part of society at large. Rather, my central focus has often been to avoid being embarrassed or the focus of ridicule. To me, the worst thing that could happen would be to be laughed at when I was not trying to be funny. It is probably why I have always tried to be the source of humour to avoid being the target.
The events of 2020 thus far have caused many of us to reflect on several very crucial issues including our mortality in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic and our privilege, or lack thereof, in the case of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by police. In early March, when the stay home order came from the Governor of California, I noticed that I was feeling the physiological symptoms of anxiety that I had encountered a few times before in my life at times of high stress. At the time, I was not aware of anything that could have been the source. Upon reflection, I have concluded that it was the news of the pandemic and that I was in one of the target groups since I am in my mid-sixties. I learned long ago that, for me, dealing with emotional stress is best countered with physical stress: I made of point of running every other day. This has always been very therapeutic for me and it seems to have worked. I practice social distancing, staying home except for my runs and a bi-weekly grocery shopping outings.
But no amount of physical activity can possibly counteract the devastatingly stressful effects of the deaths of Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor on me. They are the latest in an uncountable number of African Americans who have suffered humiliation, indignities, physical violence, and even death for no reason but they were black over the past 400 years. As a scientist, I know that the entire concept of ‘race’ is based on the worst sort of pseudoscience. And, although race has no basis in genetic science, it does exist in a far more influential realm: public perception. Governments have institutionalized race with people regularly asked to declare their race, which we do without giving it another thought. I have done it in the past but, from now on, I refuse to participate in any overt act that perpetuates the myth of race.
Like many white people, I believed that I was not a racist. After all, I married someone who is of Chinese descent: surely that was proof, wasn’t it? But being overtly racist is just one part of race relations. A person who expresses overt and unequivocal racist behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg thanks to how racism is baked into almost every aspect of life. Racism is something we learn growing up and is part of many of our institutions and laws, and the policies and procedures of our industries. At least the blatantly white supremacist makes it very clear where they stand and people of colour know what to expect. But, it’s the smarmy, sometimes passive-aggressive, behaviour of white people who skirt along the boundary of racism who are a more insidious threat to people of colour. With a nod and a wink, or the roll of the eyes, white people can communicate their racist thoughts to other whites when dealing with a black or brown person. The meaning is usually clear.
As a result of the events of May and June 2020, I have been reflecting, deeply, on the privilege afforded me by the fact I was born with white skin. I admit that I have no understanding of what it must be like to be a person of colour. But, I can say that, by listening more closely and openly to those affected by white privilege and racism, my understanding of privilege has become more sharply focussed. In the not so distant past, I would have rejected, at least in part, the notion that I was especially privileged. My family wasn’t rich by any means. There were eight of us, including my grandmother, and both my parents had to work. Yes, I was extremely ‘lucky’ in my life to have been able to go to good schools and get not one, but four university degrees. I was ‘lucky’ to have been hired at some excellent universities, including the University of Toronto, the University of Auckland, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the University of Brighton. But, I know now that I had serious advantages over others: I am white and a male and a native English-speaker who comes from a country that has a complicated history with race and language. I grew up in a predominantly white community of Newmarket, Ontario which once belonged to the Anishinabek Nation, although we never gave a thought to those original owners of our land. People of colour were rarely seen and mostly worked in some sort of service industry, e.g., nurses and restaurant workers. My parents and my church taught me to be kind and treat people as I wanted to be treated. But, I knew nothing about people who looked different from me. More importantly, I did nothing to try to understand what their lives were like.
To black and brown people I know or encounter, I want to say that I am listening to you in ways that I have never listened before. I will no longer say that I do not see colour when I see you: I will celebrate all that you are – your uniqueness and the ways your culture enhances the overall culture of our entire society. I promise to call out racism wherever I encounter it – I will not passively sit back and ignore it when I see or hear it. I will not be afraid to talk about issues of race and racism with my family and other white people, even if it makes them uncomfortable. I will address my own biases, conscious or unconscious. I pledge to do better and to encourage everyone I meet to do the same.