Sunday, May 31, 2020

The first Black man that I saw society dehumanize was my father

The first Black man that I saw society criminalize and dehumanize was my father.

I remember him telling me that life would be easier for me than it was for him, because I was beautiful, I was light skinned, and I was a girl. I’m not sure about the beautiful part, but he was right, my life has by no means been easy, but it has been much easier than his was. He was a strong man. A very proud man and a hard worker. Sometimes it seemed as though he were chiseled from stone. But at the end of the day, he was still human…and a human being who was dealt with impossible odds.

My father was not an easy man. I won’t sugar coat that. He had a hard life, and hard lives make for hard people. But in looking back, I can better see past his sometimes harsh behaviour and see a human being with his own struggles and flaws who tried, struggled against, and ultimately failed to prevail in a white society that time and again refused to simply see him as a human being. 

I remember that as a child I used to sometimes go to work with my dad. He was a photocopy repair technician. He was absolutely brilliant at taking apart machines and putting them back together. He could completely take apart a car engine and put it back together. He tried his best to teach me but, well, fixing things just isn’t my forte. He used to sing a silly little song that went “I can fix anything….any old or new thing”. We would sing it together.

But while he was absolutely brilliant in those ways, what I remember most is that he was never recognized at work in the ways he should have been. We lived in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. A place that was deeply racist then, and continues to be to this day. My father would have to go into schools mainly but also places of business and fix their photocopiers. He would show up in a neat, trimmed afro, spine straight, shoulders back, a confident stride. He would wear dress pants and a dress shirt that were always ironed to crisp perfection. He spent more time in the bathroom grooming and primping than a stereotypical teenage girl. He was very articulate. He didn’t have a stereotypical Cape Breton accent, but rather sounded like a university professor. To be blunt and at the risk of sounding arrogant – my father was most likely smarter than the entire staff in any given school he walked into combined.

None of this mattered in how he was treated, however. Because he was Black. And in this country – Canada - that is the ultimate strike against you. 

I remember going to work with my dad one day….I guess I was about 9 or 10 years old. We walked into a school in a small town in Cape Breton. We were the only Black people in the entire building. My father’s clothes were immaculate as always. His diction, impeccable, his manners were without reproach. As we walked through the office of the school, everyone – and do not misunderstand me, I am NOT exaggerating. EVERYONE literally stopped what they were doing, turned, and stared at us as if we were aliens. EVERYONE. 

Yes. Even in good old Canada.

I was just a girl. I was absolutely confused about what was happening. I looked up at my daddy wondering what was going on. He looked back at me with his ‘work smile’ – if you’ve ever worked in an office, or with the public, you know the one. It’s the smile you plaster on your face even when inside, you may be raging. 

He calmly explained that he was called in to fix the photocopier, and someone showed him where it was. While the white people who worked there eventually stopped acting so shocked, they never stopped watching us.

When we left, I asked dad “What was wrong with all of those white people?” He didn’t sugar coat it – he told me he got treated like that all the time. Let that sink in. How would you feel if you walked into a room and everyone stopped and stared at you? How would you feel if no matter where you went, people were watching you, waiting for you to do something wrong? This is what he had to deal with every working day of his life. Could he just quit?  Would you just quit if you had young kids to feed? Would you just quit knowing that no matter what job you took you’d face much of the same? Sit with that for a moment.

This was some of the easier treatment he had to deal with. After fixing a photocopier in one school, the principal called my dad’s boss and told him bluntly “we don’t want you to send that N—here ever again.” For any white people who are reading this and may be shocked, this was in the 90s, not the 50s. Thankfully dad’s boss (also a white man) told this racist not to worry, they didn’t need his business. I’m grateful that dad’s boss stood up for him, but imagine how it would feel to even hear something like that. Imagine. 

One time someone cut my father off in traffic. They were angry, they wound up pulling to the side of the road to be all “learn how drive” and the like. Only the person who cut my dad off was a white man and as soon as my dad got out of the car the white man held his hands up and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were a Black man!” My dad said “What’s that got to do with anything, learn how to drive…” etc. The white man backed away slowly repeating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were a Black man” as he got in his car and drove away. The implication here being, of course, that my dad, as a Black man, must be dangerous and this white man immediately stopped raging as soon as he saw my dad’s brown skin and backed away in unprovoked fear. Because all Black people are dangerous, right?

Parents instinctively shield their kids from the ugliness of the world as best they can. My parents didn’t shield me from racism, because they understood that they couldn’t. They knew the world would never see me as an individual. The world would see my brown skin and judge me harshly for it. My parents understood that my life would be harder than the lives of white people – and they were right. So they told me stories of some of the things they had to deal with. They prepared me as best they could. But I am certain they left out a lot. I share with you less than a handful of stories of the slights and indignities and racism that my father dealt with. Less than a handful in a lifetime worth of stories.

This is how the world saw my father. This is how the world treated my daddy Every. Day. Of. His. Life. 

But that’s not the person I saw. 

My father liked to play video games with me – Battle City on the Nintendo Entertainment System was our favorite. Oh man did he like to cheat when we played games, it used to make me so mad. He was SUCH a shameless cheat, but if I cheated, he would get annoyed * smile *. He liked to teach me about car engines. Thanks to him I know how to change a tire. He absolutely LOVED campy horror movies. Mom, dad and I used to rent movies every Friday and get takeout food. Dad alllllways chose the cheesiest horror movies you can imagine. He’d say “let’s pick something that’s rated Z...” meaning it was SO bad, it wasn’t an A list movie…that movie was at the very bottom of the alphabet. And when a gory scene happened in one of our campy horror flicks, he would always say “you see that Norm? Let’s rewind it and put it in slow mo!” My dad was a great cook – when he chose to cook that is. Most times that ‘honour’ went to mom. Dad loved NWA and he also loved the blues. He LOVED BB King and Robert Cray. Sometimes when I’m thinking of him I throw on “Strong Persuader” by Robert Cray – I can still hear his deep baritone singing along – and I smile. My father was afraid of the microwave. Every time it was on he’d tell me to step away from it. He worried that micro waves would seep out and harm my health. To this day I’m scared of microwaves too and won’t stand in front of one if it’s on. Dad loved chocolate, but always ate his Dairy Milk thick bars very slowly and often left half eaten bars stashed around the house – which we was quick to tell us not to eat. Both of my parents believed deeply in education and always encouraged us to go as far as we possibly could. Dad absolutely loved to read, but he was terrible at bedtime stories and I always wanted mom to read to me because she did the voices. Dad didn’t. 

I’m not going to say my dad didn’t make mistakes – because he certainly did – but I do think that he raised my brother and I the best way he knew how. 

My dad was also an alcoholic, and as the years went by and his disease progressed, he became more angry, bitter and rageful. Growing up I wondered how he could be so cruel to his own family. As an adult, looking back on his life, his whole life, I think – is that really so surprising?

Here you have a person, a man, born and raised in Cape Breton in the 60s and 70s. Now I know it’s tempting to say times have changed – but when you look closely at any society, you see they really haven’t changed all that much. A man, born and raised in a hyper masculine culture like Cape Breton, in a time when things like ‘therapy’ and ‘self-help books’ were completely unheard of. Society then, and now, tells men in general that they are not allowed to feel. They aren’t supposed to break down and cry. They aren’t supposed to go to a counsellor and learn how to deal with the complicated, overwhelming emotions they have when they are struggling. Most men are not allowed the healthy tools that will help them deal with emotions

But pain has to be dealt with. And drinking is a socially acceptable way to “blow off steam”. Alcohol is also highly addictive. So is it any wonder that a man, told by society that he is not allowed to be “weak” would turn to an outlet that society tells him is okay to use? Is it a stretch that a father and husband can treat his family in cruel ways when he himself has been fed on a steady diet of cruelty, dehumanization and racism?

Dad died at 55. Stroke, brain aneurysm, heart attack. One after the other, boom, boom, boom. During his life he struggled with alcoholism and high stress, and it caught up to him at an early age.

They say Rodney King died of accidental drowning due to a combination of alcohol and drugs in his system. I contest that those substances alone did not kill him. I think he used those substances to try to escape and numb deep trauma that he endured from a lifetime of racism as well as the famous beating that was inflicted on him by police officers. Biologically maybe the substances are was what did him in, but would he have turned to alcohol and drugs if he had been treated with dignity and common humanity? I don’t think so.

Racism kills. In ways big and small. It snuffs out dreams. It kills potential. It causes chronic stress in Black people leading to underlying health conditions which causes Black people to die earlier, on average, than their white counterparts. I myself developed health issues after dealing with chronic stress due to living in a racist town. 

Racism can kill quickly, like when a cop pulls a trigger, but it can kill slowly like when a Black man who is just trying to go to work and feed his family comes home every night and reaches for the bottle in a vain attempt to numb the pain of the injustice at being treated as sub-human day in and day out, year in and year out. 

Often when people of colour try to speak out about our lived experiences, we are told by white people that we are just being sensitive … or that racism doesn’t happen in Canada….or because it’s 2020 racism can’t possibly still exist. In doing that, we are ultimately given the message that our lives, our pain and joy, struggle and suffering – don’t matter. That’s why we say Black Lives Matter. We aren’t saying White Lives don’t matter. We are saying Ours Matter TOO!

George Floyd was a Black man who was somebody’s father. I believe racism played a large part in stealing my father from me. He didn’t have his neck crushed under some racist white cop’s knee. But he did have his soul crushed…in ways big and small.

The world saw my father as a criminal, just like that racist white cop saw George Floyd as a criminal. The world looked down on my daddy because of the colour of his skin. My father was so strong it seemed as though he were chiseled from stone. And yet, trying to carry the impossible burden of racism ultimately crushed him. My father was a human being…and so is every single Black man walking this earth today.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I’m deeply triggered by what is happening in the world, as are many MANY people of colour. I have ALWAYS been deeply triggered by racism, and often met with confusion by my white friends and coworkers when they saw my reaction. I am hoping this story helps shed some light. I tell this story so you can see just why we POCs would be so deeply triggered, just how deep and far back these wounds go. 

But more importantly I tell this story because I’m tired. I’m genuinely tired of hearing that racism doesn’t exist or that it’s not a big deal, or that I should just ignore it. I'm genuinely tired of white people only recognizing racism when something extreme like seeing video footage of a white man’s knee in a Black man’s neck is playing on their screens.

I contest that every time my daddy walked into an office in his crisp work clothes and heard people whispering about him, saw people staring at him, that that was also a knee in HIS neck. That every time a POC hears things like “Black people talk” or “must be check day” or “you’re so articulate” or “your hair would look more professional if it were straight”, that we feel a knee on OUR necks. I contest that there are many ways to kill a person, stereotyping and treating them ‘differently’ in a negative way is just one of the ways that Black people in this country die a slow, painful death.

I’m sharing this story so you can see that for every Black face you see out there, there is a human being with likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses.

I have never, EVER had the privilege of not knowing racism exists. I’ve never ever had the privilege of being treated simply as an individual despite my skin colour. That privilege is reserved for white people. Let that sink in. The only people who I have ever heard say ‘racism doesn’t exist’ or ‘sure racism happens but I don’t think it happens where I live’ are white people. Any person of colour knows that that’s not true.

Racism has been killing Black people since slavery. Racism continues to kill Black people and will continue to do so unless society takes its head out of the sand and starts recognizing that there is a problem and then goes a step further and does things to help enact change.

For the white folks who may be shocked by what I wrote just remember, this ain’t nothing new to us POCs. It’s only new to you. That is the very essence of white privilege. Now that you know better, I hope you go out and help us do better. Don’t be shocked by what happened to George Floyd and when this blows over forget and go back to your regular lives. Be with us, and STAY with us as we try to figure out a better way.

*Edited to add*
I have been asked if it is okay to share this post. Please do! It is important these stories get out.

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