When I was growing up, I didn’t know that Black History Month was a thing. I didn’t know who Martin Luther King Jr was and I didn’t know anything about the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights movement in America.
I used to have a hard time admitting that. It seems so ignorant on my part. How could I really not know any of that? I have since realized that the fact I didn’t know is evidence of a bigger problem.
See, for the first ten years of my life, I grew up in a small town in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. The only black people I had seen were the people on my TV screen. There were no black kids at my school and we were never taught anything about black history.
When we moved to a larger city with a much bigger black community, my school mates all knew this stuff. They were being taught it. I never said anything and I slowly started to teach myself through books and movies but the point is still there. Why do we need black history month? Because there are still kids growing up who have no idea (though I think you could argue that black history should really just be part of the main history education but that’s for a different post).
See, we live in a society that’s built around oppressing people of colour and minorities. Even if you don’t realize it, it’s there. Our systems have set up an entire group of people to fail. It’s difficult to realize that but it’s the truth, it’s just a matter of statistics. Did you know that approximately 12-13% of Americans are black but black men make up 37% of the prison population?
I am a very lucky human being. I am white, cis-gendered, straight, and Canadian. I’ve got a lot of things going for me. When I first was introduced to the idea of white privilege, the first instinct was to be defensive. It was like it was this gut instinct to prove that I had struggled too, because I had! I had been dealing with abuse, I was living with mental illness, I am a woman. I had so much struggle! I had no privilege!
But here is an important lesson: having white privilege does not take away from your other struggles. That’s not what it means. It’s not about tearing you down and making you feel like your problems don’t count. It’s about the bigger picture, about society as a whole, not you on an individual basis. It is a matter of the entire beach, not one singular grain of sand. It’s about understanding the fact that because I am white and have a white sounding name, my resume is statistically more likely to get a call back, it’s about the fact that I grew up never fearing the police, that I was never followed around stores when I went shopping, that the colour of my skin was never a thought to me.
This is a complicated and heated topic and I am still just learning but I think that’s the first step. Learning, accepting, understanding. Then standing up and fighting for what is right.
When it comes to all different types of oppressed groups, the main thing you can do is listen. People of colour, LGBT+, women, immigrants…everyone. The biggest thing that you can do as someone who has any level of privilege, is listen to what they have to say. It is not your story to tell but we have the platform to allow the space to let people tell their story.
The next step? Believe them. If someone says they are hurt, you don’t get to decide if those feelings are valid. Listen and learn.
I’ve found a few things, a few videos and podcasts, that really sort of helped open my eyes to things that I was unaware of. That’s part of that white privilege that I was talking about: you might not see a problem as it’s happening but that is because you have a choice to turn a blind eye to it.
Anyway…here are a few things that really helped me.
13th – This documentary is a powerful one. It deals with the prison system in the United States, showing how black Americans went from slaves to prisoners. Incredibly sad, eye opening, but hopeful. It’s available on Netflix and I cannot recommend it enough.
Black-ish – While 13th is an emotional documentary, learning doesn’t always have to be so serious. Black-ish has quickly become one of my favourite shows on television. It’s about an upper-middle class black family, learning how to go about their lives surrounded by white people. It is so incredibly funny and smart and touching. They manage to discuss serious topics, show every point of view, and somehow still make you laugh. I recommend at least watching the episode ‘Hope’ about police brutality and ‘Lemons’ about the 2016 presidential election.
Stuff You Should Know Podcast: The Black Panther Party – Now, I knew of the Black Panther Party and I knew what they looked like but I really couldn’t tell you much about them. This podcast breaks down the history of the Black Panthers, what they stood for, the cons about them, and what became of them. I was honestly blown away that there was so much history I was missing out on in my education.
Straight Outta Compton – This movie was just an incredible movie on it’s own. I watched it in the theatre when it came out and I laughed and cried and cheered along with it. Brilliant movie about the rap group NWA and their history. I went into this expecting it to just be an entertaining movie but was left with this anger inside of me. This was supposed to be a historical movie but the police brutality and riots they showed have been in the newspaper almost everyday. Haven’t we learnt anything?
Freedom Writers – The book and the movie both come highly recommended from me. This true story about an upper-middle class white teacher that starts working with at risk students in a gang filled area was really eyeopening for me when I was younger. It was the first time that I had seen anything like it and sent me off with research, wanting to study what was going on in LA at the time (it takes place not long after the Rodney King Riots). I learnt a lot because of this movie and the accompanying book.
Michael Che: Matters – I love a good stand up comedy and this one is a great one. He does this bit about Black Lives Matter that had me rolling around laughing.
I would also recommend looking up interviews and what not on Youtube. There are a huge amount of resources out there now. Just take the time to educate yourself, talk to people, reach out.
It’s time to make a change.