Thoughts on acknowledging white privilege

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BLM

A protest last week in Oklahoma

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to express myself, during these most recent days of violence and racial division in the U.S., as a white male of privilege. I have not only claimed hip hop culture as a part of my own identity but also made money off of the art as a music critic, all the while feeling open and even encouraged to speak and critique the music and culture.

I’ve always tried to be careful about how I address issues that, directly or indirectly, involve the question of race. Being that this is rap, the race is African, the lion’s share of the time. And because hip hop is indisputably a black music and expression form at its root, I take care to respect any discussion of it as such, no matter what colour or creed a particular artist I cover or feature might be.

It’s not that I bring it up at every turn — far from it — but I just make sure to respect that fact, whether overtly or behind the scenes in the way I attempt to tackle a subject. I have spent the better part of my life, without exaggeration, considering the inequalities between us all. And it’s not that I think I have the answers, but the call right now on the part of the black community for white voices to speak up is very loud, and very clear. And I suspect there are people who simply don’t know what to say or how to say it and therefore stay silent.

I’m speaking in general terms but as someone who has spoken and written on the topic of black and white race relations I actually understand the difficulty of being sensitive without being condescending or assumptive. I’m not trying to defend the silence of the white community or give us an excuse, but I do see that for someone who is new to even thinking about these topics in a non-prejudicial way, it may be hard to know where to start. It can still be hard for me after all these years. It is, like anything worth doing, a learning process. But that said, we need to play catch-up on our studies, right now, today.

I used to write a weekly hip hop event column and, you know, it was fun and intended by and large to be about partying and good times. Some weeks it veered into more serious topics, over the years, but what happened toward the end was that I was beginning to find it difficult to pretend it’s all good and ignore the daily realities of oppression and injustice towards blacks and other marginalized groups. It actually became too much. How am I gonna talk about Michael Brown or the Black Lives Matter movement in a serious way and then say, “Hey, go get wavy at this show, party people?”

I mean once in awhile it can work, but it was getting to where every week there was something I felt I should say (if not about BLM or related matters, other questions of human struggle and social justice) and could not find the words in that medium. It eventually caused me to stop: not because I’m a quitter, but because I needed to regroup and think about what, exactly, it is that I am supposed to be doing out here, as a white reporter in the world of black music, that can help make a real difference.

I’m working on it. And I am not by a mile just gonna post this and then walk away dusting off my hands. This is not a complete work or statement — this is just a piece of the beginning. I’ve been a teacher and a student, at once outsider and insider, and in my own way, contributor to hip hop culture, and I firmly believe the lesson is ongoing. I have also been a classroom teacher in the more traditional sense, and though I am reticent to speak about it generally, by day I’m a daycare educator of children one to five years old in Quebec’s public early childhood care system.

I want to share an anecdote about that, and I hope those reading will be marked by it. I could not find the words over these past few days, and I believe that’s because I needed the experience I am about to describe to put in perspective for myself. This is a perspective I believe any reasonable person should be able to see the logic in. It’s not easy to write but let me give it a try.

***

Last Friday, the day after the murder of Philando Castile by Minneapolis police and in the hours before the Dallas tragedy, I was working with a group of five-year-olds. The place I work, by the way, is as culturally diverse as you might expect in southwest Montreal, if you know the city. All types of people, cultures, gender types, languages, skin colours, religions, education levels, income brackets — you name it, we have a family that represents a slice of the human experience.

My little friend walked in. I’m not going to use names here but this boy is the middle child of three. He has an older brother now finishing Grade 1 that was our charge not so long ago, and a little sister who is two, beautiful and brilliant.

I’m close with all of them, and their parents — especially their dad — but the middle child and I share a tight bond. I’ve worked with hundreds of kids, thousands if I count my experiences working in camps and school programs. You can have a good relationship to a kid, or a kinda neutral one, occasionally a bad one, even. But once in awhile it’s just something a bit more. You become real friends with some kids, under the authority of respect and care and all that is good and healthy and equally important to any child, no matter what you personally think of them.

This family is from Congo. They are trilingual (well, their parents are, but I am fairly certain the kids, French-speakers, will learn at least one other language). They are people of financial means, at least enough so to clothe, feed and care for three children, close in age, and afford a vacation now and then and new shoes when the mood hits. (The dad loves shoes. The twinkle in his eye when the topic comes up is endearing.)

He is such a warm, caring man, I’ll add. Again, same thing as with kids — you can have an okay-to-neutral relationship to parents, and probably a few more that veer toward “bad” because of the nature of the work and the sensitivity that naturally accompanies the trust they must place in us as educators. We don’t always agree on things. But certain parents become your friends, for real. It’s just how it is. People you would care to see again after their families have moved on, you know?

So my little dude, the middle child, who I have known since he was a tiny baby, comes into the class. I had been off work last week, they had been away the week before as well as the better part of this week. I’m genuinely happy to see them, chat with the dad some, catch up and the child comes and gives me a hug — like a real, we-missed-each-other hug.

I love these people so much. I was happy to know that later in the day, I’d also see his little sister. I love when the oldest boy, now seven, visits, which is luckily often. He was a tiny terror (always so smart and funny, though) and it’s really cool to see him get a little older, fall into his role as the eldest, become more of his own person, responsible for his younger sibs. I still get an immediate, familiar hug when I see him. He still runs to me. Can I say this any louder? I love these people.

***

The author's daughter with hip hop founding father Kool Herc, Under Pressure Festival, 2015

The author’s daughter with hip hop founding father Kool Herc, Under Pressure Festival, 2015

As many readers will already know, I am a father myself. I love my 10 year old daughter more than anything in this world, which sounds like a cliché. In fact, all of the clichés of parenthood are what they are, and elements of them are simply universal. An important point I’d like to make about it right now is that we, as parents, grow into the realities of our role as we raise our kids, day by day, doing our best to figure out the unknowable. It doesn’t. Ever. Stop. So if you don’t have kids, or still qualify as one, know that that isn’t just a boring thing parents say.

We say we worry. We don’t know what the future brings. We don’t want to leave our children a world going further and further down the hell hole. And I am certain these things have all been a part of the collective consciousness of humanity since the dawn of civilization.

Now think about the fact I am dad to a daughter – that is my only dynamic as a parent that I can  say I really, truly relate to. I understand the whole concept decently enough, 10 years in, I suppose, but the teen years are coming, and she is growing. I’m a single dad, sharing custody, trying to maintain as mutually positive a relationship with her mom as possible, even when it means revisiting old wounds. Suffice to say, the lesson ain’t over. But it’s cool. I love it and I wouldn’t trade our dynamic for anything.

Women are also of course tragically marginalized in this world, an inseparable topic, although for the time being I just want to echo a popular sentiment that respectfully says “right now we are talking about black lives.” Certainly that is the case with the point I’m getting at.

You can imagine my deepest, darkest fears about what lies ahead for my daughter, let alone right now as a child, for all intents and purposes, for a couple more, too-short years. And I am not going to take the easy route here. It’s easy to just say “you can imagine” and leave it at that.

But let’s get very real here and I’ll list off my dread: I fear hate. I fear unbridled male privilege. I fear rape and murder.

Moreover I fear a world where — and I believe this bears repeating, though I am not the first to frame it this way — a white rapist has his grad picture and swimming stats printed in a newspaper story that tries to write him off as the victim, while a black boy eating Skittles is murdered in broad daylight for wearing a hoodie, and then has the most thuggish photos possible dredged up while friends and families’ criminal records are speculated about by strangers on TV and the Internet.

That world scares the absolute fuck outta me. And that’s the one we live in right now.

My deepest, darkest fears for my daughter are real and prescient. The stuff of nightmares, or the awful terrors that prevent you from even sleeping. We find them used, time and again, in the plots of TV police procedurals and suspense thrillers at the movies, driving those fears home again even as we look for diversion, a paranoid reminder whenever we open a screen.

How do we cope?

Well, for one thing, we find comfort in the odds. So yes, I am afraid of the worst for my child. We teach her to be safe, to be careful and sadly, as she gets older, the “why” of it. I remember as a kid thinking people would kidnap kids because they wanted to raise them, you know? I believe that being able to address the scary stuff is a big part of parenting and so I try, within reason, to feed my kid some street smarts.

But let’s be clear: I am still raising a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, female person. The first comfort I stated above was “the odds.” No, I won’t always be able to be right there protecting her, but at some point we have to say, “Life is life, be wise, stay sharp and at worst, make the best mistake possible.” And hope she stays out of harm’s way.

***

So the other day when my little daycare friend came in, jumped on me, and gave me the best hug ever, we looked at each with genuine love and happiness reflecting back into each other’s eyes. My own teared up. Real quick. He’s smart and sensitive, and knows me, too, right? He saw it about to happen and gave me the same look of concern I’ve seen on my own child’s face the times she has seen Daddy well up. I faked another smile, blinked too fast, put him down, stood up and lunged into the washroom shared with the class next door.

The educator there, a young lady with kids of her own in our daycare, looked at me wide-eyed through a crack in the door as I let the tears go. I caught my breath enough to explain myself, and in the moment I finally understood something, for the first time, in a way that transcended sad ideas and became startlingly real emotions.

“That boy, that we love — that beautiful black child, who has such a bright future ahead — his life is worth exactly one bullet if he walks down the wrong street one day. So are the lives of his entire family.”

Let that sink in.

All the fears I outlined about raising a family and being father to a white female seem like distant possibilities when I look at it in those terms.

No one is going to fear or accuse or hold a deadly prejudice against my daughter because of her skin colour. No cop is ever going to shoot her dead reaching into her purse for ID. I can’t predict the things I don’t know will happen to my child. But I can feel pretty safe about the things I know won’t. The only way my daughter will experience police brutality firsthand is through activism, should she ever go that route. I’d be willing to bet during the Printemps Erable student strikes across Quebec, a lot of white, privileged parents weren’t just clucking, “Oh, those crazy kids!” or treating it like the frat party the mainstream media depicted night after night. I’d have been worried.

The difference is, those students and their peers chose to be there, as perhaps my child may some day choose to participate in demonstrations and activism.

My friends from the daycare were born with a target on their back. They can choose to mind their business and go about life, and still end up dead by violence because of their skin colour. Those parents’ worst case scenario is: any day of the week, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for whatever perceived threat they pose just by being human.

You can say, “This is Canada, this is Montreal, blah-blah,” but it means nothing. The day you are forced to eat those sentiments will be one day too late, when the regularity of police brutality against black people and other minorities becomes as commonplace here as to the south, and I bet if we crunched the per capita numbers, we’d find we aren’t all that much different.

Remember Fredy Villanueva? Remember Leslie Presley, or Anthony Griffin, or Marcellus François, or Bony Jean-Pierre? Remember Paul McKinnon, the white, private school student who was run down crossing the street by a cop car in NDG at age 14 because the drivers couldn’t be bothered to run their siren? I remember that one all too well. He was my classmate at Loyola High School and I got to experience that horror at age 12, revisiting it for years as the system dragged its feet to allot any form of “justice” to his family, or any of the other unlawful murders mentioned here.

Canadian racism and systemic abuse is as powerful a brand as any, people. Let’s not pretend or think we’re better than the U.S. or any demonstrably unequal society. Thinking we’re better than that is dangerous.

This snake of a topic has so many more venomous heads, but I’m hoping the ideas I stated here — whether you agree, disagree, or see from another perspective — can create a dialogue and help expose ignorance and educate minds vulnerable to their own sense of privilege.

Peace, and all the love for taking time to read this.

#BlackLivesMatter ■

Darcy MacDonald is a regular music and culture contributor at Cult MTL. Reach him @ShineCultMTL

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