In 1963, after reading James Baldwin’s searing essay on religion and race in the New Yorker (you should read it), the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote a letter of effusive praise to the Black author.
“I know you are more than fatigued with well-meaning white people clapping you on the shoulder and saying with utmost earnestness, ‘We are right with you,’ when of course we are right with ourselves and not in any of the predicaments you are in at all,” wrote Merton.
I think of that often. Not Merton’s insight on racial justice per se, but his ability to render his own situation honestly: we are right with ourselves.
I’ve been thinking of it again this week as Calgary city council, which is predominantly white, holds a messy public hearing on systemic racism.
A month ago, social media was overflowing with Black Lives Matter hashtags and branded statements and confessions of white privilege. Weeks later, many have already moved on. Voices who are usually in the fray of civic politics are quieter on this one.
The truth is, if you are white (as I am), you can dip in or out of the conversation on race as you see fit.
If you are Black or Indigenous or a person of colour, you do not have that liberty. Most of the folks who have spoken to city council this week, stepping forward with much trepidation and skepticism, don’t have the option of comfortable retreat.
To speak out is to be vulnerable
All public hearings at city hall are somewhat tortuous affairs. But this one has been even more so.
Against sensible advice, city hall more or less stuck with the protocols of its usual public hearing process, as if the issue at hand was a new golf course—five minutes to speak, with people waiting hours for their turn to say their piece. (In fairness, meeting chair Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra has been letting people go over their five minutes.)
It has not gone over well.
People are repeatedly told to use the mute button while others are speaking. (If you’re using a landline, one speaker noted, there is no mute button.) Other speakers are asked to wrap it up while revealing deeply personal and humiliating stories. Speaker after speaker has been aghast at having to fit 500 years of oppression into five minutes.
We really don't know what to say to people speaking at #yyccc. We gave guidelines, we told them about various issues that will come up if this hearing is held in their traditional matter.— Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation (@CanadianCMF) July 8, 2020
Thank you to the people who keep speaking. We will keep pushing for action to come.
“This is what systemic racism looks like,” said Shuana Porter, founder of the United Black People Allyship Movement, who unleashed a scathing critique of the hearing on Tuesday night.
“It is in here. It is in this room.”
For racialized people speaking out, it’s an act of vulnerability and risk. Some have expressed worry about repercussions from police or employers, due to raising their voices publicly.
Folks are revisiting traumatic experiences without support in place, and being asked asinine questions by city councillors. Councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart, for example, asked one speaker what the difference between systemic and systematic racism is.
“People are sharing their stories. These stories are re-intensifying the trauma they felt initially,” said political scientist Dr. Malinda Smith—the University of Calgary’s incoming vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion—who is co-chairing the hearing with Carra.
“We would have failed significantly if we do not act with integrity, with courage. If we do not hear them and act to change the situation.”
We cannot say we do not know. We cannot say it’s the odd case here, the random instance here.
While many individual stories have been shared—of police brutality, of anti-Blackness—speaker Makayla Forster emphasized on Wednesday night that ultimately, it’s not a matter of individual stories.
“It is not one racist person, one school, one police officer,” said Forster. “The entire system welcomes, supports and perpetuates racism, discrimination and anti-Blackness that results in the countless stories that are being shared with us.”
Forster moved to Toronto last year. She could no longer stay in Calgary after growing up here as a Black woman, living in the city for 27 years.
“My move was one of self-preservation because I needed to live in a more diverse and progressive city where Black people were not viewed as an anomaly, and opportunities for personal and professional development were more abundant,” said Forster.
The vibration of the city of Calgary is heavy, and it has been heavy for years.
She spoke of Calgary having a bad energy. Other speakers mentioned it, too.
“The vibration of the city of Calgary is heavy, and it has been heavy for years,” said Forster. “That heaviness pushed me out.”
“When I lived in Calgary I was reminded daily and violently that none of the spaces I frequented were for me. And rarely if ever did I see Black people truly supported and in visible positions of power that was not tokenism.”
Challenging the dominant discourse
In the introduction to her book The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology—an invaluable new compendium of Black prairie writing from 1872 onward—Karina Vernon probes the misperception that few Black people live on the prairies.
“Readers may be surprised to learn that the prairies is the second most densely populated Black region in Canada,” Vernon writes. “While Halifax is widely regarded as a significantly Black city, Edmonton, Calgary, Brooks, and Wood Buffalo, Alberta, all have larger Black populations.”
About 4.2% of Calgary’s population was Black in 2016, higher than the national average of 3.5%.
Vernon highlights these numbers "to map the extent to which dominant regional discourses manage to conceal such significant Black presences.”
Other dominant discourses have been challenged this week, too—such as the way education curriculum is whitewashed, and the way northeast Calgary is pejoratively regarded by the rest of the city.
Courtney Walcott, a public school teacher, talked about being carded by police in his driveway after walking home from a bus stop when he lived in north-central Calgary. But his encounters with police reached a whole new level when he moved to the northeast.
This is the same story that infiltrates urban planning, housing, health care, education and policing in this area.
“I feel as if I live under surveillance,” said Walcott. “There is more of a police presence in my neighbourhood in one day, between 36th and 68th [Streets], than I saw my entire time spent at Notre Dame High School across from CPS District 7 [in north-central Calgary].”
For him, the move to the east side of Deerfoot Trail was an eyeopener.
“I realized that the terror felt towards the northeast correlates along poverty and colour lines,” said Walcott. “We stigmatize the northeast because it is less taboo than saying ‘the poor and coloured area of town.’”
“We who live there know the story told about us. This is the same story that infiltrates urban planning, housing, health care, education and policing in this area.”
“Calgary is a city divided,” Walcott said.
“We have segregated people in need, we have funnelled them—and then we over-police them. We make them live in neighbourhoods where flashing lights and sirens fade into the background of normality, and then we criminalize them by nature of investing in policing rather than social services.”
We are divided—what will we do about it?
Will anything meaningful come of this? Many who spoke said they doubt their words will do anything, that city council is just checking off a box this week.
Met with that criticism, even Councillor Evan Woolley acknowledged that yes, city council is ticking off a box—but said the work wouldn’t stop there. Nenshi said he doesn’t know what direction this will all take, but it has to take a direction.
“What all of these stories give us is a strong sense that coming out of these hearings, there is no business as usual,” said Dr. Malinda Smith, the meeting’s co-chair, on Thursday morning.
“We cannot say we do not know. We cannot say it’s the odd case here, the random instance here. We cannot say it’s just individual and interpersonal. What we are getting is a masterclass in systemic racism.”
Thulasy Lettner, the equity coordinator for CommunityWise Resource Centre, gave some clues on a way forward. She said that if done poorly and superficially, anti-racism work ends up replicating the very problems it’s purportedly trying to solve.
Real anti-racism work is “both incredibly uncomfortable and incredibly generative,” she said. That doesn’t happen, she said, without addressing power imbalances, repairing relationships and building trust.
There is no shortcut around that.
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
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