By Margaret-Anne Enders –
I heard the news and my heart sank. A group of Syrian refugees was pepper sprayed as they attended a welcome event in Vancouver. The shooting recently in our own community provoked similar feelings of sadness and loss. Looking for some wisdom, I turned to one of my go-to books for theology and ethics, The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity by Daniel Maguire. In it I found a simple, provocative statement: “Liberation, not creation, was God’s identifying act.” Yes, liberation. But how and from what?
Liberation is a central motif in many world religions. Sometimes it is liberation from an external power, such as in Judaism, the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt and the Sikh Guru Hargobind being released from prison with 52 other princes. Often it is liberation from internal struggles as in understanding one’s own suffering in Buddhism and the forgiveness of sin in Christianity. The mythical and historical narratives from sacred texts have wisdom in their own right and also call into focus teachings for the here and now. It seems each day and age has its own shackles that yearn for and even demand liberation.
What do these teachings call into question in our day and age? What holds Williams Lake and the Cariboo in its tight grip?
One of the biggest challenges our community faces is racism. Racism does damage to individuals. It shapes identities and creates trauma.
The mix of trauma and lowered self-esteem and self-worth affects every part of life: interpersonal relationships, performance at school, employment, parenting, and the ability to cope with stress. On a community basis, racism affects the movement and connection of people: who we sit beside at a hockey game, who speaks first and most often, who feels respected shopping in stores, who feels safe walking the streets.
Systemic racism affects medical care, education, and employment. Racism is an issue that affects everyone in the community. Until everyone feels safe and valued, none of us can experience the fullness of life that healthy communities can offer.
In the coming months, the Multiculturalism Program at the Canadian Mental Health Association, together with our community partners in the Racism Awareness Network, will be launching a campaign to bring awareness about the incidences and experiences of racism in our community. We want to listen to the voices of those whom our society has made more vulnerable through discrimination, prejudice, and abuse. To many of us who identify as white, racism is invisible because it doesn’t happen to us. We know it happens, but it is too easily forgotten because it doesn’t affect our daily lives.
Our hope is this campaign will make the racism experienced by people in our community more visible. We hope people will be more aware of the impact of their own and others’ racist actions. We hope it will challenge assumptions and generate conversation.
This last hope is tenuous, as we know these may not be easy conversations. Racism is a delicate and thorny issue and as such the conversations may be uncomfortable. Stepping into unfamiliar territory can feel unsettling and even a bit unsafe, for a variety of reasons.
First, words have such power—to break down and to build up, to heal and to destroy. With delicate issues, people often keep their mouths closed because they are afraid of the power of their words. They don’t want to rock the boat or say the wrong thing. Other times, people don’t trust they will be heard. One of the damaging things about racism is that white voices are heard first, more often, and louder than other voices. How can we shift that power differential?
Second, language is tricky. Sometimes I find that when I when I try to formulate the “right” words and phrases, I can get stuck. What words do I use to identify people? Do I say white or Caucasian or settler society? Does it matter? Does the political correctness of Caucasian or settler actually turn people off of a discussion? What do I call those who are not white? Even identifying someone as “not-white” carries a sense that white is the norm, the standard by which we measure. Do I say people of colour? Visible minorities?
Third, experience is varied. There is no blanket experience of racism. So many variables affect one’s life experiences: gender, socio-economic status, personal resilience. It is impossible to paint just one picture of what racism looks like, so therein lies the invitation to seek out and notice other pictures and then see how those fit into an even bigger picture. It is easy to assume both the events and the effects of racism, but those assumptions may further rob someone of their own story. Take the time to listen.
Additionally, some white people would say they, too, have experienced racism. It is easy to brush off such experiences in a society where the balance of power is held by white people. However if our goal is to open up the conversations, everyone needs to be heard and through that experience of sharing, compassion for the other can be discovered and nurtured. White people, especially those of us whose inclination is to talk just to fill the silence, have to remember how important listening is, and that our brief experiences of racism are not the same as those who live with prejudice and discrimination daily in a world of white privilege.
Lastly, it feels uncomfortable that those who are subject to the most racism are also asked to be teachers to those of us who want to be allies. It feels like a further burden to request of others that they help their oppressors learn about humility, compassion, and justice.
My suggestion is to see this time of learning, discomfort, and uncertainty as a doorway to liberation, both personally and for our community. Enter a conversation with an open heart and an open mind.
If someone corrects you on your language, just say thank you. If you are confused, ask for an explanation. If someone uses a term that is considered offensive, perhaps they are unaware. Give the benefit of the doubt and gently offer a more suitable term. It is so easy for conversations to get derailed by people taking offense. We can see this as a learning and growing experience for all. Let’s set our intention for liberation of all of us.
In the coming weeks watch for our campaign on FB (Women’s Spirituality Circle in Williams Lake; Canadian Mental Health Association Cariboo-Chilcotin Branch), Twitter, the media, and posters. If you would like to receive updates, please call me at (250) 305-4426.
In her work with the Multicultural Program at Cariboo Mental Health Association, as well as in her life as a parent, partner, faithful seeker, left-leaning Christian, paddler, and gardener, Margaret-Anne Enders is thrilled to catch glimpses of the Divine in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. To find out more about the Women’s Spirituality Circle, visit www.womenspiritualitycircle.wordpress.com or on Facebook at Women’s Spirituality Circle in Williams Lake.