A team member at YW took a brave and bold step recently to share her experience for Black History Month. We often speak about being advocates, allies and warriors for and with women. What we sometimes forget to say is that it’s not just women who might be experiencing domestic abuse, homelessness or poverty. It’s also women (and men) who are marginalized simply because they are different in some way from someone else. Allie-ship can change lives as well as change culture.
My breathing is heavy as I write this. Partly due to the intimacy of what I’m about to share. Partly because I want to share a happier narrative. Mostly because I’m writing this in 2019. It’s Black History Month (BHM) and this March marks my 10th year living in Canada. I’ve been in somewhat of a state of existential crisis trying to reconcile what BHM means to me as a black immigrant living in Canada and more specifically, Alberta.
Story time: I love my morning commute to work. I use my 6-block walk to the train station as a time to reflect and plan. Depending on what’s blaring through my headphones, I may even fantasize about being part of the narrative of the song I’m listening to (I also practice Mariah Carey tunes in my head…I sound great!). I should also mention that I’m not very sociable during that time and actively try to display that to strangers around me. One summer morning in particular, a stranger on the train managed to completely throw my efforts off balance. He was young, white, professionally dressed and articulate. I didn’t find him particularly attractive, but certainly not anything to scoff at. He approached with such confidence and politeness, so I hid my angst for human interaction so early in the morning and reciprocated his good mornings and general small talk (the bane of my existence!).
The conversation was centred mostly on the weather *insert dramatic eye-roll*. As his stop got closer, his content got bolder. He asked me if I’d be willing to grab a drink or coffee with him sometime. I politely declined and said I wasn’t in a place to date at the moment. He took a step closer to me, a clear invasion of my personal space. His voice escalated to a yell loud enough for other commuters to hear. “You’re a dirty n***** b**** anyway. Go back to your f****** country!” He spewed other expletives but I stopped paying attention to anything other than racial and anti-ethnic slurs. Two male commuters who were standing next to me moved out of the way. If they felt unsafe, I certainly don’t blame them. He was being aggressive.
I often proclaim that I don’t need a hero. But at that moment, I did. I needed someone to tell him to stop. I needed someone to step up for me and say I wasn’t those things. He continued to yell as he got off at his stop. I still had a couple to go. When I looked around the train after he exited. It was full of people of all ages, genders, cultures, races …including my own. No one made eye-contact. No one spoke. No one gestured reassurance. Some phones were still pointed at me. Those 2 stops were the longest, hardest and most humiliating commute I’ve ever had.
I arrived at work visibly shaken. I took 5 minutes to myself, straightened my crown and tackled my to-do list. I thought about that incident throughout the day. I felt that incident throughout the day. And I’ve felt it every day since. I realized I wasn’t upset about what he said. I’ve been called a n***** on several occasions since moving here and as morbid as it sounds, it generally rolls off my back. I was upset by the lack of empathy and the feeling of complete aloneness. I had no allies on that train car. Not even people that looked like me were willing to step in. I assumed it was their own fear that held them back. I told my best friend, who also happens to be black, the story and she literally wept for me. Not necessarily because it happened to someone she loves, but more because she understood the pain and grief caused by experiences like that.
What’s my point? Being an ally doesn’t only mean not participating in behaviours that are detrimental to marginalized groups of people. It’s a call to action. It requires support of spaces created specifically for people of colour. It requires attentive listening to and believing stories like mine in 2019. It requires holding people accountable for their actions and words. Allie-ship is a skill. Like any other skill, proficiency is built over time and with practice. So take the time and practice.