Barack Obama in Ottawa
The Canadian news is currently full of the visit of Barack Obama to Ottawa. People are travelling to Ottawa hoping for a glimpse, gone are the protesters on Parliament Hill who shouted "Go home Bush" and here come the fans of Barack Obama. Once I get beyond the trickle of annoyance that the Canadian Media is so interested in what the president of the United States is doing, I can go back to that day, Tuesday, January 20, 2009 when I sat in complete and utter unity with my neighbours to the south, and likely the world, my heart filled with jubilation and emotion for a country whose history of hatred and slavery, redeemed itself by electing an African-American president.
I grew up in an isolated town, an island no less, with a population that hovered around the 600 mark my entire life. When I was in grade 5 we were blessed with a visit from some teachers from South Africa, 5 dark-skinned African men, wearing traditional clothing from their country, they had come to teach us french for a week. I was ten. The stir it caused, the interest in those men was completely understandable and completely unprecedented. I would imagine they were very likely the first black men who had ever stepped on our sheltered island.
I too was curious, fascinated. They looked so different. They came to class and I still remember clearly the song they taught us in french "Il etait une beregere,et ron ron ron petit patapon,Il etait une bergere, qui gardait ses moutons ron ron,qui gardait ses moutons"(Little Shepherdess) and their deep voices and their height, they were very tall men but warm and friendly. My first experience with diversity was positive and triggered an intense interest in other countries and cultures that has not waned to this day.
And then, at recess, a classmate said something that I remember with clarity equal to my little french nursery rhyme. Something racist. Something baffling. He said "they seem like nice guys but you can't trust 'em". Me, thinking that maybe he'd heard something terrible these men had done, said "Why can't you trust 'em?" and he said "you can't trust n......". Damn! I cannot express the feeling of disgust and disbelief I experienced at that moment. I had no history, no context in which to place this information and all I knew was that it was the most unfair, ignorant, and untrue statement I had ever heard coming from a kid who was commonly known to be a petty thief and all around hard case. The fact that he was as white as ice didn't seem to be a factor in his lack of integrity however and I knew explaining the irony in the fact that he was accusing an entire race of being untrustworthy based solely on their skin colour would fly swiftly over the top of his very blonde and dense little head. So I snorted my disgust and walked away, forever altered, for the good. I guess I owe the little ignoramus some gratitude for that.
That was my first experience of racism. My first knowledge that people thought that way. At ten years old though, what it did was solidify for me that I would not carry that as a part of my belief system. That I would never allow myself to think that someone was less-than based on something as superficial and unimportant as skin colour.
As I made my way in the world I learned, with great sadness that this was a thought process that carried itself across generations, across borders and around the world. It has always made my heart heavy and my soul weep to know that particularly, little children, have to grow up thinking they can't be who they want to be, that there are limitations to what they can do because their skin doesn't look like the skin of their neighbours and conversely that there are children who do not know that they have a distinct advantage over others simply by virtue of being born white. All people should be always aware of both sides of this equation.
I remember well a scene from the movie "A Time to Kill" with Matthew McConnoughey based on John Grisham's novel. In this movie a father, a black man, played by Samuel L. Jackson, kills the men who torture and rape his ten year old daughter. McConnoughey plays the lawyer who defends the Jackson's character. At the end of the trial, as he is describing what happened during the attack, he presents his case from the point of view of the ten year old victim. At the end of the speech he says "now imagine she is white". This scene was exceptionally powerful and highlighted the inability of people to empathise with people who aren't like themselves. And the error in this thinking is the assumption that we aren't all alike. I thought this was a profound statement of a weakness in humanity. And it also emphasised the need for people to speak up and help others find the empathy inside themselves whenever possible.
And now, 33 years after those 5 African men visited my home town, there is this man, this Barack Obama. The first thing I did during the presidential primary elections was pick up a copy of his book "The Audacity of Hope". The man is a brilliant writer. What impressed me the most was how he laid out his ideals and how he has not veered from his beliefs from the writing of the book from before his run for the presidency, they have remained steady and aligned. He's completely open to changing course should the need arise but his overall ideology is steadfast and firm. He writes with strength and a determination that he not to be defined by the colour of his skin but that his character as a man, as a father, as a human being, be his calling card.
So on January 20, 2009, along with the rest of the world I wept in celebration that an era had ended and a new one had commenced. That era of "they can't be trusted" had ended with the greatest trust a democratic country can offer, its leadership. Barack Obama becoming president that day said all of the things I couldn't put into words at ten years old when that juvenile bigot said those banal and ignorant words three decades earlier.
So maybe he's not my president, the message is still very relevant for me. My very white children see that any colour can lead a country, a big country, an important country, and this is important to me. It's of even greater import to them.
If you are sitting at your keyboard reading this I ask you to look at your hands. If they are white then you are looking at the hands of privilege. Your white hands hold advantages they wouldn't have were they any other colour of humanity. White privilege continues to exist and with it comes great responsibility. I have this privilege. My children have this privilege.
It is imperative that those of us with this privilege take responsibility in an amount large enough to balance the inequity faced by those without that privilege. I hear people say "but I didn't have slaves, it's not my fault" and to that I say "do we only clean up the messes we make ourselves or do we clean up wherever cleaning is needed?" We, in our own lives, need to balance the scales by making sure that our privileged hands work for those who are, by virtue of their skin colour, at a disadvantage. We need to speak up, we need give a hand up and we need to acknowledge its existence. We need to live our lives this way. We need to teach our children to live their lives this way.
And as a Canadian I also hear "Well we don't have the history of slavery and we never treated black people that way" and while I agree, that is somewhat true, the other day I removed a "friend" from my Face Book page whose status stated "Maybe if I changed my name to Mohammad, I'd get a job". She was a peripheral friend, not someone I know well, but I was floored that this level of bigotry was still thought to be acceptable as a public statement, never mind the fact it shouldn't be thought privately either. I immediately removed her from my list with a little note expressing my discomfort and disbelief with the statement. I hope she takes notice.
So what does Barack Obama mean to me? Why is it important that my daughters see this president and his family on the steps of the white house. Maybe I just need a sign. Maybe I need to know that most people are now able to think without prejudice, that even though it still exists in smaller pockets, that there is comfort in knowing that most people no longer believe "they can't be trusted". There is some solace in thinking that the majority of Americans, the majority of humanity even, have grown to know that it doesn't matter. And I want my girls to grow up in that world, in the light of possibility, that we, the human race, accept and understand that the thread of divinity that is expressly human is in fact, colourless.
So Barack Obama is coming to Ottawa and I'll be watching Thursday. I think, deep in my soul it helps me, it comforts me that the world is turning towards the day when we are not necessarily colour blind but that we see all the colours, acknowledge them all as beautiful and equal and celebrate the diversity that is the human race. It's what I have the audacity to hope for.