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Racism Is Learned Behaviour, So Is Respect For Diversity

Life experience and how I was taught drives how I respond to race

By ShadowsPub Published 4 years ago 5 min read
Image from pixabay

The riots taking place in the States these past few days provokes me thinking about my history with race. I’ve lived most of my life in rural Canada, giving me distance from much racial awareness, but there has been some direct encounters.

A Chocolate Nurse

Admitted to hospital at five years old, I met my first person of colour. “Look mommy, I have a chocolate nurse!” I blurted out as I caught sight of the black lady in the crisp white uniform with the wheelchair to transport me to my room.

She laughed. Mother exploded at me for rudeness. It confused me. Did I say something bad or amusing? She was still chuckling as she settled me into my bed. I decided I was funny, but not an outstanding idea to repeat the comment.

Mother bought me a black doll, named it Joanne and demanded I play with it often. Her being tuned to what I liked wasn’t her strength. Dolls of any colour held no interest for me. When she insisted, I’d park it nearby and read to it. I enjoyed reading.

This fed her delusion that I loved the doll. She made sure it survived what I tossed at it. I threw nothing physically; I tried to lose Joanne, and she kept finding her.

Asking to Be Served in a Snack Bar

I grew up in the sixties. Reports of riots and protests in the States appeared often on our nightly news. My interest in current events had not developed enough perceptiveness to separate the actions. My parents' response to both; police good, protesters bad.

The concept of racial discrimination never connected with me until the day dad and I were having lunch in a snack bar. I was about ten years old. As the waitress set my meal down a tall black man came in, gazed around and approached her. His manner nervous, deferential.

“Miss, can my family and I come in to eat?”

She looked shocked and hesitated as the room fell quiet. “You’re welcome here.”

Relief crossed his face. He disappeared out the door. He returned with a beautiful lady, two younger girls and an older boy. The waitress showed them to a table. The bright and animated youngsters chatted to their parents, who appeared wary.

People were looking at them. I’d never seen a black family so close. I thought it cool they’re the same, only different. Dad told me to stop staring. I smiled toward them and looked away.

I asked him why the father had inquired if they could dine here. He said probably visiting from the States.

“Oh, so they have to ask permission to eat in restaurants there?”

“No, but safer for coloured folk to check first,” This confused me. Why would they need to? We’re all people, like me, but different. Dad’s tone warned not to say anything more.

The Book “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin

Years later I found the book “Black Like Me” written by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist. He told the story of his experiences in the American South in 1959. He’d darkened his skin to pass as a black man in the segregated system of racism.

Reading “Black Like Me” delivered a stark lesson of the brutality of systemic racism. The colour of a person allowing white people to control their life. Whites unable to accept them as equal human beings. The casual cruelty inflicted on fellow humans. So hard for me to fathom, a person raised to treat everyone with respect.

Apartheid in South Africa

Books took me from America to South Africa and the practice of apartheid. Blacks were not slaves. Just treated like slaves. Kept apart except to serve whites. Impoverished, subsisting more than surviving.

During a visit by mother’s friend I found out she’d spent time in South Africa. I brought up the book I’d been reading and asked if she’d seen this while living there. She told me the races live apart. My mother questioned why such discrimination happened in the black people’s homeland at the hands of colonisers.

She responded with, “Oh Emily, it’s not so bad. They need the structure the system gives them.” My first encounter with casual racism. Minimised suffering because of the skin pigment of their birth.

I found it unsettling. I still find casual racism disturbing. Little has changed in the 21st century. We’ve outlawed apartheid and segregation as public policy. It’s much harder to outlaw what lives in people’s hearts, no matter how wrong.

Canada’s Dark History

What I didn’t know then was my country was not without its own dark history of systemic racism. First Nations children were torn from their parents and placed in the homes run by the government and church partners. For generations; beatings, sexual abuse and deaths took place with impunity. This dark chapter in my nation’s history still needs justice.

Perspective on my Family History

A few years later my mother told me the story of my great-grandmother being black. She swore having a black mother was the reason my grandfather never advanced in the Navy. He’d served during both wars, not a career for him. He was a Chief Petty Officer. I doubted her claim.

Another branch of the family tree with few details. The tone she used telling me the story struck me though. It was furtive, telling some dark, shameful secret. I miffed her with my lack of concern. For me, the tale was another detail.

“So, what do you think about having black blood in you?” she prodded.

“I’m sure my blood’s just as red as the next person’s. The story’s an interesting piece of history. Doesn’t change who I am. We’re all humans with unique parts.”

Maybe we all need to remember that. I know I still try to.

image by author

Shadowspub is a writer from Ontario, Canada. She writes on a variety of subjects as she pursues her passion for learning. She also writes on other platforms.

She created Prompt A Day to share with others. You can subscribe to Prompt A Day for a set of ideas in your inbox every day.


About the Creator


ShadowsPub is a Canadian writer who writes on a variety of subjects as she explores her way through the world. She enjoys creating books like journals, notebooks, coloring books etc where she can use her creative skills.

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