An Essay on Blackness + Whiteness + Learning to Listen

Image by Micheile Henderson

Image by Micheile Henderson

I grew up in the east end of a city that was divided, and we lived on the wrong side. This knowledge buried itself in my belly at a young age, and splintered its way into my roots as I grew. We never said we lived E.O.A. but others were quick to tell us after we’d left. E.O.A. stood for “East of Adelaide”— Adelaide being the main road on which London, Ontario teetered; the line upon which the city seemed to use in its division of programming, infrastructure, and identity. Living E.O.A. meant you were literally on the other side of the tracks, an idiom commonly used to describe the poorer and/or more dangerous side of town.

I remember my mom saying it once— “We’re gettin’ out of E.O.A.”— like it was something important for us to escape. After leaving, I’d hear adults and the children they’d raised throw around the letters like they were revolting. I really despised these interactions but struggled to confront them. As a teen, I would spout the letters with wild pride and watch all the jaws drop around me— “I’m goin’ E.O.A. tonight!” I wanted to prove there was nothing wrong about it. My peers would say I was crazy, but I’d made a new friend and there was a bar over there that hosted punk shows and we were looking for an outlet. My mother didn’t mind driving us either. It was in our old hood and a part of me thinks she felt proud of my fabricated defiance.

While living E.O.A. in the 90’s, I attended an elementary school that closed in 2017 due to low enrolment. I can only imagine dozens of families having flocked west, spending the majority of their children’s lives working hard to ditch the label placed above their doors. When I drive through the neighbourhood today, it feels like all the businesses died with their original owners. Nothing is rejuvenated. The paint was peeling then. The walls are barren now.

From kindergarten to grade five, I attended a school with a racially diverse mix of middle-class families. While I don’t have conscious memories of racism there, my strongest conscious memory of race is rooted in food. I discovered the places my friends were from over dinner at their houses— Portuguese chicken, Polish pastries, Ethiopian sega wat stew, Jamaican BBQ, El Salvadorian cakes… It was not uncommon that I would spend evenings with families that spoke little or no English to me. This was just how life was and, still, I understood very well when we were told in Portuguese or Eritrean not to do something.

My friends and I played marbles and tag together. The most coveted props on the playground were yellow tennis balls and basketballs if we could find ones that weren’t flat. We went to each other’s birthday parties and fought about whom was best friends with whom. We included and excluded each other equally, or so I recall. 

My biggest problem was the battle I took up to convince the boys I could keep up with them; that I was just as tough and capable on the playground as they were. While I had many moments of triumph— their grins wiped from their faces due to swift defeat— my victory was often celebrated in silence, as gendered put-downs from my opponent and every other boy-kid on the playground overtook my joy. That playground tried to teach me a truth I would never buy in to: I was just a girl, and I would never be as good my male counterparts.

When I was 10, my mom and I moved across town. I started at a new school and my first memory of grade six still pounds in my chestcave— my 10-year-old body wondering, violently, why “everyone” is white. It overwhelmed me, the sameness, the extravagance. I got really mad about it, moreso because I felt cheated, like there was another world out there I didn’t know existed. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How many other realities were there?

There were BIPOC girls at my new school and I didn’t even notice; the colour of their skin was overshadowed by the jealousy I felt after seeing their huge, cookie-cutter homes in new subdivisions that came with fresh carpets. Shame and confusion, for years, would blind me as I grew disgruntled with classism, consumerism and whiteness, battling with my mother over the brand name sneakers, lip gloss, and $100 hoodies I needed (wanted) so I could fit in. 

Here’s the point: I was 10 years old before I recognized whiteness. The more I learned about middle to upper class kids and the way they lived and the more I thought about our old home, the harder I cried when I got home from school. Unfairness consumed me. The scales were tipped and I didn’t understand why. What was worse was I had no idea how to communicate what I was feeling in order to ask questions about it until I was deep in my 20’s. On the inside, I loathed our move from E.O.A.. But on the outside, life went on. I picked my clique, played basketball in K-Swiss shoes my mom told me we couldn’t afford but got me anyway, and yelled at the top of my lungs until I got both an overpriced GAP sweatshirt and a monthly subscription to CosmoGirl.

This was my white privilege rearing it’s ugly head. I got to live oblivious, recognize whiteness and blackness and racism, and then continue on with my life.

Truth is, we moved to get away from someone who was hurting us. This was my understanding, anyway. We didn’t move to explicitly escape E.O.A., but it did not go unnoticed that the funding, the resources, the “good schools” and the affection paid to the east versus the west of London felt incomparable.

From grade six on I spent the better part of my life noticing the inadequacies of governing bodies and the societal norms that trickled down into daily life. I spent years fighting for animal rights, marching against the heteropatriarchy, and amassing knowledge on sustainable living while fretting over the detrimental impact ◇e during conversations, especially with friends and family. This often manifests in offering alternative words, and explaining why the ones currently being used were racist. None of my conversation to date have been scary, confrontational, or scarring like I feared they might be. All of them have been important.

I committed to talking to BIPOC friends about their lives, and to listening to what they had to say. Just— listening to them. Overall, I committed to bringing up any and all of the above, and listening to what lessons were provided. Acknowledging my own white privilege, white fragility, the stereotypes I had inherently formed, the judgements that would surface at any given moment, all the way down to the way my body responded around BIPOC— I began to pay attention to it all, to listen to it, and to find out why it was there and how to address it instead of perpetuate it.

When I began to listen, one of the first things I heard was Glennon Doyle's SoulSessions talk where she calls out to the white womxn in the audience and says, while it’s really tough, triggering, and scary to be a womxn right now, “the fight for civil rights is not new, we’re just new to it.” This. Is. Not. New. I think of how easy it was for my kid-body to press down what I didn’t know; how many others must have done the same.

Glennon says “the generals of justice have always been and will always be the womxn of colour,” and she tells the audience to get familiar with the work that has and is being done already. I needed to hear this. I needed a shoulder shake. I felt late to the game but that shame nestled in my belly between grade five and six, it was time to face it, not bury it back inside.

While I’d spent my life experiencing the unfairness of a heteropatriarchal divide, Glennon reminded me that my pain, my struggle, is just a fraction of what the BIPOC community has experienced. None of this knowledge devalues my experience, but this is a fact I (we) must make space for.

It became clear to me that, as a white womxn, I (we) am (are) responsible and capable of creating space for BIPOC, especially womxn. As a white womxn, it is my (our) duty to do so and I must commit to it. There is room at the table for all of us. Elevate those that have been silenced. Let them in, and when they arrive and share their stories, we need to listen. If the stories we begin to hear change the pace of things, if they challenge what we know, then this is a good thing, because our system is not working. We need to reshape it.

I’ve lent these past few years of my life to a hyper conscious reckoning— a shift in the way I listen. I didn’t start aware. I had to work (and still do— every single day—) to surround myself with voices that were once forced invisible; voices that have been silenced by the colonial-driven textbooks that taught us, voices that were and are exploited in news media, and voices— people— histories— vilified by political leaders. Yes, this includes my own voice, but not just my voice.

I’ve put my elbows up and have grown increasingly more critical of the media I am exposed to— who or what is this really about? Who is benefiting from what I am seeing and hearing? What are the consequences— what is the story—  I may not be hearing? Whose perspective is being left out, whose lives, livelihoods, are being ignored, and how purposeful is this choice? 

The truth is our systems is broken. On a grand scale, it ignores most of society. It thwarts the protection and survival of low-income individuals and families in favour of headier profit margins. It generates fear in favour of exclusivity and racist ideals. It manipulates us into needing it. It struggles to label and identify solutions for invisible mental health hurdles and everything outside the invented gender binary. Our system, our developed, North American way of life, is governed in a way that gives me goosebumps. What do I do?

I go back to listening— to the stories in my books and notebooks, in my podcasts, in my news media, in my movies, on my Instagram feed— everything that shapes the world I live in— and I begin to examine what I am consuming.

Who is writing what I am reading? What are these stories about? Where do I get these books from? What are they saying? What affect does this have on my perspective of the world? Does it perpetuate what I hope to discover? Who or what is being left out?

What sort of writing am I doing? Who am I writing about? What voice am I bringing to the table? What kind of writer am I based on these discoveries? Is this the story I want to tell? What affect does this have on my perspective of the world? Does it perpetuate what I hope to discover? Who or what is being left out?

Who makes the podcasts I listen to? Which perspectives am I shedding light on by listening? What affect does this have on my perspective of the world? Does it perpetuate what I hope to discover? Who or what is being left out?

Where does the art I consume come from? How and where is it being shown to me? Who is benefitting from what I am consuming? What affect does this have on my perspective of the world? Does it perpetuate what I hope to discover? Who or what is being left out?

Who am I following on instagram? What stories are they telling? What affect does this have on my perspective of the world? Does it perpetuate what I hope to discover? Who or what is being left out?

I was ashamed to discover that much of the foundation I laid for myself— through education and self-discovery— was from white men and womxn. But none of this is finite and no one is perfect. When we lead with love over fear and uncertainty, we are choosing a good path. I clicked around the spaces I occupied and I made conscious choices. Never again, I promised myself, will I do nothing because the answers to my queries don’t come easy. Listen: what lessens one of us, lessens all of us, and I’m through quietly perpetuating a community that doesn’t work for the equity of everyone.

Please fill your lives, your feeds with these incredible civil warriors and their work:

Ijeoma Oluo + her welcome article, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Layla F Saad, Rachel Rickets + her Anti-Racism Resources, Yassmin Adbel-Magied, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Vivek Shraya, Cherie Dimaline, Waubgeshig Rice, Madeleine Thien, Roxane Gay, Haruki Murakami, Michelle Obama, Marsha P. Johnson, Marley Dias, Gabby Bernstein, Yuval Noah Harari, Whitney French, Black Girl Mix Tape, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVerny, Misty Copeland.

& please share your mentors with me! We’ve got to be the ones to make space for one another. ◇