Some of What I Got Wrong, Some of What I’m Trying to Get Right (or The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life. Part 2) / by Robyn Rapske

I care about the well being of other people. I think many people say they care about others’ well being, too. For sure every church I’ve been in claims that as a value and a goal.

Since my early 20’s I’ve tried to expand my care for others by widening my perspective on how to do this well. This has meant trying to learn a lot. Who others are, why they are struggling with life, how they would like to be treated by me, what structures are in place that are harming them, etc

It’s not easy to get better at caring for others, and I struggle to do it, especially when I’m tired, when I’m commuting, when I harbour resentment towards someone, when I just feel like I can’t read or learn more about the pains that people suffer, etc. And of course there are limits--I do not have to put myself into situations with someone who is speaking or acting abusively towards me. I also can’t care for everyone all the time, (due to being tired and stuff!) so I have to figure out what setting those ‘healthy boundaries’ means. But still, I keep trying.

One of those things that I’ve been trying to learn more about and widen my perspective on is:

Racism

That big, confusing, dark, painful thing

Historically, currently, and most likely into the future, racism hurts the well being of people all over the world. It’s hurting my closest friends, my coworkers, my fellow church congregants. Many of the people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside whom I meet are suffering from it, the authors of many books I’m reading are harmed by it. It touches unbelievably large amounts of people I will never meet.

I've made this post also Part 2 of The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life series because in my home country of Canada, racism also harms Indigenous people in very painful ways, and this post ended up talking a lot about how this can contribute to my clumsy efforts of reconciliation.

I am just one person talking about my one experience as a white person. If you would like to learn a lot more than what I can offer, and from the lips of people who are my teachers in all of this, I think highly of these books from my recent readings:

“So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
“I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown
“Introduction to First Nations Ministry” by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson

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The hardest thing about trying to battle back the racism for my loved ones, is that it is so multifaceted in my life;

I’m white (very, very white).
I grew up without consciously realizing I was embodying racist beliefs.
I didn’t realize for a long time that systems of my country and other western countries were supporting racism and sustaining structures to keep racism in place.
When I realized that racism was bigger and closer to my life than previously thought, I tried to improve, and ended up being slow and sluggish at improving.
I’m currently doing my best, and I am still so, so behind.

But,

I care about the well being of others.

So even if I can’t perfect these efforts, they're worth working at.


Sometimes, it’s nice to learn from other people’s mistakes. If you can watch someone else’s mistake before you make it, there’s that freeing possibility of not having to make the mistake yourself.

In a vulnerable moment, I’m going to air out some of my mistakes as I’ve begun to realize them.

At a recent event I attended, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Hillary McBride, pointed out that shame, which keeps us from loving ourselves, doesn’t actually change us, and in fact it drives us into even more dysfunctional behaviour. So I share these things with as little shame as I can manage for myself. 

Oh, also, if you’re not white, you’ve probably heard/experienced enough racism, so feel free to skip these confessions if you don’t want to have to deal with some of this racist history of mine.

 

Mistake #1

From high school into my early 20’s, I genuinely used to think that I was better, and elevated, and 'above' racism because I had a Congolese friend, a Persian friend, a Nigerian friend, a few Chinese friends, and a Phillipino friend.

What I've Learned:

Just because I have valued, and became friends with people who are part of a group that has historically suffered oppression due to their skin colour, did not make me immune to racism. It’s not like a vaccine, I was not protected from the many unrealized misdeeds I probably did, unaware of how racist they were. I cringe at wondering what I've said and done without realizing the racism that inspired me to act that way.

This belief also had the even more troubling effect of preventing me from making further efforts to see what racist behaviours I had. Like a false-negative test for cancer, I couldn’t treat the thing that existed because I thought I didn’t have it (except in this case the cancer would harm someone else other than me). I'm very grateful for the teaching of professors, authors, film directors, etc that led me to realize I had deeper problems going on.

 

Mistake #2

I didn’t see Indigenous people until my early 20's.

I grew up in Canada, so I obviously must have seen Indigenous people around, but what I mean is that I did not really see them. If an Indigenous person walked past me, my brain categorized them as Filipino, or Hawaiian, or some other ethnicity that I didn’t fully recognize and didn’t bother finding out about.

What I've Learned:

This blindness is probably because I learned about Indigenous people in the context of the incomplete history given to me by my schools. In textbooks and stories, Indigenous people were wearing regalia, associated with longhouses or teepees, occupying themselves with tanning hides, etc. This is obviously part of many Indigenous cultures, but that’s where it stopped for me. I didn’t see Indigenous people as someone shopping at the mall with me, participating in choir competitions like me, owning cell phones, eating next to me at the McDonald's. They were firmly stationed in my brain as a historical people no longer rooted in current Canada.

I knew nothing of the complex and painful history leading up to where Indigenous people are now, and also could not see that we were living in the same culture, with all that our society entails. It wasn’t until my I attended UVic’s Social Work program where I learned about the history more in-depth and learned from Indigenous teachers themselves, that I began to finally see. Thank God for the learning I received there.

 

Mistake #3

Even as I began to see Indigenous people, I still feared their traditional cultural practices. I thought they were dangerous, full of idolatry. It was entrenched within me, this fear, and who knows how it came out in my words and actions and general lack of support for Indigenous people's cultural practices.

What I've Learned:

Well, I’ve learned a lot about Christianity and Indigenous beliefs. First of all, I did not grow up understanding that I lived in a particular, man-made culture. And I did not see that this culture was just one unique way of expressing one’s life. I didn’t know that my western style of worshipping God, honouring God, and communing with God was not the only way to do so. Second of all, I was either fed misinformation about Indigenous cultural practices, or not taught about them at all.

To illustrate with a few examples; Smudging freaked me out. I didn't understand it, and it felt like a spooky, strange, 'savage' practice. What I found, once properly taught, is that it's quite multifaceted and wonderful. Smudging can just be another practice to use in connection with God (Creator). It can be used as a physical act of preparation for praying with God. It can also be used to dedicate a new home or an important room to God, just as I've seen oil used to anoint a new home while Christians pray over it. Another example: I thought that Indigenous people worshipped animals and nature and ‘mother earth’ in idolatry. I didn’t remember that Christian scriptures are absolutely full of talk that animals and nature are innately tied to God. When traditional Indigenous practices respect and honour creation with a variety of ceremonies or prayers, the ultimate goal is to respect and honour God. How beautiful!

As the author of “Introduction to First Nations Ministry”, Cheryl Bear-Barnetson of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, said in her book:

“A question that burns in the mind of every non-Native Christian when thinking about Indians: ‘Is Indian religion evil?” That is a valid question for American or Canadian people to ask, however it is very offensive for a Native person to hear. Please do not think that indigenous people are overly sensitive, they are not. After five hundred years of being scrutinized, stereotyped, and misunderstood, indigenous people often feel overly exposed. Christians react in a similar fashion when radical Islamists state that Christianity is a false, polytheistic religion.” 

In her book, Cheryl provided much more information about Indigenous beliefs, which helped chip further and further away at that ignorant fear of mine. Again, if you're Christian and Canadian and not Indigenous, please consider reading it. It's not even very expensive on Amazon


These are just some examples of how I’ve accidentally done wrong, and some of what I’ve learned. I have spent a lot of mental energy trying not to say and do the wrong things, expanding my knowledge on how to be less racist.

However, what I’ve been learning through the wisdom of others, including in the books I’ve recently read, is that this still isn’t enough.

Racism exists in systems, in people, and in culture. With what efforts I can muster, I’ve been shown that, aside from talking about racism here, and changing the thoughts inside my own head, I should also be seeking ways to actively battle back at racism in larger society.

It’s not just about me keeping my ‘street cred’ as a ‘nice person’--coming off as someone not actively doing racist stuff. It’s about going out of my way to try changing the systems that people with my skin colour have been benefited from on the backs of people without my skin colour.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book:

“We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it….But understanding, on its own, will never equal action.”
“Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate….We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society”

But what to do? The anxiety of feeling overwhelmed with how many problems there are is real.

Well, Ijeoma provides some good examples in her book, which I encourage you to get ahold of. I won’t list all of her suggestions here, as that would make this post even longer than it already is!

My husband Thomas suggested to me that I pick one of Ijeoma's ideas, and commit to doing it, using the accountability of writing it here to get it done. It’s a fair point; my inner integrity won’t be satisfied if I don’t commit to doing what I said I would here.

One of Ijeoma’s suggestions is:

Vote for diverse government representatives. Help put people of color into the positions of power where they can self-advocate for the change that their communities need. Support candidates of color, and support platforms that make diversity, inclusion, and racial justice a priority.”

She also suggests:

Get in schools. Do you know what the racial achievement gap is in your school district?”

Well, we have an election coming up in Vancouver for mayor, city councillors, park board commissioners, and school board trustees. This seems like a great opportunity to use voting powers that I don’t use as much as I could. Although I’ve participated in local elections more in my adult years, I haven’t really put the energy I could into influencing it with my vote. And not just in researching the candidates to vote for the 'best' option, but rather making my voice heard in all of the candidates offices.

For example, I clearly like writing, so why am I not writing letters and emails to candidates in elections? I can make my desires quite clear, pointing out that if they want my vote, this is what I will care about and vote for. This can address those in power as well as the ones making significant decisions in Vancouver schools.

If I find someone I really support, then would I consider volunteering for them? Giving them donations? I suppose we’ll have to see.

Nominations are in September, but already there is a lot of talk around who is running, and that gives me plenty of time to get some letters ready.


Again, the imperfections of my attempts are going to continue being so real, but I shouldn’t get disheartened. The efforts are worth it. Some may even say that it's very 'Christian' to keep trying to provide relief in society from racism.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
Mark 12:30-31

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8