If you’re wondering who the title refers to because there are several politicians in Canada who have recently resigned, you’d be right if you guessed it was our Governor General, Julie Payette, who created a “toxic environment” in Rideau Hall for her staff. The Canadian government will replace her with another more suitable candidate, hopefully someone who works well with others and won’t take a trip to the tropics during covid restrictions. Too bad we can’t replace the position with an app, thereby circumventing the issue of having to pay out an exorbitant sum of money on a pension.
My granddaughter, aged 10 and beautiful, has become the object of discrimination at her school. Bella’s dad is Mexican and has brown skin, a light stain of teak or even oak, and Bella’s mother has inherited her father’s dark southern Calabreze Italian features. Bella goes to a school with an indigenous name, a beautiful new structure featuring totem poles and native Indian art, and a significantly large population of indigenous students. Lately she’s come home with stories about some student putting notes in her cubby calling her ‘brown.’ She finally told her teacher, who, reacting in her defence, tried nailing the culprit by examining the notes against her students’ handwriting and found nobody coming close to what must have been a made-up script. Resigned, she gave an impassioned ‘talk’ to her class and ended up crying in front of the kids. The latter touched Bella more than the spirit of her harangue, saying in genuine surprise, “I’ve never seen a teacher cry!”
When affluent colonizers arrived in Latin America and coloured people fought their oppressors, they were accused of subverting the organizing principles of the universe. Century after century, the whites keep getting it wrong. White of skin were the kings, vampires and flesh traders who founded hereditary slavery in the Americas so that the children of slaves would be born slaves in the mines and on the plantations. White were the authors of the countless acts of barbarism that civilizations committed over the centuries, imposing white imperial power on the four corners of the earth by blood and fire. White were the heads of state who organized two world wars in the 20th century, killing 64 million people, mostly civilians. And white were those who carried out the Holocaust against the Jews, Reds, Gypsies and gays in the Nazi death camps.
There’s a vocabulary in Mexico and other Latin American countries that places people on a social scale. A mulatto is a mixture of black and white, an allusion to the mule, a sterile offspring of a male donkey and a mare. Other words, denoting half-caste, are ‘castizo’ ( pure, as in ‘he’s pure Spanish’ ), ‘cholo’ ( half-breed ), ‘cambujo’ ( dark, swarthy ), ‘barcino’ ( reddish-dark ), ‘zambo’ ( knock-kneed, a person of mixed African and Amerindian ancestry ), ‘jibaro’ ( an indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru ), and ‘zambaigo’ ( a son or daughter of an Indian man by a Chinese woman. ) And there are more. In 1996, a Mexican congressman visited a jail in Cerró Hueco, in Chiapas. There he found an Indian who has slit his father’s throat and been sentenced to 30 years, but every day at noon, he discovered, the “dead” father brought tortillas of beans to his son in jail. The Tzotzil prisoner had been interrogated and judged in Spanish, of which he understood little or nothing, and with the help of a good beating he confessed to something called ‘parrididio’ or patricide.
And history continues to repeat itself. No matter how much we try to burn it, beat it, break it and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. The time that was continues to tick inside the time that is. Would it change the world if we loved coloured people as much as we love their culture? Their music, for example? Especially if we understood the inter generational trauma they are subjected to, the fear they carry – do black womens’ lives matter? Or or they normalizing their oppression, dealing with sexism too, living in a “toxic environment”?
As smug Canadians we like to focus on what happens in the U.S. and then say, “thank heavens I live in Canada and don’t have to be part of a society that discriminates against immigrants or people of color!” Well…! Check out “The Skin I’m In”, a C.B.C. doc on anti-black racism with Desmond Cole, Toronto Star columnist. His parents come from Sierra Leon and he’s been targeted from a very young age by the police – he calls it ‘carding.’ His interviews with coloured people in Nova Scotia reveal how tense their daily lives are, especially the women – it’s agonizingly hard for them to speak up. My favourite program was from ‘The New Yorker’ about an Underground Railroad reinactment for students who get to act like fugitives from slavery, crossing swamps in the dark and being chased by catchers or ‘slavers’, hiding very quietly in a barn at one point while the chasers are screaming threats outside. They snatch pieces of bread as they run, fueling their sweat-streaked bodies to keep up the punishing pace. These coloured students are living African-American history and understanding their roots, and white participants understand the meaning of racism and are empowered by the experience. It’s an outdoor event, a field trip of sorts, that makes history meaningful and sensitizes human beings about the cruelties we bare towards one another.
Racism is not someone’s opinion: it’s an element of the human condition. We know it well in our own countries and in Latin America where exterminators of indigenous people and traffickers in slaves have their statues in city plazas, and where streets bear the names of those who stole the land and looted the public purse. Racism is very alive and well in my country…it lives in our governments, in our institutions and our homes. Hearts have to change. Parents need to teach their kids. Our soul-meters would benefit from recalibration.