between our steps 2016 nov 09 double
Why did it take me so long to get a pack of multi-coloured flesh tone crayons? My guess is that when I was young, I used the pink pencil crayon called "Flesh tone" if I drew a picture of myself. It was close enough. The problem is that I never thought I needed to have shades of brown markers handy when inviting kids to do pictures in church. The fact that it didn't occur to me is a sign of my White privilege.

When I need to phone the bank or the insurance company, no one asks me to repeat myself as long as the connection is good. My accent is easily understood in Ontario. Even when the person I get is working at a call center in another part of the world, they understand my accent. They've been trained, and they practice. Yet, we in Ontario complain bitterly about the accents of people we have to deal with on the phone.

When travelling to the U.S. to see my parents in my early twenties, I would be warned by the border guards that I couldn't stay or work. But that is as much hassle as I've ever gotten. However, once long before September 11th 2001, my husband and I were crossing the border with his adult son sleeping in the back seat. We didn't think to wake him until the guard asked us to role down the back window so he could see who was there. A series of pointed questions came next, and when we were allowed to go, my step-son was furious. "Why didn't you wake me?"

It had not occurred to us to wake him. But his mother was South Asian, and he looks more like her than his dad. Experience had taught him to be alert and careful at the border.  

On September 11th, when living in Florida, his wife insisted he not leave the house for a couple days. Anger against anyone who looked like him was flaring hot. Again, I was shocked that a member of our family could be a target of racism. Ignoring the colour of his skin means that I don't automatically think about what his everyday experience is like.

A few years ago, I did a presentation on Indian Residential Schools and the United Church's journey toward understanding and right relations. I started intentionally telling my story. I sat on the edge of a series of consultations between First Nations church people in the early eighties that lead to some structural changes in the church. I worked with a First Nations congregation in the nineties as the story of residential schools was being told more widely. My own story helped me tell the church's.

But when working at Cape Croker, elders told me their stories of residential school. In that presentation, I went on to tell their stories. In each case, I have a crafted piece that these people made, and I held them as I spoke.  

What I did not do was make the attempt to get people from a First Nations congregation to help with this presentation. I acted like I was just as able to tell their story.

A few years later, I got called out for this. It was a poetry workshop led by an African Canadian woman with quite a few racialized people in the group. We were talking about appropriation of other people's stories. I shared the way I told stories that had been given to me. A First Nations woman in the group lit into me, reminding me that the stories were not "given" to me; they still belonged to the people who lived them.

She helped me see that those stories were told to educate me. I forgot to ask if it was okay to share those stories in the future. I just acted like they were now mine to use to educate others. What I also forgot is that residential school survivors have written about that experience. I could have read the story in someone's own words.

Some of my friends in the workshop thought the challenge was unwarranted. But that year there had been some horrible, disrespectful examples of story appropriation. It was right for this woman to take the opportunity to call out White people for stealing stories.  

I think of myself as an ally. I care about building anti-racist communities. I need to keep listening to those who experience racism here and now. And I need to keep alert for the ways my skin colour gives me privilege.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway




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