Worms; Or, Why White People Don’t Know How to Talk About Race

There are two truths that all older siblings carry deep inside about their younger siblings, especially during childhood. Quietly beautiful convictions. The first and most powerful is I am the favourite. The second is my little sibling is actually Satan. I am one such older sibling, with a little brother almost ten years younger than me. Through the morass of my pre-teen angst, and the hilarity of a bitter war between a small child and a teenager, those were the convictions I held closest to my heart, and it’s not hard to see why.

When my brother was three years old (and I was thirteen) he had a mop of curly black hair, huge dimples and a wild disposition.  His hair was long enough that it would stream behind him as he was sprinting from one room to the next. He was almost always a blur and a squealing giggle, and he was irritatingly adorable. Yet his chubby cheeks didn’t charm me as much as they did everyone else. I used to call him the Tasmanian devil, because he left a path of destruction behind him wherever he went.

One time he pulled every book off the bookshelf in my room and chewed on the spines, screeching with laughter as I desperately tried to save my poor babies and return them to the shelf.  One time he unraveled every single toilet paper roll from the giant pack leaving a toilet paper snowstorm in our hallway. Even when he was very small he used to jump from the top of the stairs to the landing, testing his legs, grinning every time one of us gasped at the toddler dropping through the air.  Aidan didn’t have his first steps, he had his first run, and he hasn’t stopped running since then. It seemed I was the only one who knew he was more than cute: the kid was superhuman.

Aidan also had to be walked outside, every day, otherwise he would make trouble. For example, one time from sheer restlessness he stuck a metal spring up his nose. It got stuck, he toddled into the kitchen with blood streaming down his face, and had to be taken to the emergency room. One time he sprinted through the kitchen and slid on his knees headfirst into an open cupboard door (he still has the scar). So we quickly learned that Aidan and the inside do not mix. During the summer, he had a tricycle that sang “Go, go Diego” from the Nickelodeon show, and the faster he pedaled, the faster the song would play. My Mum was often too busy to take him for a walk, so I would find myself jogging to keep up with the toddler on the tricycle playing music that seemed to be struggling to keep up with him too.

GogoDIEGOgogoDIEGO

One day it was raining and Aidan was getting restless.  We had already taken every toy out of the cupboard and destroyed the basement with our mess and I didn’t think my bookshelf could take another beating from his boredom. I was feeling extra generous, so even though I’d been playing with him all day I shouted to my Mum that I was taking him for a walk in the rain. He put on his yellow raincoat and I put on my angsty pre-teen hoodie and we were ready to go.

After a short walk, the rain turned into a mist and it seemed like seconds later when worms popped out and started wriggling across the concrete near our feet. Aidan pointed to one unfortunate soldier at the bottom of a puddle, bloody.

“Why’s he bleeding Zo-ah?” (He called me that when he was feeling particularly fond of me).

I explained that worms don’t like the rain, and sometimes end up in puddles trying to get away from it.

“Oh.” He looked sad.

“Do you want to help them?”

I found a worm struggling along the wet sidewalk, picked it up and laid it gently in the grass, but I’d underestimated how much my brother would like this new game. We didn’t even go to the park that day, we just walked around the neighborhood picking up worms and putting them on the grass.  Aidan wasn’t quite as gentle as I was; the (un)fortunate worms he saved got a little mushed in his fist before they were flung far onto various neighbors lawns.

Looking back, I wonder what people must have thought about the white girl and the biracial toddler who wandered the neighborhood so often. My hometown is one of those places that doesn’t like to think of itself as racist, but says things like “Milton is getting too urban” (Milton is getting too black), or “Your brother is so cute, I love Oreo babies” (I think it’s socially acceptable to compare a human to a cookie).

I always hate to admit that my family is anything less than perfect because so many Miltonions are likely to blame any of its faults on blackness. One time someone blurted to an acquaintance that I have “a black Dad” and the person made a joke about my Dad raping me.  

(But we don’t see race in Milton).

When I used to invite people over for dinner during high school it was because I knew they didn’t just think my Jamaican Dad was “cool” and wouldn’t make jokes about getting weed from the most strait-laced man I’ve ever met. Now, when people say, with their head tilted and the I-know-the-truth smile on their mouth “he’s not your actual brother though, right?” I mentally scratch them off the invite list.

After someone at school asked my brother why his sister was white, and why his mother was married to a black man, I had to explain that people don’t understand our family because we look different. He had to learn the awful lesson that people are going to treat him differently than they treat me. My brother is going to grow up, categorized and reduced by a system that wants young black men to be athletes and laborers but never leaders. There’s a reason why white people have such a hard time talking about race, especially with people of colour. It’s because confronting our own privilege is an uncomfortable experience. We don’t want to think of ourselves as having an advantage in society because it leaves us accountable. How could you acknowledge white privilege and not do anything about it, without feeling a pit of worms in your stomach?

My (white) family member told me about a woman in church who said that she was going to have to switch to another parish soon because Holy Rosary was becoming too busy. She didn’t like seeing all the “kinky” hair at mass. My family member just… “didn’t know what to say”. My (white) friend doesn’t know if it’s his place to tell other non-black people not to say the n-word. Part of white privilege is being confronted with racism and not having it affect you personally. Part of white privilege is getting into a taxi and having the driver scream the n-word out the window to an Uber driver, assuming you’ll be fine with it because you’re also white. So, instead of confronting these issues, most of the white people I know remain quiet and complicit. The bulk of the racist comments I’ve heard have been from white person to white person, quietly asserting their superiority while they’re out of the person of colour’s earshot.

It’s not enough to have a black friend (or a non-white friend or friends) either. Do you and that person ever discuss race? Would your friend be comfortable enough to call you out if you said something problematic, racist or ignorant? Before you answer, have they ever called you out in the past? Are you a little convinced that you have nothing left to learn about race? That you are the ultimate authority on racism in your home country when you go abroad? Have you ever experienced being the minority race in a social setting? How long did that last? Have you confronted why being the only white person in a group of non-white people makes you uncomfortable? Could you talk about race in a room where you are the only white person? Would you talk about it the same way you would with your white friends? I know people who have argued with me extensively about race, but when I told them about my family, or brought it up, they apologized. I’m sure if I wasn’t white, those conversations wouldn’t have occurred in the first place. White people are constantly torn between society telling us that our opinions matter on every subject, and the fear of being accused of being racist (often much bigger than the fear of actually being racist), which is why these conversations about race often occur in the absence of POCs.

White people don’t know how to talk about race because we don’t want to think of ourselves as anything other than the protagonist in our own stories. I had a wonderful professor who said that the protagonist is the person who is suffering the most. We want to believe in our suffering so badly that we dismiss the suffering of POC and minimize the reality of white privilege. White people don’t want to listen, which is the reason why so many people think pop culture makes it okay for everyone to say the n-word, and are astounded that this privilege has not been granted to them. Instead of listening to the discourse surrounding the use of the word, white privilege has made it so impossible for them to imagine even a word being off limits that they refuse to respect its history and the unification of black people that it now represents. The denial of white privilege is so rampant that it causes some to dismiss the significance of slavery and current police brutality, or (outside of the States) to dismiss POCs’ problems as “American”, as if anti-blackness doesn’t exist everywhere. (My family has lived in North America and outside of North America, and never in the States — anti-black racism is not an “American” problem).  

White privilege is the pathetic squeak of indignation that comes when someone suggests that something is not about us. It’s the self-important cry that all lives matter. It’s the rising defensiveness in people who decide that anytime they’re accused of being problematic, the accuser is being “too politically correct”, “butt-hurt” or “too liberal”.  Above all, white people are afraid of being held accountable; we’d rather pretend differences in experience and the reality of white privilege don’t exist than recognize the system of anti-blackness that’s built into our global society and into our own psyches. It’s easier to consume non-white culture and collect friends from various races (tangible proof that we’re not racist) instead of taking action to actually eradicate racism.

My little brother is the most energetic and powerful person I know. He is also full of compassion. One time he called me just to tell me that his FIFA game finally had women’s national teams, and he regularly says “but that’s not nice for women because—.” He might not have been the kindest to the worms we flung onto front lawns that day, but sometimes it takes more than kindness to shake an entire system of privilege. Sometimes the worms need waking up.

 

Photo Source: Wiki Creative Commons

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