March 6, 2018

Not easy to answer

There is a paradox that many of you refuse to see: to get to a point where race won’t make a difference, we have to wrestle, first, with the difference that race makes.”Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson

We sat in the back of the class, R and I, and spent more time staring out the window or at the notes we were passing each other than at the blackboard or teacher in front of us. We were in eighth grade, the time of life when we were expected to get into a little bit of trouble and not always do what we were told. In music and English class, the only classes we had together, R was my co-conspirator in our miniature mayhem.

R was Black, something I didn’t really notice when we first started hanging out in middle school. Going to school in Rexdale, I was surrounded by Black people everywhere I went; my friend circle was a motley crew of races and ethnicities, and wasn’t something I consciously thought about, at least at first.

We made a funny pairing, R and I: he was large, with a deep voice and resonant laugh and a wonderful sense of sarcasm, while I was the shortest person in the class, with a high tenor voice and an earnestness that made me laugh at myself, sometimes. Yet, we were great friends, and we revelled in the mischief we made in the back of those classes.

The first time I noticed our difference was after we were both disciplined for particularly disruptive behavior. I left the principal’s office with a warning, a soft message of you can do so much better and we expect better from you.” R left with two days of detention. I expressed my shock and dismay at the disparity to R, who shrugged and told me that he wasn’t surprised: this is what they expect from someone who looks like me, not from someone who looks like you.”

I didn’t really know what he really meant until years later, but I knew, right there, that I was being given the benefit of the doubt that R would never receive in his life.

The police car is a mobile plantation, and the siren is the sound of dogs hunting us down in the dark woods.”Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson

When I was sixteen years old, just old enough to drive, I bought a decade-old Honda Civic and used it to get around when I was sick of taking the bus or when I felt like I wanted to impress someone where I was going. (Ah, the things we do to be liked when we are young.)

I didn’t drive the car much—I left home and moved across the country for school when I was seventeen years old—but in the time that I did drive it, I was pulled over at least a dozen times (probably more) by police cars, most often late in the evening, for no apparent reason.

After the third or fourth time, I built up the courage to ask why I had been stopped after I had handed over my license and registration. In almost every case, I was told that they thought that I fit the description of a suspicious person they were looking for, someone driving a Honda Civic in the area. It sounded like a flimsy excuse to pull me over, to run my ID into their system—especially after hearing it for the fifth or sixth time—but I was always taught to never question the police, so I let it go.

I remember once, however, when I was probably about eighteen years old and my hair was a curly mop on my head after not having had a haircut in months, when I got pulled over very late at night and the police officer exclaimed as I rolled down my window:

Oh, I thought you were Black. Sorry, you can go ahead. Have a good night.”

Fitting a description took on a whole new meaning, after that.

In Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson recounts his conflicted feelings sitting in Gaston Hall a few years ago when Georgetown reckoned with its slave-selling past. He was proud of his school for attempting to make it right, but was still burdened by the fact that he was teaching at an institution built on the back of slavery.

I spent many hours sitting in Gaston Hall, for various events, not knowing the truth about the school and the historical role of the University in the institution of slavery and its legacies. My memories of attending Georgetown are now coloured with this legacy, but also buoyed by the work being done in reconciliation and reparation.

What can I learn from my college as they continue the process of grappling with this legacy? What can I learn from Tears We Cannot Stop as it sermonizes about the history of racial injustice? What can I learn from the experiences I have had, the privilege I have been given, over and over again, while my Black friends have been systemically denied those same opportunities?

These are questions I grapple with daily. These are not easy questions to answer.

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