By Terre Chartrand
I have too often backed down out of my own fragility, my own desire for self preservation in sharing and talking about racist violence. My family is a gorgeous blend of shades and races that run from pale Northern European to Indigenous to Black. I used to think it was enough to love my family and all the races and shades we represent.
I grew up and saw how my own fragility, my own desire to look away was in deep contribution to racism by simply allowing my tolerance for violence to supercede the rights and comforts of those who are victimised by a structure of deep, profound, and incredibly insidious systems geared at protecting my feelings over the rights of others.
There is an incredible push for a sense of order to reign over the messiness of dealing with white fragility. I walk with a large privilege of silence because I walk through a structure of white supremacy with the physical appearance of whiteness. I can make choices to wear markers and reveal my Indigenous identity but I’m never coded as Indigenous in the immediacy of first impressions. I’m the white girl with the great summer tan until I speak that I’m different or physically choose to wear markers of my culture and my grandmother’s race.
By allowing those years to pass without speaking is my own crime. My silence contributed to structures that support exactly what we are witnessing in a world of democratized media. This has always existed. It existed in my grandmother being instructed to stay out of the sun lest she became too swarthy – a sharp anti indigenous slap. It took rise with my Black family members in multiple ways that ranges between exoticisation of them and the mixed race couple status that ran from being congratulated for seeing each other “deeper” (as gross as that is) to outright racist treatment amplified by the race traitor white/stepping above their station as Black people to marry lighter skin folks. I’m embarrassed and ashamed at treatment now.
It boiled with my own son who has light brown skin in the winter but gets told by teachers that he’s “brown like toast” after summer… Him asking me what that meant. “But I’m not toast”. Also by white women asking me if they could touch my son’s skin. What the honest fuck…
Phenotype is tricky. It makes a red headed green eyed throw back have a beautiful brown child because of a grandmother who had gorgeous dark skin.
My experience of racism is primarily as a witness. My experience of it is generally in being exoticised, and ignored. White people will talk about indigeneity and completely skip over the Indigenous voices. I experience tokenisation from unsurprising and surprising corners. But from a first impressions pov, I have no position of understanding beyond seeing it, witnessing it launched against my loved ones, and beyond listening to stories and making choices to believe it. And as pale skinned and white people, there is that choice as horrific as that is for the many many who are inserted into the structures of violence without pause, without even recognising the humanity of their lives. And anti black racism is endemic in just about everyone. It exists in shadeism in Indigenous communities, it exists in every facet of life.
So if you are like me and many of you are… It has to be a choice where you are making a decision to believe an experience that you will likely only ever witness through democratized media. But here’s the thing… The only things broadcast are the ones that are caught on video, in images and even at this, the assumption of guilt for a property violation are still seen to supercede the lives and comforts of racialized, and especially Indigenous and Black people.
But fragility is a choice. We can use (especially white, and especially white women) tears and guilt as yet another tool to silence those who are already ignored. Fragility is a powerful weapon. We can choose to deflate even the most incredible attempts to drive our empathy into a place of “I just can’t take it”.
I have, in the last several years, been working hard to tackle my own fragility, my own racism. All pale and white people are, btw. The infection of racism is across every structure so lives in every heart and mind. It exhibits as lateral violence in racialized communities but I’m not even going there because in what I’m speaking about today – lateral violence is not this lane. But with some hard awakenings and a constant battle with my own blindness I have made the choice to not look away, to not allow that comfort of the structure that lets me look away to rest my sensibilities and supercede the lives of others.
You know who shouldn’t have to witness white violence? Indigenous and Black people. And yet that is everyday. Who should is every pale and white person because our silence is what props the system even more than the overt instances of violence themselves. The instances of overt violence only serve really as a really recognisable thing that can be pointed at as a… See?? Fucking look cause here it is in full view.
I don’t pretend to be a good person in this. I still often fall and hurt people I love, hurt my community, hurt people I don’t even know. It’s daily that I have to push myself into not allowing my voice to rise above, but it still does. I still hurt people by carelessness and ignorance. People will believe me before they believe the expert voice, the voices who know this stuff inside and out. They will believe a white person writing about racism more than the Black experience of racism as we see with Robin DiAngelo and her book about white fragility. It’s daily that I have to push my own view and try to make better choices, try to live to even the weakest commitment to do better.
I will continue to fail, I will continue to hurt people I love through my own inability to see and act. But my gosh the one thing I can do is listen and not accept my failures as acceptable moments of poor me and ignorance. I can choose to see where my own entitlement and elevation harms and silences others. And I can force myself to eat that whole humble pie and try harder. I can choose to take the lessons.
When people who experience racism speak about racism, even in the stark frustration I can choose to either see it as a punishment or a lesson in how to seek justice – a schooling in deeper, real love. I can make a choice to let my fragility rise or I can work on my own blindness and cowardice. I can listen. I can amplify. I can stretch my empathy. And I can believe Black people. I can stay silent until I understand. But I can’t stay silent against whiteness and white supremacy, even if it hurts, even if it hurts a career or a white friend, even if alienates me. That is my fragility to deal with and an emblem of the structure that will oppress any attempts at creating justice.
If there is nothing people take away from Amy Cooper other than Holy shit she’s racist then we lost the moment. We lost the lesson that the white supremacist everyday structure shoved in our faces. Go further today. Find that Amy Cooper in your own heart and do battle. Stretch to see where these structures have made you speak, made you stay silent. Tackle the fragility.
Edit: and of course in my own words I forgot to highlight one of the most important things – and it comes with apologies. I’m still trying to do better and place this as an edit in footnote for accountability. This lesson in whiteness was not brought to us by Amy Cooper. It was brought to us by Christian Cooper – the Black man who was out birdwatching and asked Amy to leash her dog in area that requires leashes by law. I have zero doubt that Mr. Cooper was fully aware of the risks he was taking in asking Amy to do the right thing. And the risk increase in continuing to film through such a massive and powerful threat is bravery itself. So it’s not Amy I thank for showing what so many of us know about white women’s tears, but Christian Cooper for being so damned courageous in the face of a grave violence.
Terre Chartrand is an Algonquin and French-Canadian artist living in Waterloo Region who has a background in literature, theatre, visual arts, photography, technology, and science. Her diverse career has included a range from teaching in a French languages secondary school to working as a software developer. Included in her accomplishments are the founding and artistic direction of a collective show that takes over an entire floor of the Museum in Kitchener, the founding and artistic direction of an inter-arts collective who have seen several shows including IMPACT – an international contemporary and movement theatre festival.