Earlier this month, Maclean’s magazine created a challenge for my city when it called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada. A feature article explained why. While there were those who disagreed with the assessment, or tried to bring nuance to the claims, many others simply set about doing something about it. If the article was “a gift in barbed wire,” as I’ve heard it described, they decided to open the gift, never mind the scratches it might involve.
On Monday evening, Rosanna Deerchild, writer and CBC broadcaster, and face of the recent Maclean’s cover, along with Heather Plett, connection facilitator, invited people to the Forks–whoever wished to come–for an informal dinner and discussion about race relations and the path forward in our city. Some 80 people showed and I among them.
We met in the center court of The Forks Market. After we’d eaten, Heather led us through a conversation process called World Cafe. Essentially it meant moving from one small table group to another, three times, talking and listening with people we didn’t know about experiences with racism and possibilities forward. One person stayed at each table to “keep” the conversation that happened there. These keepers later summarized for the larger group what they had heard at their tables.
I was surprised how well the process worked and how richly diverse it turned out to be. Energy and goodwill filled the place. At the end of the evening, we formed a large circle and passed a stone with the word “courage” from hand to hand. If we wished, we could speak a sentence about something we wanted to do in light of what we’d heard. Just imagine, someone said (Rosanna, I think it was), the difference that even 80 people could make.
Processing this through a small incident of my own
What I’ve been thinking about since then is how a person acts upon the visual information one inevitably picks up about others. The problem of making assumptions on the basis of appearance, whether these relate to race, status, or sexuality, came up in each of the conversations I was part of. A young woman of Caribbean ancestry, for instance, told of being directed to sit in the gallery when she arrived at the courtroom here as lawyer for the defense. An aboriginal youth urged us to stop thinking “group” instead of individual when we meet someone, not just because of the stereotypes we may have about that group but because there are differences also within groups.
Earlier in the evening, before I could get up to join the line for the multi-nation buffet, a young woman suddenly appeared before me with a fully loaded plate of delicious food. I was taken aback. “For me? Why?”
“Oh,” she said, “we take care of our elders.”
I’m not actually that old, and I certainly don’t feel wise enough to be an Elder with a capital “E”. Must have been the white/grey hair. Well, okay, maybe several facial lines as well. At any rate, I was deemed an elder, and an action followed. I accepted the plate with pleasure, since the food line was long, only asking that my younger (non-elder?) table companion, who had the use of only one arm, be brought a plate as well. Which she was.
I confess that I’m still a little startled, even a wee bit resistant to the gesture in retrospect, because in my cultural context I’d heard “old” with its various and often negative connotations, which is not how I see myself. At the same time I immediately recognized that I was being honored, for “elder” has only positive connotations in the aboriginal culture. The information had been taken and led to a gesture of respect.
So my steps forward? Focus on person rather than group. Vigorously disregard negative stereotypes. If the occasion lends itself to action or response, choose one that honors mutual human worth. And, receive in kind. It may be risky to act, mistakes may be made, but respect will definitely show.