Flora and I are watching John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. It’s funny and heartbreaking—the same style of comedy-but-not that Hannah Gadsby presents in Nanette. The premise of the piece is god-awful (in the heartwrenching sense): Leguizamo’s son is experiencing racially motivated bullying in school. And so here’s the thing: this is John Leguizamo’s son. If an American Latino boy can be privileged, surely, that’s this kid. His dad’s not just wealthy—he’s a fucking Hollywood star. He’s famous. A celebrity. Untouchable. Should that not afford some sort of protection against… no. Apparently. not.
Flora’s disgusted. Later, appalled. Finally, she says, “Is that the history the world? White people fucking up and oppressing and killing everyone else?”
“Well, first they did that to each other,” I say. “I mean, when they were landlocked in Europe. Oh. And then there was Attila the Hun. And Genghis Khan.” I come from the part of Europe most exposed to their attention; if you look carefully, you’ll see the results of wartime rape and pillage in my cheekbones. “And the Moors and the Ottomans did some white people oppressing for a while. Sorta.”
“But they didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” Flora points out.
“They didn’t stay. Or exterminate,” I agree. I don’t want to argue the point—at this juncture in time, human history is white people fucking things up for all other people. Even in places where brown people, black people, and rainbow people are scarring each other—they’re doing it against the backdrop of white European colonization and imperialism, white American economic warfare.
And I don’t want to do anything to undermine… her sense of responsibility. I am so glad that her go-to position isn’t, “But I didn’t give anyone smallpox!” “I’m not the one who didn’t colonize North America!” “I didn’t participate in the slave trade!”
That’s not the point…
“I’m glad we watched it,” she says. “But it was hard.”
I agree. And love her so much. And suddenly, have hope, because she is not atypical—well, perhaps in some ways—but in this way, she is not. She is typical of her generation.
They’re going to change shit. I know it.
In December, I re-connect with a woman—let’s call her Anne—about my age, a little younger, born in Calgary, but with more melanin in her skin than I have, who has recently become aware of the price that shade of skin, coupled with her uterus, have extracted from her over the course of her education and career. I met her for the first time three, more, years ago, before she’s aware. She wasn’t benefiting from the horrors from colonization—indeed, she was being actively penalized by their enduring heritage—but she didn’t question them. She accepted them as “just the way things are.” She was earning $30K a year less than her less experienced, male, white colleagues? Ouch, wow… but… that’s the way things are. Right?
That’s the way things are.
But that’s not the way thing should be. And she’s done. She’s not putting up with that shit.
“I got really angry,” she tells me.
“Anger is fuel,” I tell her.
By the way—it was a white male colleague, who was out-earning her, who pointed the phenomenon to her and who first put to it the words, “This is not right.” So if you’re wondering what your role in addressing injustices, racial, gender, other, is when you benefit from them, it is, very simply, this. To say, “This is not right.” Not, “That’s just the way it is.”
And then, do something about it—support the people who are doing something about it.
At the very least, get the fuck out of the way of the people doing something about it.
Anne and I meet again the first week of January, at the opening of the Race Issues, a fantastic comic art exhibit by Calgary artist Eman Elkadri. Supported by The Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation and ActionDignity’s Youth PLACE project, the exhibit presents the microaggressions faced by Canadian racialized youth in… well, meme form. It is outrageously effective, as art and as social change.
Microaggression is a term Flora is familiar. But one she has to explain to her father.
You: And me.
Jane: Microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group.
I think of it as death by a thousand—ten thousand cuts. This isn’t that one big awful moment when the bus driver tells Rosa Parks to vacate her seat because a white person needs it or Gandhi gets thrown off the train in South Africa because he’s riding in a first-class carriage. This is… all the thoughtless, off-the-cuff everyday things. So small in the moment that the perpetrator—who is wearing a shirt with Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” and absolutely loved the Dr. Who episode about Rosa Parks—isn’t aware she’s done something harmful.
And the recipient of the microaggression… often struggles with the validity of their pain. Anger. After all… it was just a question.
They were just making conversation, right?
That off the cuff-remark about Asian women drivers… It was just a joke, right?
For fuck’s sake, not this again…
He didn’t just say that, did he? Yes, he did. Yes he did…
Ok, that was not a micro-aggression. That was pretty macro.
Most microaggresions are more subtle. Like this:
But they cut hard, and close. Like this one:
Flora: Hey, is that why you gave ma an impossible to spell and pronounce Polish name?
Jane: What? To dent your white privilege a little, and teach you compassion?
Flora: No, I meant more as revenge. Making me suffer because you suffered.
Jane: God, no, what sort of monster do you think I am?
She’s 14, so I am the worst monster that ever was—although, as she is now under Leguizamo’s influence, I think she’d cede I am not as bad as Columbus and Cortés.
At Race Issues, I talk a little bit with the artist. I thank Eman Elkadri for the work she’s doing, and I hope I don’t come across as condescending, a privileged old white woman patronizing a younger one. I hope not. I don’t know. My taste of Canada’s and the world’s racism has always been mitigated by the lack of pigmentation in my skin—and augmented by the privilege of education and relative economic stability. My taste of sexism was always mitigated by my confidence and the gifts my father gave me.
I miss my chance to take Flora to see Eman Elkadri’s art, but I show her the images online. She’s silent for a while, then asks me about the artist’s age. I don’t know, exactly. Young, because the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation is an organization for the young: “We are millennials and Gen Z activists who are working to improve race relations in Canada.” (I suspect that’s why they’re going to be successful.) Similarly, The Youth PLACE project focuses on the young, by engaging “racialized youth to inform, create, incubate and implement approaches to address the systemic racism and day to day barriers that they face.”
“Mid-twenties?” I hazard. I tell her about CCMF.
“Why is it the young people who have to change the world?” Flora demands.
“Because the old who were trying to change the world get too beaten up and exhausted to keep on fighting—and the ones who were comfortable with the way things were just get more comfortable and resistant to change as they get older.”
I’m so fucking wise.
Flora: You’re so fucking wise.
Yesterday, she thought I was too stupid to live, so I preen.
Eman Elkadri and my friend Anne talk for a while. I melt into the background, lose myself in the crowd—oh-my-fucking-god, there are so many people—the little gallery is packed—and they are so young—they are so going to change the world—art is powerful—I get dizzy, step outside, and watch the people and the art through the dusty window.
In an interview with The MetroStar, Eman Elkadri talks about her own awakening, which took place in a university class. “We would go around and talk about our experiences with racial issues, and it made me realize, wow, when I was younger, racism did happen, but I put it on the back burner and tried to change myself.”
That was Anne’s experience too. Anne was born here—as, I think, was Eman, though I am not sure, and I don’t ask. But this story is so common to me now: born here. Canadian by birth, by right. But not by sight. “Where are you really from.”
I am not born here. But I don’t get the “Where are you originally from?” question until people hear my name.* Anne, Eman—they get it on first sight.
Not cool. Not right.
Let’s change that. Now.
*PS I have a long rant inside me about what you can say instead of “Where are you from,” and perhaps one day, I’ll share that with you. But if you think you ask that question in pure innocence and curiosity, consider this: When people meet me as Jane, they never ask me where I’m from. Nor do they hear an accent. But when they meet me as Marzena… I have an accent. And they cannot talk to me about anything else, until they ascertain where I’m from. Fascinating, no?
PS2 View the full slide show of Race issues HERE, find out more about the Canadian Culture Mosaic Foundation HERE, learn about John Leguizamo’s Required Reading for America (shorthand; Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Charles Mann’s 1491) HERE, and watch the trailer for Latin History for Morons below:
About Race Issues: This project was created in partnership with Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation; Artist’s Statement
The images and stories presented within these comics symbolize a disconnect between the perception of an equitable Canadian society and the very real experiences of Indigenous peoples of this land and racialized Canadians. Although diverse cultures do coexist and thrive within Canada, many individuals cannot help but feel that their identity is constantly compared and contrasted to whiteness. It is up to all of us to be more conscious of the ways we treat each other, and to avoid the use of microaggressions by being more aware of how biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions frame the way we interact with others. Differences are what make our country such a vibrant and unique place to live, and we all have to learn to embrace people that look, speak, and act differently than we do. When we choose to acknowledge that our personal experiences are not universally shared by everyone, we will no longer react in ways that “other” people for not being just like us. We exist within a time and generation where there is no one way to look or speak Canadian, and it is important that we continue to challenge the assumption that there is.