Ferguson, and why “at least things aren’t as bad here” isn’t good enough

Ferguson, and why “at least things aren’t as bad here" isn't good enough
The memorial at the location where Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, photographed earlier this month. (Image: Scott Olson/Getty)

On Monday morning, a Missouri grand jury voted not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. On Tuesday, a thousand protesters assembled across from the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue, in solidarity with the angered residents of Ferguson. Far from the confusion and disorder that marred Occupy Toronto, this protest was well-organized, concise and topical. Young people from all over the city showed up at six o’clock with a simple message: black lives matter. With bullhorns and chants, they expressed sympathetic grief, keeping a respectful distance from the embassy. As far as protests go, it was on the polite side of collective anger.

It would be gratifying to call Tuesday’s protest the characteristic Canadian response to racial strife—but it wasn’t. A more telling response came the following morning, in the form of Joe Warmington’s Sun column denying the seriousness, if not the very existence, of racialized conflict in Toronto:

There was [sic] some good slogans like “No Justice, No peace” or “Respect our existence or expect resistance.” One of the organizers said: “I don’t want to live in a world where some lives matter and some lives don’t.” These slogans and sayings may be accurate in other parts of the world, but not here. No one is suggesting it’s perfect but we have what many jurisdictions seeking racial harmony dream about. The crowd here was not all black and the police officers on hand weren’t all white. They were all Torontonians.

This is how we do conversations on race in Canada: give a polite nod to the possibility that racism exists here, then compare ourselves favourably to countries where it can be measured by the volume of blood spilled. Without the presence of bodies left rotting in the sun, we drown all other critiques in self-congratulatory nationalism, and declare ourselves a racial utopia. A country safely colour-blind, where anyone can make it with the right amounts of ambition and hard work. We begin every discussion on racism with the incantation that “at least things aren’t as bad here as they are in the States,” as if to ward off the rancid spectre of Jim Crow—as if our absence of black bodies, murdered at the hands of white men, is definitive evidence of the best possible policing and race relations.

When we make this comparison, we narrow the definitions of racism to the kind we’re comfortable confronting head-on. Our shared values, we tell ourselves, leave us no room to tolerate hatred, violent oppression and racial slurs. However, by keeping the focus there, we let slip the other forms of racism that damn us. “Not as bad here” asks black Canadians to keep quiet, or risk looking ungrateful in the face of the real oppression south of the border. It asks us to accept outrageously high unemployment rates among black youth. It asks us to look the other way when black Torontonians are stopped by police at up to 17 times the rate of other groups, and to remain silent about the near-absence of black voices in boardrooms, City Hall, Queen’s Park and Parliament. Sure, we’re not perfect, but at least unarmed black men aren’t liable to be beaten and framed by police, except when they are.

The organizers of Black Lives Matter did a fine job of keeping the event safe and the message positive, but they still caught a sharp rebuke from both Warmington and Canadian media at large for propagating their own brand of racism. Among other requests, non-black participants were asked not to “take up space” in the protest. Akio Maroon, one of the organizers, put it succinctly: “We need to be able to speak with our own voices.” On Newstalk 1010, Christie Blatchford called this request “petty”; AM640’s John Oakley labeled it “segregation”; Warmington said it was “embarrassing.” The CBC went so far as to seek out white protesters and ask how they felt about being silenced. White Canadians are so comfortable setting the rules for the conversation on racism, so attached to feeling comfortable and exculpated when it happens, that even a polite request to stop dominating the conversation is met with wide-eyed disbelief.

As much as Canadians would like to believe we’re all in this together, the facts don’t bear that out. It isn’t typically white children who are hemmed up by police on the way home from school—just like it isn’t typically white teenagers who fret about filling in their home addresses on job applications, or white mothers who fear learning that their sons have been gunned down by police during a traffic stop. And when black Canadians try to discuss the uneven social privileges that explain some of these realities, they’re treated as if they’re making things up out of whole cloth. The daily lived experience of black Canadians, one that asks them to pay a social tax in every form of systemic and oppressive racism short of their bodies bleeding in the street, illustrates the absurdity of comparing ourselves to the U.S.

Of course we aren’t the same. In one way, we’re worse. At least they’re allowed to talk about it.


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