So awhile back, I was reading a book that is, for me, perfect bedtime reading as it allows me to nod off to sleep mid-sentence with no yearning to read just one more page. Fluff. But as I made my way through it, I found it harder and harder to follow the plot because all I could see were the glaring differences between the black and white characters. I started to notice that the black maid is always called by her first name, whereas she addresses all of the white characters with a more formal Mr., Miss, or Mrs. While most of the white people are middle to upper class, all of the black people in these books are poor. And, to top things off, the maid, our white heroine’s trusted confidante, speaks like Mammy from Gone with the Wind, even though this book was written and set in the 2000’s. I started to think about what it would feel like if I were an African American woman reading this book. It didn’t feel good.
I went online to read reviews for this series, and found that the overwhelming majority were positive. So quaint. So sweet. Such great characters. In my mind, I saw a circle of nicely dressed white women laughing at the situations that this headstrong woman gets herself into, and thanking God for her maid, with her shoes cut open to ease her corns, her great cooking, and her sage advice.
There was a time when I could have been one of those women. Not mean. Not racist. Just oblivious.
I put that book away and started to wonder when I had changed. Where had my new perspective come from? I mean, I have always spoken out about inequality, but this was something new.
I think it all started with Toni Morrison. Or maybe it was the Black Lives Matter movement. Or maybe even Trump. But at some time in the last few years, something shifted.
Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize winning black American author. In 1996, at Oprah’s suggestion, I read her novel The Song of Solomon. I couldn’t really relate to it, being a white woman from small town Canada. I tried a second book of hers and gave up half way through. I found out later that Morrison describes herself as a black author who writes to, for, and about black people. Then recently, I read about a group of students who had one of her books as part of their class reading list. In discussion, a white student said he didn’t finish it because he couldn’t relate to it. I understood. Then a black student spoke up and said she’s spent a lifetime reading books that she couldn’t relate to, so suck it up.
I did a mental double take. Wha..what? I realized, in that instant, that not once have I ever given a thought to the fact that most books I had read were written by white authors to, for, and about white people. Never once did I put myself in the shoes of those who have spent a lifetime reading these same books about people who they have nothing in common with.
And then came the debate about removing Confederate statues. And close to home, the renaming of a Canadian Parliament building named after a man who played an important role in the creation of the Canadian Indian residential school system, a system which will negatively impact our Indigenous people for generations to come. Once again, I had never given a thought to this until an Indigenous woman spoke of the feeling of walking into a building of her government that is named in honour of a person who tried to wipe out her whole culture. I couldn’t even imagine how awful that would feel.
In the last few years, I have finally come to really understand white privilege. If you are white, and just going along, living your life, you wouldn’t even notice you have it. It’s just life, right? If you’re poor and white, you really may not get it. But stop and look at just these few examples, and the privilege becomes more obvious. You may not want to admit it. It may piss you off that people like me go on about it. It may frighten you, because it might mean that you have to give something up.
But you see, regardless of what you may think about it, I am grateful that these women spoke up, because their words have given me fresh eyes. And they make me want to understand more. Read more. Talk more. There’s just no going back.
Today, I downloaded the audio version of Toni Morrison’s novel Home from my local library. I’m enjoying the sound of her voice. I can see the characters in my mind’s eye. I’m not looking for the character who I can relate to, I’m just enjoying the story. And maybe, before the end, I might learn something new.