Raise your hand if you think you are racist.
I can’t see you but my guess is your hand is down. My guess is most people, when asked if they are racist, would say no. I would say no. And maybe I would be just a tiny bit wrong.
For the past thirteen years, I have regularly engaged in some form of self-examination. If you’re a long time reader of these Coconut Chronicles, that will come as no surprise. Constant uprooting and reinventing of one’s self tends to inspire some degree of navel gazing.
Over this past decade-plus-three, I have faced my flaws, stared them dead in the eye. I have learned the difference between bad habits, which can be changed, and ingrained character, which is a more stubborn beast. I’ve also come to accept, as perhaps you have, that some of my less desirable traits are probably my burden for life. None of us are perfect; the best we can hope for is to find friends and/or a partner, or partners, who will accept us as we are.
The unexpected reward of my forties has been self-acceptance and I have been walking around feeling comfortable in the knowledge that I am, when you get down to it, an okay person.
Then, she happened.
My car radio is always set to CBC. I have become my parents; I like listening to talk radio when I drive. On the day she came into my life, I was driving to work. A flip of the knob (my car is old, very old) and I was plopped into the middle of an interview on the show “Q”. The host, Shad, was talking with the winner of the Fresh Gardens category of the Chelsea Garden Show, Juliet Sargeant.
I know, not exactly a topic to make the blood race, but the guest had one of those voices that captivates. In a posh British accent, Sargeant talked about the display that had won her gold—The Modern Slavery Garden—and about the world of gardening. Eloquent and passionate, she made the case for more diversity in gardening and for gardens as a tool to bring difficult issues, such as modern day slavery, to a wide public audience.
So there I was, listening, feeling very comfortable in my approval and in my choice to listen to this remarkable woman instead of some brainless pop radio station, when she said the words that shook me out of complacency. Shad mentioned that after she had won gold at Chelsea, Sargeant used the platform to call for more diversity in garden design, and then he asked why she felt that was important. This was Sargeant’s answer:
“Well, it actually happened by accident because it hadn’t occurred to me—I was just delighted to be at Chelsea—and it hadn’t occurred to me that I was the first black designer. But a journalist picked up on it and when I was offered the chance to speak about it I thought, ‘Well, actually, given the chance, I ought to say something.’”
If you’re thinking, So what? Nothing earth-shattering in that answer, you are right. What was earth-shattering is that up until that moment I had seen Ms. Sargeant, in my mind’s eye, as white. Why? Because of her voice. Her voice sounded as if it belonged to someone wealthy and well-educated. Without any conscious effort on my part, I had decided that someone with that voice must, by default, be white.
This revelation of a bias I didn’t even know I had was a slap in the face.
But…but…I’m not racist! my mind sputtered, desperately trying to defend itself. But what defense is there? Over the years, the message that upper class, intelligent people in the western world are almost certainly white had been driven into my brain, driven so deep it had disappeared.
In one sentence, Ms. Juliet Sargeant peeled away the layers of liberal dogma that had grown over this festering bias. I felt betrayed by my own self. I felt like a hypocrite.
Of course, it’s not as bad as all that. And yet, at the same time, it is. Because I wonder what other deeply driven bias nails lurk inside me. What other prejudices do I not recognize? I’m not being hyperbolic, I am sure there are more.
Chances are, you have some too. Biases are tricksy. Biases about race, about gender, about sexual orientation, about religion or lack of religion, none of us are immune to the message-nails society hammers into us from the time of birth onward.
Not only do we frequently not see our own biases, but also those of others around us. I recall a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. He was familiar with military tactics and, since I was co-writing a novel series with a military element and possess little knowledge and no military experience, I asked if I could hit him up with questions if they arose. Graciously, he agreed and offered assistance. He then began to speak about combat, specifically hand-to-hand combat, and I jumped in to explain that, no, I was good with that aspect of things—as a black belt and former stunt person—it was the larger military strategies and such with which I needed help. Misunderstanding cleared up, the conversation continued.
I didn’t give that conversation a second thought until that friend told me, months later, that he had brought it up on a SFF conference panel to illustrate his bias about women and fighting. He had, he explained, assumed that because I was female I didn’t understand hand-to-hand combat. Odd. This was a person I saw, and still see, as fair and equitable when it comes to matters of gender. I hadn’t even considered his reaction as biased but once he pointed it out I knew it was true.
To be clear, I wasn’t angry or offended in the least. In fact, I was impressed that he had possessed the objectivity to recognize the bias in play. Furthermore, I was grateful that he had brought it to my attention and the attention of a wider audience. I am more aware, now, of how women are perceived when it comes to the martial arts and combat. I hope some others are too.
The events of this year have dragged racism, sexism, homophobia and a lot of other nasty biases into the light, and that’s not going to settle down any time soon. While I am frequently disgusted and shocked by what I read and see, I also work to temper my indignation with a hefty dose of humility. Yes, we must fight hard to change the systems that feed the worst aspects of our nature, but on a personal level we must recognize that not all biases come from a place of evil. We must not dehumanize and shame others if we honestly desire change. And we must not underestimate the power of a few simple words, delivered without spite or animosity, as a light and a path to self-awareness.
Something as simple as a garden—seeds planted instead of nails hammered—can open our eyes and our minds, and bring beauty to dark corners. Plant your seeds wisely.
Listen to the full CBC interview with Juliet Sargeant. (It’s worth it!)