Systemic racism. White privilege. Sexism. Topics of 2020.
Leaders, no matter where you lead, need to learn to be uncomfortable in conversations that relate to these topics. I don’t believe we can fairly expect our leaders to handle these situations perfectly as they arise in day-to-day life. But we should expect them to stand up for those without a voice or a platform from which to speak. To learn. To guide others through these waters. To challenge humanity to do better.
At the recent BC provincial debate, the candidates were asked how they have reckoned with their own white privilege. In my opinion, both our Premier and the Liberal Party leader fell short in their responses. However, it prompted me to ask myself the question: “How would I have responded?” It is another of many times I have reflected on this subject this year.
The even more vital question is: what would I do or say if faced with such a situation today? If racism, sexism or an example of white privilege showed up right in front of me?
We have all had those moments—those ones like the Liberal Party “roast” that was recently broadcast, containing overt sexism. This episode was terrible for so many reasons but perhaps most impactful was that it was perpetrated by one woman on another. Coupled with the failure of the party leader in the room to call it out for what it was, it was—in a word—unacceptable.
In my own world this year I have had to reflect on sexism, racism and bullying. As a mature woman I naively thought, at least amongst my peers, this was no longer an issue I would need to contend with. I have not always done myself proud in those moments. I have not always mustered the courage to speak, or chosen the best method to combat the circumstances I found myself in. But even these disappointments have caused me to consider something better for the next time. To rehearse the narrative and to commit to change. To learn to do better. To stand up for myself and others.
When a male colleague ran his hand down my back and made a casual, overly familiar, sexist comment when I met him in his office, I naively thought, “Maybe he doesn’t realize…” and I remained silent. Who was I to speak? I essentially gave him a pass for his behaviour. When a notorious male antagonist in our community verbally berated my recent female hire, instead of engaging her in respectful communication as he had her male predecessor, I stepped in and unprofessionally tripped over my words in an attempt to find a way to express how unacceptable his behaviour was. I was left to chastise myself about these two moments, somehow feeling that I was at fault. I guess it stuns me that these moments still happen, in 2020, yet as a leader and as a woman, I need to be more practiced in my responses, stronger in my conviction. I certainly should never be made to feel poorly, as a female leader, for standing up for myself, or for you.
Our awareness of systemic racism and white privilege has grown with more high-profile examples of unacceptable examples of the differences between the treatment of white vs. people of colour in the eyes of the law and during our own provincial battle with COVID-19 and the division that was created.
So, how would I have answered the question regarding my own reckoning of white privilege?
I grew up as a child surrounded by children and families of different ethnicities and cultures. As a child I knew that we were all different. I did see colour. I did see race. But all that mattered to me was who I liked and not where they came from. I remember being fascinated by what made their households different from mine: what they ate, their family living situations, their languages. What I couldn’t see as a young person was what the internal experiences of my friends were, the pain they and their families carried inside, what their history was. I was a young, white woman of privilege, who even during the most challenging times during my upbringing never had to worry about a roof over my head, food on my plate or getting to school. I was, however, bullied for being privileged and sexualized for being a woman and did have to learn how to manage that narrative at a young age. Those moments create empathy, but not a complete understanding, and certainly haven’t exempted me from creating something better for my neighbours.
There is still racism, sexism and discrimination everywhere we walk today. It’s sad but true. The real question for us all is: what are we going to learn today about the pain of others, and what will each of us do to not be part of the problem?
Through words, actions, support, and patterns of behaviour.
It’s time get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable that means you have something to learn and that’s okay. Just because we don’t understand or don’t experience something, we must not negate someone else’s experience.
The Lieutenant Governor of BC, Janet Austin, challenged us all, midway through 2020, by asking us to join her, alongside leaders in government, business and social services, to pledge to uphold the Canadian values of diversity and inclusion and to oppose racism and hate in all its forms. She reminded us that we are stronger when we are #DifferentTogether.
This should not just be lip service. This is a call to action for us all.
-Michelle Boomars-MacNeill,
Prince Rupert & District Chamber of Commerce President 2020-2021