listen to the voice of tomorrow
Last month we launched a global call-to-arms by inviting our readers to submit one thousand words that fought for their chosen cause. As everyone from 13-year-old students to 25 year-old creatives flooded our inbox with entries, the disaffected and...
You could count the number of black students in my high school graduating class on one hand. I went to public school in Toronto, with a graduating class of at least 200 students and still, you could count us on five fingers.
But this is just an extension of the neighborhood. Living in North Toronto — one of the most affluent areas in the city — for most of my life, I never noticed how my surroundings affected the way I viewed the world and internally, myself. I never experienced overt racism. I don't remember specific moments of being bullied because of my skin color but living in a predominantly white area made me want to conform.
Toronto boasts that it's a hub of multiculturalism but I've found that racial populations tend to keep to their own pockets throughout the city, interacting superficially in the downtown area. Cultural melting pot we are not.
I assume many major North American cities operate in a similar way - socio-economic status determining who interacts with whom. Which is why a shift in the way we see race and culture needs to occur.
As a black girl living in North Toronto, it wasn't until I left that bubble that reality struck me. White cultural dominance pervaded most of my existence. Wanting straight, unnatural hair, wanting a lithe frame, wanting big eyes and a small nose; these were all beauty ideals I'd learned from white media and that were reinforced by my peers. Whiteness was what I was taught to measure myself up to.
The cultural dominance of whiteness is problematic across many fronts and relates back to colonial assumptions of superiority. This is why history is important. Suppressing the validity of other cultures has normalized whiteness. White children grow up believing they are the status quo; black, Asian and Latino children are taught that they must conform.
Now, I've realised the deep effects of growing up in a white neighbourhood in a dominant white society. Now, what I long for is greater representation of my people across media, literature, film and art. I want to see myself reflected in the cultural consciousness.
There was a time when I took being called an Oreo as a compliment because being black on the outside and white on the inside was the best I could hope for.
There was a time when I was embarrassed of my natural hair because it was strange, it was other, it was wrong.
There was a time when I was grateful that I'm naturally thin and not curvaceous like a typical black woman because it made it easier to fit into white ideals of beauty.
This breaks my heart. What terrifies me though, is that I am not an anomaly. That this is a widespread epidemic. That black children think this way and that the white child that thought it was a compliment to call me an Oreo didn't see anything wrong with that. A shift needs to occur.
White cultural dominance explains why true intersectionality in feminism has not yet been achieved. It explains why in Toronto, 25 per cent of the people stopped and documented by the police are black even though only 8.3 per cent of the city's population is black. It explains why, as Teju Cole wrote in a New York Times feature [paraphrasing]: even technology such as cameras have made it more difficult to photograph black skin. It explains why Giuliana Rancic didn't understand how her remarks about Zendaya's dreadlocks at the Oscars were racist.
Some people seem to think that we live in a post-racial society. Racism just became smarter. It's been modified into perfect subtlety and ingrained into us as soon as we learn to speak.
That explains why white students I went to school with didn't understand why calling a girl pretty for an Asian was inherently racist. They had never challenged why their ideal standards were modelled solely on white people. To them, it was simple fact. It also explains why friends of mine were terrified of the stereotype of black men being dangerous and thuggish. They had never looked into the historical discourses rooting back to Jim Crow era America, that were created to show black men in that way. I cannot blame them. These things aren't taught.
This kind of thinking can be reversed. It would be utopic to expect this to happen imminently but the exposure of all people to all cultures is so vital. You may write this off as the naivety and wishful thinking of a 20-year-old, but I am aware that the Rupert Murdochs of the world remain in power. I know that he who controls the media, controls the message. But, we need to actively challenge why we think the things we do about other people to even begin dismantling the structures that keep cultural dominance in place.
White people should be exposed to black, Latino and Asian stories across all forms of media and vice versa. World history should be mandatory in schools and not taught only from a European perspective. We need so many more varied stories. One narrative to describe an entire race is not enough; it pushes us into the realm of caricature.
It's not just about compassion and kumbaya! We need to take an active look at our assumptions and prejudices and tear them down from the inside. What's amazing is that this is possible. We have a perfect medium, although not accessible to all, the Internet provides a voice to the voiceless, a space for those who do not have any space.
I can no longer live complacently in a world where children can't see their own worth when they look in the mirror, taught to despise their own skin.
I can no longer believe that everything will sort itself out eventually.
I can no longer stand idly by while race is ranked in a hegemonic hierarchy.
And neither should you.
Text Kelsey Adams
Photography Harry Carr