Black History Month: White Privilege and Racism in Victoria

Councillor Sharmake Dubow. Photo credit: Quinton Gordon

For those looking for an update on Clover Point, I’ll provide that next Sunday after Council has reviewed new options from staff on Thursday. For those looking for an update on indoor sheltering and the March 31st move in goal, I will also update on that when I have additional information to share. Please see past posts for details.

I remember the first time I was aware of having a racist thought. It was the summer after grade 10. I had been selected to represent my city, London, Ontario, at a global youth leadership conference in Pittsburgh. I was in the cafeteria line up with kids from all over the world. There was a Black kid in front of me. And I felt superior.

I caught myself immediately; I felt both horrified and ashamed for having that thought and wondered where it came from. I didn’t grow up in a particularly racist family and while London was pretty white, at least a couple of schools I’d attended had been relatively diverse. I hadn’t yet heard the term “systemic racism”. But by the time I was 15, I’d already internalized both my status in a systemically racist society, and white supremacy – one of the of the basic organizing principles of western culture. Those with white skin carry privilege.

Since that shocking moment in the cafeteria line up, I’ve been working to unlearn racism and racial bias. I’ve been listening hard to the voices and experiences of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour. And whenever possible, particularly in my role as mayor – which carries with it a great deal of privilege – I’ve been working to facilitate and to take action against racism in all its forms. But there is still so much to learn.

At our evening Council meeting on February 11th, a few speakers came to talk with Council about Councillor Dubow’s trip over the holidays and Council’s response to it. The most poignant remarks were from Gina Mowatt. Please take the time to listen to her address on the Council meeting archive. She begins speaking at 16:10. She noted that the statement I made in response to Councillor Dubow’s travel, “has incited violence against Councilor Dubow … the statement has been celebrated and shared widely through white supremacist websites and social media groups online.”

Ms. Mowatt went on to say that if City Council understands and and believes that racism and white supremacy are real and tangible for Black people as well as Indigenous people and people of colour as we claim we do, that we should deal with the racist backlash that Councilor Dubow is facing on social media. She noted that Councillor Dubow is now in an unsafe position as is the Black community in Victoria due to the surge of anti-Black racism that has come as a result of my statement and a disregard for the fact that Councillor Dubow will be targeted differently than a white politician for anything he does. She reminded us that this is white supremacy.

She concluded by noting that “Council facilitates the ignition of white supremacy and hate while hiding behind a thin curtain of progressive politics and diversity rhetoric.” She called for Council to make statement against anti-Black racism and to denounce the call for Councillor Dubow’s resignation.

What really struck me, once again, while listening to Ms. Mowatt’s candid and thoughtful remarks, is the great responsibility that privilege carries. Because I am white and because I have not experienced racism, as I was preparing my statement with respect to Councillor Dubow’s travel, I didn’t think about how it might be used by others to incite hate. I didn’t think about how it might add to a climate of unsafety for Councillor Dubow and other Black people in the Victoria community. Especially because I’m in a position of power as mayor, I should have thought about the impact my statement could have in perpetuating racism and white supremacy. I got publicly called out for this. And for that, I am both grateful and humbled.

I am not on social media so have not been privy to the racist attacks that Councillor Dubow has been subjected to. He has since shared some of this with me. He notes that some of the most racist comments – heartbreaking and unmentionable here – are from people in Victoria. He told me that the posts of responses to his travel have been shared 80 times as much as the news coverage of white politicians who traveled. He told me that racism is exhausting.

This is my statement: Racism against Councillor Dubow is unacceptable, it is hurtful to him and to many in our community and it must stop. Racism in any form is intolerable and we must call it out every time we witness it. This is a particularly important thing to do for those of use who benefit from our positions of privilege in a racist system. Calling out racism isn’t enough; we must work to dismantle racial hierarchies and the power structures that keep them in place. To do this we must foreground the voices and experiences of people who have been held back by, hurt by and excluded by systemic racism. And we must take the actions they say need to be taken to create a more just and more equitable society.

To undertake some of this work in Victoria, Councillor Dubow and I are leading the Welcoming City Task Force. Our welcoming city work is inspired by Welcoming America, which “leads a movement of inclusive communities, becoming more prosperous by making everyone feel like they belong.” The mandate of Victoria’s Welcoming City Task Force is to develop a Welcoming City Strategy that will help to make Victoria more welcoming and also less racist as our city grows and changes and as we continue to welcome newcomers from around the world. The majority of the task force members are Indigenous, Black and people of colour and it is their voices and experiences that will shape the actions in the Welcoming City Strategy.

For Victorians wondering how you can participate in making our city more welcoming, the Welcoming City Task Force will be beginning engagement soon. But in the meantime, there are a few things those of us in positions of privilege can do immediately. We can watch, read, and listen during Black History Month to learn more about the Black history of Victoria, British Columbia and Canada. Here’s one terrific webinar put on by the BC Black History Awareness Society as a good starting point. You can also read Councillor Dubow’s Times Colonist piece on Black History Month here.

We can also ask ourselves, what can I do to make Victoria more welcoming and less racist, in my work place, my school, my classroom, my church? What can I do in my daily life to unlearn racism and privilege? How do I respond when I’m called racist or when my privilege is pointed out and challenged? And most importantly, to move forward and create a more welcoming, less racist city, we can continually foreground the voices and experiences of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour.



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