By Stewart Skinner
This is part two of a three-part opinion series with Derek Mendez. Part one can be read here.
We can get very defensive if we, or someone we love, is accused of racism. That defensive nature can be understood given the negative connotation that comes with being branded as a racist, but it is that same defensiveness that gets in the way of growth.
If we offend a Black, Indigenous, and Person of Colour (BIPOC) with our words or actions, it does not matter if we were intentional or not, it is racism. Yet, committing a racist act does not make a person a racist per say, it is how we follow it up that defines what we are and who we want to become.
If we are confronted, do we get defensive or do we listen to why we were offensive and try to learn for next time?
Last winter, our men’s basketball league here in town failed when we were given a chance to call out racism. During an on-court scuffle, a white player hurled racist slurs at Derek Mendez in plain view for all to hear. I was sitting in the bleachers that day and had a front row seat; a testosterone-fuelled brawl that happens when 20 and 30 somethings forget that they are playing recreational basketball. Did Derek play a role in the inflamed tempers… yes, he did – just as the other nine players on the court did that day. The wrongs abounded on all sides… but only one person decided to bring race into the fray.
In the ensuing days, the league captains discussed what to do in absence of a formal anti-racism policy. Looking back, our initial response was shameful. Each one of us fell into the trap that ensures systemic racism goes unaddressed. The offending player was described as a good kid, he just lost his temper. Some captains didn’t want to deal with the blowback that was promised from his friends and teammates if the player was forced to miss extended time. The player was only suspended for four games.
The failure to act spurred Derek to write a letter to the team captains, calling out our inaction and telling us that as the person who was the target of the slurs, this simply wasn’t an appropriate response. Another meeting was convened and it was decided to suspend the player for the season and a second offence would result in a lifetime suspension. A group of white players chose the easy path, one where only one person felt hurt instead of levying a punishment consummate with the crime regardless of how many promised to get angry. We protected the offender, not the victim, and with that (in)action, we became one more group that allowed systemic racism to carry on unchecked.
Derek shared that if white people really want to lean in and tackle this issue it can mean having tough conversations, “What you have to be willing to do is call out racism whenever you see it, even if it comes from a friend.”
That is easier said than done given many of us get defensive with any shortcoming that is pointed out by another, let alone a claim of being racist. But it is what we all must strive to do. It means we need to stop conflating the charge of committing a racist act with a permanent state of bigotry. It means that each offence gives us a new opportunity to grow so that next time we can do better.
Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.