By Stewart Skinner
This is the final instalment of a three-part series with Derek Mendez.
Robert Mugabe was a vile human. He caused immense suffering for the people of Zimbabwe of all races; under his leadership Zimbabwe went from a global agricultural powerhouse to a nation rife with famine, hyperinflation and widespread unemployment.
So imagine my surprise when in a conversation about colonization and ongoing racial tensions in Africa with my closest Kenyan friends, they shared that Mugabe was a hero to the Black African, not a villain. I couldn’t understand how anyone could look at Mugabe as a hero, regardless of what his intentions may have been; he destroyed what was once the most agriculturally-productive country on the continent of Africa and thousands died because of it.
I shared my confusion with Derek Mendez during a recent wide-ranging conversation and his response was blunt: “Mugabe happened because white people never gave an inch in the 15 years between 1965 and 1980.” That response has haunted me since our conversation because of the simplicity of the answer. The longer we protect the status quo, the more violent the future reaction may be.
I have a vivid memory from my time at LDSS; it was not long after the shooting at Columbine High School and I was walking down the hall, and was surprised to see three Black men walking towards me. I was scared and my mind immediately went to a place of suspecting nefarious activity. In English class following lunch, I shared my experience with a friend at the desk next to me. Our teacher overheard and admonished me, calling out my racism. At the time, I was very confused; I didn’t think I was racist as I had no ill will towards people purely based on the colour of their skin. I had never been given the opportunity to understand that just because there was no hate in my heart, I could still be guilty of racism.
I had my first meaningful conversation with a Black person when I was almost 20 years old at the University of Guelph. The first 19 years of my life had been spent in a town that was almost exclusively white and there was precious little opportunity for me to just talk with someone else who looked different than I. Some of the language thrown around in the hockey dressing room never registered with me as racist; it never occurred to me that just because we didn’t march with the KKK, we could still be racist.
As a parent, I have watched my children play with kids that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) and am amazed with a young child’s ability to be completely oblivious to the very visual differences from another child. It has led me to wonder when we morph from the innocence of childhood into a place where just seeing a BIPOC can trigger fearfulness like my teenage self experienced.
Racism is not confined to any one town, province, or country, it is everywhere. “Growing up coloured you learn to cope with racism, no matter where you grow up,” said Derek during our conversation. He shared that each generation is tasked with tempering their children with an acceptance that they are going to have a harder path than others simply because of the colour of their skin without destroying their dreams. On the flip side, he also shared that with each passing generation, the tolerance to put up with this acceptance of racial inequality will be reduced.
So where do we go from here? How do we make small town Ontario a place that erodes the systemic racism that has existed since our founding?
How can we make the preconceived stereotypes that caused a 16-year-old kid to have the reaction of fear based solely on the colour of another’s skin become a thing of the past?
According to Derek, it starts by being a community that makes a newcomer feel accepted. It means that when someone moves in a couple doors down we welcome them into our lives to plant the seeds of acceptance. Derek shared that it only took the actions of a few to make him and his wife feel welcome here in Listowel – not broad proclamations by politicians or community leaders – it was neighbours who welcomed his family into their back yards and around their kitchen tables. Those neighbours also showed a genuine interest in learning about their culture.
It is a reality that rural areas are not going to have as many safe places where a BIPOC can relax among people that look the same as them. Last week’s installment highlighting the failure of our basketball league could have played out differently if it took place in a different setting. In a larger urban area where the racial balance on the court could be shifted, perhaps the white person would not have been as emboldened if they themselves were the minority on the court. But we don’t live in an urban area. We live in a wonderful small town that is brimming with opportunity that happens to be predominately white, and we should do our darndest to make sure that colour or creed plays no bearing on one’s ability to tap into future possibilities.
It is in that fact that there is the most hope. There is opportunity here in our part of the world. Our conversation closed with me asking if he wants his children to call Listowel home someday and his answer warmed my heart because it is the same answer I give when asked if I hope my children want to farm someday. “Yes, if they want to. This is a great place to raise a family.”
Thanks to Derek Mendez for taking time to chat with this small-town boy who loves where he comes from but still isn’t satisfied that we can’t do more to make it better for the next generation. Without people like him who have the courage to speak plainly about the struggles BIPOC face, the road to a more inclusive and diverse community would be far less clear.
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.