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THE IVORY SILO: Words matter

By Stewart Skinner

This is part one of a three-part opinion series with Derek Mendez.

How many of us have lined up on the elevated tee block on Heritage No. 1, the beautiful scenery of the Listowel Golf Club laid out in front of us, the promise of a relaxing round of golf ahead, only to spray that first tee shot out over some poor unsuspecting golfer making their way up No. 9? Then to have to sheepishly head down the path, make your way over with an apology and the question, “You didn’t happen to see my ball land did you?”

The state of my golf game ensures that these types of conversations happen more than I would prefer, yet beyond the deflating feeling that comes with each slice off to the left, I’ve never dealt with anything beyond that. That is not the case for all.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down virtually with Derek Mendez, the vice-president at Molesworth Farm Supply. Derek is an accomplished executive who has worked hard to get to the top of one of our most respected local companies. Derek is a devoted husband, father, and community volunteer. Derek is a visible minority, a Black, Indigenous, and Person of Colour (BIPOC), and his experiences at places like LGC are not as simple as mine.

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I feel grossly unqualified to opine about the issues faced by BIPOC here in my hometown… heck, I feel unqualified to talk about it anywhere, because I am a straight white male living in a place where straight white males have dominated the agenda since our small town was hacked out of the bush almost two centuries ago. But feeling unqualified should not stop us from having conversations to try and learn to be better.

Last fall, the members of Perth County council gave us a jarring reminder that many would rather sit on their hands to protect the comfort of status quo instead of tackling a big, hairy problem like systematic racism and ever since, I have felt a vibe in our small town that many of us are willing to get uncomfortable in the name of social progress. We just need a little shepherding to help us understand what we can actually do.

While our conversation was wide ranging, we talked about everything from the long tail of colonialism in Africa to the details of bin design to maximize grain storage space in a feed mill. It was a simple story from last summer that provided a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for me that helped me to better understand a term I have heard more in the last six months than the previous 36 years; racial microagressions.

Derek was enjoying a round with his wife, sister and brother-in-law, and just as I have done so many times, another golfer hit a wayward shot that flew close to Derek and his group. No one was hit and so the group made their way up the hole only to be surprised by a golf cart chasing them up the hole. The golfer, accompanied by her teenage son, pulled up and the first thing out of her mouth was “Did you take my ball?”

“Did you take my ball” is a very different question than “did you see my ball,” and while at the time Derek felt it was an odd reaction given it was his group that had a ball fly over their heads with no warning, as he reflected on it he was struck with the nagging feeling that this was just one more instance of a racial microaggression; something he has grown far too accustomed to experiencing as a Person of Colour.

In the past, I have been struck with an incapacitating fear that if I were to ask questions in hopes of learning I would unintentionally offend the person. This fear has inhibited my own ability to grow and learn.

When asked about this fear, Derek shared a tidbit that will hopefully give comfort to those of us that want to learn, that want to create a more diverse and inclusive community.

“If the racial microaggression occurs when we are trying to learn about, or better understand the needs of BIPOC, it’s OK because it is happening in the context of education, it’s when it happens outside of this when it needs to be called out.”

Racism is alive and well here in small-town Ontario; Derek shared that his young daughters have already experienced racism first hand, at the hands of their peers.

He and his wife have had to have hard conversations with their children about racism; they have had to choose not to call out incidents of racism directed towards their children for fear of future playground reprisals.

Derek and I look very different yet we share the same goals. We want to see the continued growth of an agri-food industry that provides opportunity for so many, locally and globally. We want to see our children thrive and to have their choice of future path thanks to a good education. We want a safe, diverse and inclusive hometown that makes everyone feel welcome.

Be sure to read the next installment of the Ivory Silo as we continue exploring racism through the eyes of a respected community member. Hopefully next summer, Derek’s disappointment on the golf course will be limited to the same sinking feeling the rest of us get when that drive that seemed perfect for a fraction of a second starts tailing off over the trees.

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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 stewart@stonaleenfarms.ca or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.