On Building the Things We Love
My daughter and I were invited on a podcast a while back where the topic was “reconciliation.” What is it, how do you work for it, what shape ought it to take, etc. Would we be interested? Well sure. But we were both quite clear when the invitation came that we did not see our relationship as some kind of abstract exercise in reconciliation but as a father and a daughter. We were not placeholders for a theory of racial relations. We were family.
Both of us were happy to talk about what this looked like in our particular context as a white man and an indigenous young woman, but for us the order mattered. I think that in general terms, starting with what divides rather than what unites is not a great strategy. I don’t think we have to look too far out there in our culture—in matters of race, certainly, but also any number of the myriad identity units we are anxious to articulate and fortify—to see abundant and uninspiring evidence of this. I’m not sure if the podcast hosts got what they were looking for when they interviewed us. My suspicion is not, but who knows.
I thought of our experience on the podcast when I came across Eboo Patel’s article in The New York Times yesterday called “What I Want My Kids to Learn About American Racism.” Patel narrates some of his own journey with the category of “racism,” how he first encountered it and how his thinking has shifted over time.
He talks about first encountering terms like “institutionalized racism” and “structures of oppression” and “white supremacy,” about reading bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire. All of this helped him make a measure of sense of his own experience and that of his south Asian Muslim family in America. But over time, he say, these categories began to take as much as they gave:
The deeper I read, the more I saw the entire world through that lens. I soon couldn’t see much else. Racism permeated everything. My principal identity was as a victim of racism. My singular purpose was to call racism out, beat it down and give it a violent death in front of a crowd.
I lost sight of many things, like how fortunate I was to be a middle-class college student spending my days reading and the role I had in building something better. I was in a conspiracy against my own agency. I sense a similar tendency in the way race and racism are taught in some schools today. Calling out racism is part of the work, not all of it. After you get rid of the things you don’t like, you need to build the things you do.
Two sentences stand out from this passage.
- I was in a conspiracy against my own agency
- After you get rid of the things you don’t like, you need to build the things you do.
Well, yes and amen. Agency seems to have fallen upon hard times these days. But Patel’s reminder is an important one. I read another article in the Globe and Mail this week by Estella Peterson, an Ojibway woman working as a heavy equipment operator at an oil sands mine in northern Alberta. She says,
Above all, I think we should be providing Indigenous women with the opportunity to make good choices—to get training, to get a well-paying job and to support their family and feel proud about it.
This is, I suspect, what most of us want for our kids (and for ourselves), no matter the colour of our skin. And yet so much of our current discourse around race and other identity markers conspires against the very agency required to be physically, mentally, relationally, and spiritually healthy human beings.
And that second sentence from Patel also expresses a vital truth. It’s easy to tear down, criticize, reject, cancel, destroy. It’s easy to re-narrate history as nothing but a long and grinding exercise in oppression by evil people bent on evil things. This is not even remotely the whole story, obviously, even if this is how we often tell it. But even if it were, once hard truths have been told, injustices have been exposed, victims honoured and oppressors named… Then what? What are we building in its place? Are we building anything? Will there be any materials left to build with? Will there be anyone left with enough good will to try? Or will we all be neatly partitioned off into victims and offenders, innocent and guilty, clean and unclean, with nothing resembling trust or shared humanity left?
My daughter is fond of saying, whenever someone asks her about her experience as an indigenous woman, or about what her vision of reconciliation is, something like this: “I don’t know, I see myself as a human being and a child of God first. I’m only indigenous after that. I think reconciliation has to start by seeing that we’re all human beings.” It makes me proud to hear her say this, and not just because I don’t want her to walk through life feeling like nothing more than a victim of structures and histories and blinkered narratives. I think it expresses something deeply true and hopeful about the world we have inherited and the world we are responsible to maintain and improve upon, something that Eboo Patel expresses well in his final paragraph:
I don’t want my kids to shy away from confronting racism, but I don’t want whatever racism they might experience to make them lose sight of all of their other identities and privileges. Above all, I want my two sons to understand that responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy is not principally about noticing what’s bad; it’s about constructing what’s good. You need to defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do.