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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

As a Canadian, I have recently been watching the situation in the United States with horror. In particular, I’ve been shocked by the attitude of their President and his seeming disinterest in taking any responsibility for what is happening or making any effort to pull his country back together. The death of George Floyd and many other Black men at the hands of law enforcement have understandably touched a nerve, leading to daily protests and demands for justice. It has also sparked new conversations on racism, discrimination and the values of diversity and inclusion, not just in America, but here in Canada and in British Columbia where I live.

The way I know that people are feeling particularly engaged in the conversation is the number of friends and associates who have messaged and called to check up on me and to say that they’re here for me. If you didn’t already guess, I am Black.

“Hey Will, I wanted to check in quickly given the, uh, state of the world right now,” read the first text. “I hope you’re doing okay. Let me know if I can help with anything.”

“Hey Will! I’m sending you lots of love. I’m here if you need anything,” said the second one.

In the third message I received from a friend, they pledged to do better and educate themselves. They also added, “I don’t want to place the burden on you to say what it is I can do to help, but if you do need anything please call on me. <3”

I am so appreciative of these messages. At the same time, I have to admit they caught me a bit off guard. It seemed like all my (not Black) friends were affected by what was going on in the world more than I was. I know they all care about me and their concern is genuine, but I also thought, don’t they know me? I’m doing fine. I haven’t been suffering injustices of any kind. Despite growing up in a town where I was literally one of three Black people (the other two were my adopted brothers), I had the greatest upbringing. And I’ve had no barriers to achieving my career goals. I’ve always felt socially and culturally – and this will sound strange – that I’m barely Black. Or at the very least, my experience does not really reflect that of a lot of minorities.

Yes, I was born in Kingston, Jamaica on Payne Avenue, in a neighbourhood that someone once told me is so dangerous I should never visit it again. But now I’m Canadian, and if you only read my professional and financial profile, you likely wouldn’t guess my race.

Firstly, my single mother, who adopted me shortly before my second birthday in 1990, is white. I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. Ninety per cent of my friends are white. My extended family is white. I didn’t grow up rich, but my family definitely wasn’t poor. I played sports when I was young and in my town, I was a pretty decent hockey player. I was a defenseman, jersey No. 3. I was popular in school. I studied at Carleton University in Ottawa and got a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree with minimal effort. Then I got a certificate in public relations from the University of Toronto. I’ve had great jobs, all with good salaries and benefits. I moved to Vancouver in 2015, and almost immediately got a job through connections. Now I work for the provincial government, and according to recent reports, I and my girlfriend Michelle have a household income that is more than double B.C.’s median. Like I said, I think I’m doing fine, and it’s always seemed this way.

This all makes me think of a great line in a Vanity Fair article from last year about former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, where the writer quotes O’Rourke’s father talking about how open the U.S.-Mexico border used to be. To illustrate this point he says, “When I was six and seven years old, I didn’t know I wasn’t a Mexican.” I’ve joked with Michelle that, most of my life, I didn’t know I wasn’t white. Or more specifically, I didn’t feel like I was a minority that had a system working against me.

Over the past few days, this has made me feel a bit guilty and has led me to decline numerous invitations to speak about the Black Canadian experience – in a documentary, in an article and on multiple panels for virtual events. While I applaud the effort by people and organizations who are seeking out and elevating Black voices, I need to accept a truth: Even though I am Black, my experience is just not at all reflective of the communities of people who we need to be hearing from and elevating right now. I am a frequent speaker in Vancouver about marketing and communications. At work, I oversee a team of four as a communications director. I usually have the right words to say. I’m used to writing peoples’ talking points and key messages. But right now, I have no idea what to say about the current unrest, and even if I thought that I did, I still don’t think it’s my time to talk.

It is, however, time for me to recognize the abnormal concentration of fortune in my story: my exceptional mother, the warmth of Winchester, Ont., where I grew up, the schools I went to, the employers I’ve had and all the friends I’ve made, including all the ones who have been reaching out to me.

Because of my mixed emotions and some guilt over my situation, these past weeks have been extremely disorienting. I’ve been appalled at the treatment of minorities south of the border, as well as similarly unacceptable behaviours here in our own backyard with our treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and more recently, people of Asian heritage. I see it all, and I believe racism and hate have no place in our society. I’m willing to do my part – listening, learning and taking action – to ensure more people of every race can experience a journey like mine. And because of all the texts I’ve received recently, I know for certain that the people in my life will be taking action with me.

William Johnson lives in Vancouver.

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