Vicky Mochama is a Toronto-based writer.
I don’t know a single white person who does not believe systemic racism is real. In fact, for as long as I’ve been Black, white people have told me about racism.
My very existence is the cassock of a Bishop and simple proximity serves as the confessional: “Forgive me, Vicky, I have watched one (1) racism.”
They have seen so much and felt so much and are shocked. It has felt preposterously laughable to them (some laugh) and it has upset them (I’ve seen the tears). They saw it at work, in school, at the gym, on vacation, at the job site, on base, at the rink, in the salon, at a bar, on social media and, apparently, at every family holiday.
Sidney Crosby has apparently seen the video of George Floyd’s death. So too has Justin Bieber, Katie Couric, Ashton Kutcher, and other notable white people.
I have not seen it. Bearing witness to Black life only when it ends in a death is a white tradition. It is lynching, but now it is digital.
White people, statistically less likely to be in diverse friend groups and more likely to know only other white people, have been searching for the language for this moment, and have been reaching out for the much-coveted Black Friend (of “well, my Black Friend says it” fame). Stuck at home with nothing but the news, they’ve been called to do something, anything. So they’ve sent messages, DMs, texts, e-mails and more.
These stories are meant to tell me who they are: a good person who is on my side. But what white people never mention in their anecdotes is what they have done. It’s because, in every instance, they have done nothing. They witnessed racism and reported back to me, seemingly the stenographer of racism.
In Policing Black Lives, author and activist Robyn Maynard notes that, in Ontario, Black communities fought until the 1960s for the end of blackface minstrel shows that churches held as fundraisers.
White histories are silent on how their communities went to a house of prayer, mocked Black people, had a good time and went home.
Ryerson University professor Dr. Cheryl Thompson has been collecting evidence of blackface in Canada since 2012: flyers, pamphlets, photos, and more – a veritable library of racism.
I asked Dr. Thompson about the cultural silence on blackface. When older Canadians tell her about seeing these minstrel shows in their communities, she says, “They never remember the Black people.”
Their descendants are similarly silent, she says, often not wanting to give her their names or talk about this poisoned treasure. “The extent of white shame is rampant, and the problem with shame is that it doesn’t allow you to heal and to move forward.”
When white people confess that they have seen racism, they are simultaneously denying their presence as witnesses and, crucially, as actors.
Pressed into racial sacramental service, usually with a cocktail instead of a crucifix, the story begs a response. If they tell me a story, then I gotta tell them one of mine. If the father of a colleague makes a joke about the N-word, surely I have been called one. Please, they ask, can I have one more?
We are asked, in every space and in corporate media (like this paper), to unfurl our traumas. The racial violence isn’t enough on its own; we must testify that it has had the desired result, and to give what has already been taken.
The white extractive instinct built Canada, of course, dropping national parks and cottage towns on lands where nations and cultures had thrived without them. But Canada doesn’t know quite what to do about Black people, except knowing that it does not want them here. Even in this moment, we cannot be the subject, even as we die. And the frequent killer – policing – cannot be named. There is death, grieving, and no one is to blame.
No one ever seems to have committed the act of racism, but racism did happen – it is apparently a racism without racists. Justin Bieber who was free with the n-word once is an anti-racism advocate. No hockey player has ever committed racism, but Black hockey players have experienced it. Systemic racism is not real, depending on which day it is.
It is the perpetual dawn of white innocence. But as James Baldwin wrote, it is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
In Canada, being Black is akin to being the student of a teacher who always calls you by the name of the other Black kid in school. We will always know white people, their histories, frailties and lives in a way they do not know, have chosen not to know, have opted to not hear, have willingly distorted, have taken away, have denied taking away and have truly not tried to know us. It’s an imbalance that, at this point, feels like a commitment.
There is in the storytelling one more white ritual: asking forgiveness, insisting on absolution. (In the hours between the blackface scandal breaking, the Prime Minister called a number of Black, Indigenous and racialized people to personally apologize.) This week, in text messages, e-mails, workroom chats, it’s been wild, to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong. I like white people, many are my close friends. And the innovations that white people have made in cheese are Nobel Prize-worthy.
But after this moment is done, when the work continues, can white people be trusted to ensure justice? I’m sure you will say yes, and I hope you mean it.
As the stories and the confessions I hear have revealed, there is always one last white tradition: the broken promise.
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