You know that feeling you get when you meet someone wonderful? You leave the encounter with a metaphorical glow about you? That’s me right now. See, I get interested in hearing about someone whose life experience is so different from my own. As anyone who’s seen me interact with strangers after one or two drinks can attest, I get into question mode. There’s so much world out there I haven’t witnessed and hearing stories or insights from people who have is like taking a journey of my own.
Let’s wander back a little. After a lot of physical activity this week, my body is kind of wrecked. This morning I decided to do something about it. I booked an RMT session to work out all the congealed lactic acid in my system. I had a new RMT I’d never met. I lay down and we started chatting about food, travel and cultural experiences. She mentioned that while she grew up in Toronto, her heritage is Trinidadian. Conversation shifted to Facebook and the bubble experience of being surrounded by politically identical groups. We started talking about racial politics, BLM and so on. Soon enough it became apparent that there was a lot I could learn, so I talked less and asked more.
We discussed identity and labels, how they’re such a personal thing. She said she has a problem with the way the US history curriculum is taught. How black people are taught that their history starts with slavery, when in fact there’s so much more to it than that. Neglecting what came before is harmful and provides a lack of greater awareness. She mentioned how this representation affects perceived potential. When you tell people that they started as slaves, it limits what they believe themselves to be capable of. Back home in Trinidad, she said, everyone is black. Unlike in America, the majority of white collar jobs are populated by black people. Kids don’t see barriers to their success, because the thought of being disqualified from any role on the basis of their skin colour is absurd. It never got in the way of anyone else they knew.
She mentioned how racism and cultural profiling start so young. She once helped out at a church based youth education program. The class of 12 year olds was predominantly white, with two black kids and a Filipino boy. The lesson was on the difference between signs and symbols. Signs, she’d said, were defined. They had a very specific purpose and message. A symbol, on the other hand, was open to interpretation. Like a group Rorschach test, the teacher held up cards for the class and they called out with what they thought it meant. The teacher held up a dove. “Peace”, “freedom”, “goodness” the kids called back. A card of a tree prompted calls of “growth”, “nature”.
The teacher then held up a card with a bunch of hands holding onto one another. The hands were all black. Immediately the class called out “starvation”, “suffering”. The teacher balked, my RMT was stunned. They were cartoon hands that just happened to be black. The Filipino boy visibly recoiled and spoke up. “I was gonna say teamwork.” There was nothing indicating any kind of ill health within the picture. A strange pall settled over the class, the kids that had all shouted out were sort of taken aback at their own answers. It was uncomfortable. She said it was one of those true esprit d’escalier times, she wished she could go back to that moment and say something they could take with them for the rest of their lives.
I don’t know if it stuck with them, if it resonated. Thing is, it resonates with me. I have a feeling I might hold that little anecdote with me for some time. That’s something, right?