COLUMN: A thriving community is where sanity and rights prevail

Acts of discrimination don’t just happen in other countries, George Chandler writes. They happen here

By George Chandler

“Wow, these are crazy times.” Amidst the daily unknowns of the pandemic, we often hear or repeat this phrase. But the strangeness is not only around our various COVID-19 concerns.

The recent death of George Floyd and other incidents involving minorities in both the U.S. and Canada have seen the boiling over of collective anger and frustration of people of colour, sick and tired of ingrained racism and violence toward them.

In Canada, Indigenous people and people of colour are speaking out about their ongoing and longstanding experience of discrimination and invisibility. During the pandemic, we have seen far too many misguided and disturbing acts of discrimination and scapegoating of “Asian-looking” people … and yes, it has happened here in Nelson, too.

These are all examples really, of crazy behaviour by one human being towards another. We’ll come back to “crazy” later.

When I was a young teen, I got in a fight, as my “turn” had come up to fight the usual school whipping boy. Let’s call him Terry. I didn’t hate him. I barely knew him, but I was willing to pile on in my own way. As I was about to punch Terry, I looked into his eyes, suddenly glimpsing how much this would hurt him. I saw Terry for the first time as a person, with feelings and fears, more than the person who didn’t belong in our world or deserve our respect. This insight haunted me quietly for a long time. Looking back, I see it as waking up, becoming a little saner about a person I had ignorantly written off.

African-American comedian Chris Rock was once asked if he felt that things had progressed in the U.S., in terms of race relations. His answer: “Well, white people have gotten less crazy, that’s all.”

He further explained: “While you can say progress has been made, but when we say ‘progress,’ we’re saying that what happened before wasn’t crazy. Sure, there’s no more segregation, but to say black people have made progress means at some point they deserved to have been segregated. That’s insane!”

People we marginalize don’t just wake up one day and suddenly deserve to eat or sit or study or talk with us because they earned it somehow. The reality is that the people who were denying them these basic rights just stopped doing it.

I used to think we in Nelson were becoming less crazy about some people and situations in our community. Certainly we have gotten much less crazy about people who are not hetereosexual. But we’re still pretty crazy about transgendered people and gender identity issues. We probably are still a bit uncomfortable about Muslims and Islam; and we have a way to go in seeing more humanely in terms of people living with poverty, homelessness, mental illness and addictions.

We now see an anti-Asian bias returning during these COVID times, along with the strong recent reminder that we have built-in historical barriers to inclusion for people of colour, including our Indigenous peoples.

As the pandemic continues to play out, we long for a return to normal. But it’s right to debate what normal was/is, and whether it’s worth returning. Before COVID, some people in our community didn’t feel safe or included here because of how they look or our ideas about them. This is saddening and concerning, and I am suggesting here that we need to find a way to include their thriving, safety and health in our full view of community.

I want to keep exploring what I touched upon during that long-ago fight: what am I doing, consciously or unconsciously, to deny or ignore the inherent dignity and rights of other fellow citizens? And what are we doing collectively to keep others from being a full part of our community?

Together, we are writing the collective autobiography of Nelson, the story of who we are and still hope to become as a community. Let’s avoid the blind spots and rose-coloured glasses that plague so many self-written life stories. Let’s acknowledge our history and our biases, let’s admit that we have things to learn, and let’s embrace the opportunity to intentionally, compassionately, skillfully, and yes sanely, build a better world for all.

George Chandler lives in Nelson and is a volunteer working on issues of climate crisis, poverty, inclusion and diversity.

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