When I was six years old, I walked out of a Shoppers Drug Mart, unaccompanied by an adult, in Thornhill Square shopping centre in Ontario. A cop chased after me, caught hold of my shoulder and accused me of shoplifting. I was shocked and stuttered, “No, I didn’t take anything.” In a deserted hallway, the officer insisted I had stolen a lipstick. I was forced to empty out my pockets to prove that I was innocent. I said, “I didn’t take anything! I swear!” The cop stormed away from me angrily. I was just a kid, and felt violated and scared.
Today, something similar happened to me at a store in Kitsilano. It was completely demoralizing and shook me up. I keep forgetting that even though I’m older now, even though I dress up, even though I think I look respectable, I will never be respectable-looking enough for some – as I will always be brown. And although I will always be proud of that fact, I will never, ever be immune to racism.
I thought long and hard about how I wanted to respond. Should I ‘out’ the store and encourage people to boycott? Should I shame the store? Instead, without naming the establishment in question, I posted on Facebook what happened to me. I received over a hundred responses from friends who were indignant and outraged. But what do all these responses mean? For some, a less generous read might suggest that I embodied a victimized stance. What do we do when we feel aggrieved and oppressed, or hurt and attacked? How can we respond with openness and generosity of spirit – to encourage commonality across difference?
I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to talk about this with New York City-based Professor Sarah Schulman this week. It was a timely interview, as it took place the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. Schulman was in town to promote her latest book, her eighteenth. It is titled, “Conflict is not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair.” It asks how we can approach our conflict over differences with compassion and humanity. She says we do so by confronting not only others, but also ourselves and our own unresolved anxiety from the past. Using examples as far-ranging as Michael Brown to HIV criminalization in Canada, the book has been seen as an important activist intervention. She is a Guggenheim award winning novelist, playwright and lesbian activist. I hope you will take a listen.
And me? I’m going to talk to the store owner about how she can make changes within her organization so that other customers at her many locations don’t go through what I went through today. There’s an opportunity for change. I look forward to exploring that terrain with her.