Recently, during a meaningful conversation about the effects of racism and colonization with a friend he mentioned that he did not understand why people of colour seemed to want to be categorized as victims. To support this argument, he cited the great misdeeds and evil that was visited upon his ancestral Scottish people. Indeed, the Scots were abused by the Empire. “However,” my friend continued, “they continued fighting and never fell into becoming the victims of the horrors that were visited on them.” He continued to expound on this and although every fibre of my being was screaming that he was wrong, a part of my brain was also thinking about the rationality of this argument. What he said “sounded reasonable”.
My feelings about the stress that people of colour face is reflected deeply in my poetry and my writing. However, I have never allowed victimhood to be a part of my narrative. I envision that victimhood comes from a place of weakness and when I look at the majority of people of colour in my country and the small Canadian town I live in, I do not see weakness. So why did this reasonable-sounding argument, feel so fundamentally wrong? Instinctively I knew that this position was not tenable, but the argument was reasonable.
In my book, A Sliver of a Chance, I wrote a poem called “Animal”. It was inspired by a picture of an Australian Aboriginal man, dressed in Western clothes and chained to a tree. You can see the discomfort he is in written on his face. The poem “Animal” is not from this poor wretch’s point of view. It is from the person who had him caught and bound to the tree. That was the answer to my question. Bound up within that person was a belief, so insidious and profound that, upon realising it, I was visibly shaken to my core.
I decided to put my theory to the test and went back to read accounts of the horrors visited by the British upon the Scots. There is no denial, they were brutalized. All manner of horrendous atrocities were visited upon them. They were disenfranchised, suppressed, and repressed. They were forced from their homes by landowners, to make way for sheep. The potato famine that blighted the Highlands in the 1840s brought yet another wave of clearances and emigration and disenfranchisement. Yet, try as I might, I found one thing missing. One crucial, yet fundamental aspect of their suffering. There is no denying that there was cruelty, but it was visited by one man upon another; and, in fact, a Scot eventually became King of England.
Now, armed with this knowledge, let us turn our attention to people of colour. I have no doubt, dear reader, that you have already discerned the direction of my argument. But bear with me a while as there is one more point left to make. Before we delve into the reason the experience of the Scots under the British thumb differs vastly from that of people of colour, must understand religion. Specifically, Christianity. Or at least a specific version of Christianity.
I have often wondered how people who claimed to follow Christ could reconcile the violence visited on other people. Simplistically put, religion did play a role where one side felt the other subscribed to a bastardized version of the ‘real religion’ and therefore were not rightfully under the protection and mercy of the crown that believed in the ‘real religion’. However, what about our poor Aboriginal man tied to a tree? Or the slave dragged from his homeland, bought, and sold, whipped and slaughtered for a period of over two hundred years? Or the East Indians, whose country was raped and pillaged of all its riches while its people were pressed under the British boot? Didn’t the Bible say that it was necessary to bring the word to every human being? Well, yes it did!
To every Human being!
The definition and categorization of these two words would become the line drawn between the rulers and the ruled. These words would be used to justify untold cruelty across the globe in the name of religion. They would be used to defend and rationalize unspeakable horrors upon people of colour, Aboriginals, and Indigenous peoples across the globe. It’s easier to defend compelling an animal do the demanding work after all precedent was set with horses, camels, cattle, and other beasts of burden. These sub-humans from the African plains, on the Indian continent and in the Americas were exactly that. They looked human, and could even be trained to act somewhat human, but, in reality, they were not. This meant that using them for slave labour was an act of mercy; a Christian thing to do. Of course, it was understood that Biblical promises were not meant for them, but this was a moral and ethical argument, not an economical one.
Therein lies the difference. The British thought of the Scots as mortal enemies. They hated them and brutalized them but there is no indication that they ever thought of them as less than human. On the contrary, a Scot would eventually sit on the British throne.
Finally, I felt that while the argument my friend made sounded reasonable, it was not. However, there is one final consideration. Many of the systems in North America, like policing, healthcare, justice, business, and banking were created on the specific needs and requirements of one particular type of people. While over the ensuing years, people of colour can now interact with these systems, some of the intrinsic prejudices that represent the founders, and the foundation of these systems still exist. These historical biases, preconceptions and bigotry are oftentimes so subtle as to be easily missed. For example, the racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites still haunts the halls of medicine.
What we all need to understand is that people of colour are not downplaying the historical violence that may have been visited upon other races. What they are saying is that while that is now in your past, they are still struggling against those prejudices today. Negative assumptions are still being made and acted upon because of their colour. This is a distinction worth making and it is a wrong that must be made right.