“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.
Yesterday was blackout Tuesday. Like many of us, I posted on my Instagram page and then did my best to disconnect and reflect. I felt it was not enough to post a dark picture and go about my day. I felt it was my duty to really ponder this and try to make sense of it from my perspective and use my voice to make any tiny difference I can. This is what I came up with.
I had a typical middle-class upbringing. Two loving parents, an older brother, cousins, friends, piano lessons, family vacations, and all the other things you would expect a middle-class family to do in Canada. My parents both immigrated to Canada from Greece. My mom came in 1968 to join her cousin when she was only 17 and my dad arrived 2 years later in 1970 when he was 24. Both of my parents grew up in a small village in southern Greece with no exposure to any other cultures or nationalities until the day they arrived in Canada.
I was born in December of 1976. Although by this time my parents had settled into their lives in this beautiful multicultural country we call home, our circle of friends included mostly other Greek families and as a child, I secretly always wondered why? Upon arriving in Canada, my father got a job working in construction. I recall him telling us stories of his experience as he began his life in this country. He told us that he would show up to work and was made fun of, tormented and harassed because of his inability to speak English and because he was different. He tried to work through it hoping it would end or change, but it didn’t and as a result, he quit this job after 3 weeks. He took a less paying job at a factory. Here, the majority of the workforce was Greek here, they stuck together. The Greeks worked together, the Blacks worked together, the Asians worked together, the Whites worked together, and so on. They even had separate lunch tables. There was a Greek table, a Black table, an Asian table, and a White table – you get the idea. They happily sat with “their” people where they each spoke their native language and shared relatable stories. The discrimination quietly mounting in an organized fashion. The different cultures never intermingling and never caring to get to know one another. They didn’t dare try to sit at a table they did not belong for fear of being shunned and rejected.
My mother was also a factory worker however, she had come to Canada before my dad and was able to take some ESL courses. Her command of the English language was better than a lot of other immigrants (which is what comprised the majority of factory workers) and this quickly helped her be promoted to supervisor. My mom’s workplace lunchroom looked similar to my father’s. People sat at different tables based on their cultural background. My mom, however, was an anomaly because she sat at the supervisor’s table – which included women from all over the world – and this made her a target in a different way. She was a target for her own people – the other Greek women. “You’re too good to sit with us aren’t you?” they would say to her. She was a strong woman my mom and as a result, she didn’t change her actions because of their remarks, but the bite of their hate always bothered her. I could tell because she told the story over and over again, seemingly trying to process it in her mind.
Like many immigrants that came to this country, my parents spent a lot of time comparing differences to other cultures rather than focusing on the similarities they shared in their journey to acclimate as new Canadian’s. Maybe it was a type of defense to protect themselves from discrimination and prejudice. Maybe it was just easier to stick with people they felt understood by rather than try to fit it. Although my parents were never seemingly racist, there was an undertone of comparison and judgement in our home life towards Black people, Asians, and other nationalities. There was an expectation for us to stick to our own people. For me, as a young woman, I was expected to marry Greek and nothing else would have been accepted.
I understand that my parent’s early life experience was very different than mine. I grew up sitting at the same tables and sharing my snacks with my Black next-door neighbour and my Asian classmate. We grew up running the schoolyard together holding hands without ever considering that we were different. I grew up taking my classmate – regardless of their background – to the nurse’s office for a band-aid when they scraped their knee. To me, we were all the same and I never doubted this but, in spite of this, never did I ever realize as a child the privilege I had and would have in my life as a white female. Never did I understand that children I sat next too in grade school and my colleagues at work were subject to so much hate and racial discrimination in their daily lives simply for being who they were born to be. Sure, I pondered the discrimination every time I heard another young black man was profiled or killed unnecessarily by police, but like most of us, I quickly went back to my white privileged life when it all blew over not really giving it much more thought. My parents – like many others – may have been subject to unnecessary discrimination since they started their lives in Canada and there is no doubt that this shaped their outlook and course in life in many ways but what I have realized during this time of reflection is that there is an enormous difference. For my parents, this discrimination never spilled onto the streets. My father never feared for his life while passing a police officer on the street, nor did he worry that people thought he was going to rob them when he walked into a convenience store. My parents were never required to have a conversation with my older brother about what he should do if he was pulled over to ensure that he got home alive. My parents may have been victims in their own way but never did they ever fear for their safety based on the colour of their skin. Never was their most basic human right to simply exist questioned.
Can anyone dismiss the fact that this time it has to be different? Can anyone deny that enough is finally enough? Not because George Floyd’s life meant more than any of the others that have been unjustly profiled, discriminated against, beaten, or murdered. But because George Floyd’s life is the tip of the iceberg! Regardless if you are Black, White or Brown can anyone deny that we need to stand together and act? As a mother, I cannot fathom having to have a conversation with my child about being profiled or giving them instructions on how to make it home safe if they were pulled over by the police. I cannot fathom. As a mother, I cannot comprehend any child being bullied, tormented, or harassed because of the colour of their skin. I cannot comprehend. As a sister, I cannot imagine worrying that my brother may not make it home simply because of the colour of his skin and NO PERSON SHOULD EVER HAVE THIS WORRY AGAIN.
Now is the time for us to really think about and understand what white privilege is and stand in solidarity as a human race with our brothers and sisters. Now is the time for us to make sure we are having conversations with our children about racism, hate, and discrimination. My reach may not be broad but collectively we have the power to invoke great change and create a better world for all our children. Now is the time to heal the trauma and generations of hurt and pain that racism has caused so many of our fellow human beings. We are collectively battling a pandemic not only of a virus but of segregation, isolation, and exclusion, and I truly believe that the only way out is a unified one. Each one of our small actions within our circles collectively can make a big difference. I pray that together we heal the wounds of our ancestors and move forward as one united human race. I pray our children can be proud of our actions and the difference we made. It’s up to us to stand together in solidarity. It’s up to us to make the change.
With all my love….Eleni xoxo