Yes, I love attention.
Anyone who knows me could tell you that. I always love to tell a good story, or make wisecracks and try hard to land the perfect joke. So with that comes a certain amount of spotlight loving, I’ll admit.
I used to blame all that stage hogging on my crazy family.
You try growing up being the fourth of five siblings. Think about it….what the hell does Number FOUR get you? You’re not first or second. You’re not the baby of the family so you miss out on all of those perks. I mean, you can’t even lay claim to be being the problem middle child! And let’s not forget that it wouldn’t be Cape Breton without raising a few wacky cousins! So with all that crowd and all that noise, and no place in the pecking order, what’s a guy to do but come up with unique and wonderful ways to find that misplaced attention sometimes?
This past week, I got a whole lot of unnecessary attention for something that just seemed kind of…well, obvious and decent to do. But the next thing I know, I am on the front page of the local newspaper and being asked to do radio interviews, all the while being pursued by a rabid “fan” base of alt right supporters from the good ol’ U S of A, who come equipped with ugly threats, questionable wardrobe choices, bad selfies because they can’t find anyone else to hold a camera, and shockingly bad spelling and grammar.
It all started innocently enough. It was Halloween eve and after overdosing on coffee and mini chocolate bars all day long, I thought it high time I introduce a vegetable or two to my system, so I decided to wander over to the local grocery store before it closed. As I stepped outside, I came across four figures approximately 20 feet away, standing on the sidewalk. They were dressed head to toe in dark clothes with black hoodies, and had anonymous white masks covering their faces. To be honest, I couldn’t tell their age or race or gender…they were covered in a way that made them pretty much unidentifiable…but I knew they were vaguely masculine shaped and all of them at least a half-foot taller and a few inches broader than me.
For a moment I froze, and they froze, and my first thought was “aren’t you a lil’ old for trick or treating?” This was quickly followed by my second thought, which was: “DAMN but you’re all spectacularly creepy looking, just standing there and not moving or talking, so I’m just going to get the hell out of your way!” And so, giving them a pretty wide berth, I lowered my head, glanced at the sidewalk and quickly walked past. As I look back, I notice they still haven’t moved on, and I watch as the one in front, staring towards me through those empty black eye holes, motion towards a street pole with his hand. Then I heard the familiar click of what I thought was a staple gun – now, you try living with a reupholstering maniac and you’ll hear that sound in your sleep, too – and that’s when curiousity got the best of me. Yes, it is true that in that moment I thought to myself they are probably a posse of serial killers out advertising for their next victim, and all I have to protect myself is my charming wit, my boyish good looks, and my puny little fists, but I turned around and slowly followed them back up the street anyway. Before I’d reached the pole they had been standing in front of, they had already rounded the corner, and I could hear a horn blaring at them as their hard to see selves must have dodged traffic crossing the busy street.
So I got to the pole and I glanced up high and…I felt my heart sink and my blood pressure start to rise. There, in bold black letters on the stark white sheet were the words “It’s OK to be white”. Instinctively, I reached for it, ripped it down, and crumpled it into a ball, as I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Then I ran up the street to where I saw the foursome headed before they had disappeared. I looked frantically around, unsure what I would do if I found them, but knowing I was angry and that I had to confront them and wave this stupid crumpled paper in my hand in their stupid blank, hidden faces and say “THIS? This right here? It’s WRONG”.
But they were gone. And so I turned around, and I walked slowly down my street, in the neighbourhood I call home, and discovered sign after sign papering every street pole, and I started to tear and rip down every one within my reach. Just ripping and tearing, tearing and ripping, in almost a mindless way. Because all I could think of in that moment is that someone who probably looks just like me did this….someone who maybe loves scary movies and silly ginger cats, good books and swimming in the ocean, cheeseburgers and hiking adventures, and singing loudly and badly in the shower…all of those things. And with that, I felt an incredibly deep shame, and a deep sadness.
At first glance, the slogan itself seems pretty harmless enough. I suppose that’s the “genius” of it. The average person on the street will look at it and say “OF COURSE it’s ok to be white – why can’t I be proud of my culture?” But if you take the time to look below the surface and to really consider the motivation, you’ll understand the dark place messages like these comes from, and the hatred and divide they intend to promote. It’s the same “logic” that screams All Lives Matter in the face of Black Lives Matter, and in doing so tries to ignore or erase the terrible history of black enslavement in our world and the struggle for equality that continues for all people of colour today. It’s the same sort of reasoning that demands a Straight Parade to counter a Pride Parade, and ignores the persecution of LGBTQ people, and the battles we have faced and continue to face for even the most simple and basic of human rights.
We live in a dominant white culture that can appear evolved…one that can stand tall and embrace diversity and promote equality, while at the very same time desperately fearing and resisting any and all progress and change. It is a society founded by conquerors who carry the misguided belief that they deserve all the privilege and wealth and power there is to offer, and that they must stand firm against any perceived threat to that self-declared legacy. And although we imagine ourselves part of this privileged white culture, the day-to-day realities for many is the realization that in truth they have no power or influence or no real agency in the world, and so they look to ways to take that “back”, that birthright they were somehow denied. That is the narrative the alt right has discovered the means to tap into, and it is from that point their radicalization grows and spreads unchecked, unless we as a community can mobilize to stop it.
And of course within that narrative, we fail to recognize the way white privilege exists in our world. As a white culture, we take for granted our ability to turn on TV or pick up a bestselling novel and see white people widely represented. We don’t see that privilege in advertising and in products that are mainly geared towards people of our colour and skin tone. We don’t see it in how we can walk through a store or drive down a street and not be racially profiled or the subject of street checks and harassment.
Even the very word white can present some discomfort to someone who’s never had to experience what it’s like to be defined by their race or their colour. And if you are white and working class poor, then the very idea of being viewed as privileged seems almost offensive, especially in the suggestion that perhaps you’ve never faced struggle or adversity, when in fact that’s perhaps all you’ve ever really known.
Again, that’s the “genius” of this movement.
It is one of the main reasons why young white men in particular are so radicalized these days. It’s this narrative that speaks to the injustices and indignities they imagine have been thrust upon them. And despite the comfort of living in a world that sees you as normal, many within their ranks will fight back, because even worse than being denied something is to be seen as “average”. And because we raise young men in our dominant culture to never let their guard down and never show their true feelings, because to do so means you are “less” of a man, what they are left with is the only emotions they can readily identify….anger and rage…for what they believe is lost to them or was somehow stolen, and now must be reclaimed.
I weighed back and forth whether I wanted to come out with this story and give attention to some petty actions of a few that were only ever meant to hurt and upset others. But without realizing it in the moment, that hesitancy speaks to my own sense of white privilege…thinking that I actually had a choice whether or not to tell this tale and take a stand, when so many marginalized people are never afforded that luxury. The turning point for me was one of the last signs I tore down. I came across a family of four, probably out trick or treating for the night…the mother in a hijab and her face cast in shadow, the father shuffling his feet and staring uncomfortably at the ground, and these three brown-skinned little boys, none more than seven or eight years old, with a Spider-man mask, curly red clown hair, and a cowboy hat respectively in each hand, pulling on their mother’s dress and their father’s arm and pointing in confusion at the sign over their heads. The true irony in that moment was not lost on me as their parents sensed my anger and I felt their fear coming off them in waves as I reached past them, grabbed the poster, and gave it a vicious tug. All that could be heard was a large tearing sound. There were no words. How could there be? What could I even say?
When I got home later that night, the reality of what I’d stumbled across hit me full force. I thought at first it was just some isolated idiots playing a prank, but as I flipped through Facebook I saw posts from all over the country reporting the same thing – “It’s OK to be White” posters found on college campuses, all part of some sinister plot by the alt right in the U.S. to radicalize more to their cause, to make the “academics” sound self-righteous and irate and the average person angry and confused. At first, reports were all coming out of Toronto and Manitoba and Montreal and Vancouver, and no mention of Halifax….and so I thought HELL NO Harbour City, you’re not getting off that easy, and made a post over social media describing what had just occurred. Within twenty minutes I had my first troller or two on Twitter, and by morning probably a few dozen new followers, with messages ranging from “you did a good thing” to “why don’t you colour your own face – we don’t want you”. My inbox started to creep up with some requests from reporters and radio personalities who had seen my post on social media. At first I paid no attention because I didn’t want to play into this entire “plot” to gain sympathy for what amounted to an alt right movement, but through some pretty terrific persistence on his part, I eventually connected with a very eager reporter from the Chronicle Herald named Andrew Rankin, who quickly won me over as a son of Cape Breton himself who was also passionate about calling out racism when he sees it. So after a fired up chat with Andrew, I woke up the next day to my story on the front page of the paper and a decidedly nasty flood of messages all over social media, being labelled a racist and called a terrorist myself, and the recipient of some pretty disturbing threats of bodily harm that – after I really thought about it – aren’t even remotely anatomically possible. All of that attention, just because I took a simple stand.
But, you see, the thing that my new-found followers online didn’t know is that I grew up in Whitney Pier, a very culturally diverse and socioeconomically lower class community in Cape Breton, and throughout my childhood into adulthood I’d witnessed first hand the ugly impacts of racism and intolerance pretty much each and every day of my life. And what my new found followers failed to realize was that, as a gay man, I’ve had more than my fair share of experiences being marginalized and told “you’re not welcome” and “you’re not equal” for almost as long. One of my more eloquent new followers, Dingus something or other, called me a “fucktard terrorist” and said he read my “shity (sic) blog where all he sees everywhere in the world is rasism (sic), sexism, and homophobia.
So to that I say “Thanks Dingus!” because it shows someone is actually paying attention.
Call out racism when you see it, whether it’s blatantly parading in front of you or disguised in some covert hidden way. And if you’re not completely sure but you still somehow suspect, call it out anyway. If you don’t, you’re complicit in it, and as a result a part of the problem.
There’s this saying by Bréne Brown that goes something like this: if you want to make a difference in the world, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!”
It’s that simple. It’s not a choice. It never should have been for me, and it never should be for you.
Call it out.