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The unfinished bridge between two communities

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Some days, I pause to count the fortunes of this little life of mine, the privileges with which I was imbued from birth through no virtue of my own: I grew up in a good home, was educated in a good school, I always had food to eat and books to read and I was shown early how to navigate the world.

Oh, and I was born white. I don't think about that part very much.

I don't have to because, by the chance of this pale skin, by the chance of being white, I was born into a society that casts no weight on these features of mine. I am stung by no stereotypes, I am trailed by no security guards, and when a white person makes the news for any reason -- a crime, a charity, a protest -- commenters do not vent their disgust in sweeping generalizations about the entire group of which I am a part.

If almost any person treats me badly, I never even have to wonder if my race played a role. When I am hired for a job, I never endure colleagues sniping that I only got it because I am white. In fact, I never have to think about race, other than exactly when and how I decide, and if others raise the topic I can dismiss their concerns as being "oversensitive," while insisting that I am "colour-blind."

See, being white confers another privilege too: If I choose, I can assert how the world should look, even to those looking from another point of view.

About that: I often write on racism, so folks came to me this week asking for my thoughts on MLA Eric Robinson's comment about "do-good white people."

When I met this with a half-hearted sigh, they pounced. "So you don't really care about racism," they said, as if I am obliged to adjudicate every incident equally or not at all. As if the means are irrelevant to the ends, as if words float in a space vacant of atmosphere, of context. As if, for some unhappy motive which they can never quite define, I must just have it in for my fellow white people. As if that makes any sense at all.

There's no doubt Robinson's words were flippant and ill-informed. His ham-fisted defence of them was worse. They were absolutely hurtful to the folks they targeted: people who work at Osborne House and who wanted to raise money for it, people who have spent years and sweat and tears helping battered women. Robinson apparently does not understand them and owes them a genuine attempt to do so along with his apology, nothing less.

But the ripples of outrage have spread beyond those folks, and with each new wave it's a fine time to remember that prying apart the tensions of race is not a giant game of "gotcha," keeping score by angry sound bites floating in a void. Robinson wrote a dumb thing, but in the grand scale of this society it holds little power to truly harm and it is not a symptom of a larger sore.

For the record, I think Robinson and his adviser were wrong about the event looking bad, but I suspect they, like many folks, do not understand the feminist streak common to modern burlesque, the mystery and joy with which it is revealed, or the way it celebrates the real shapes of women.

But when I read his words, I do not see abject hate. What I see is an aboriginal man long accustomed to feeling frustrated with folks who dole out prescriptions for aboriginal communities without having lived a single day in them. Without ever asking what it is to experience this society through an indigenous identity. Without ever really listening.

What I see is a man who has watched aboriginal women fight for basic dignity against a dominant culture in which the rampant sexual trafficking, abuse and exploitation of aboriginal women and girls is met with silence or a shrug. Through that lens and his own lack of awareness, he assumed a burlesque fundraiser was an event that "demeans women" and assumed it was yet another case of intervention without understanding.

We can believe that he is wrong about that, and I do. And we can condemn his words. But if we do not also consider these unfinished bridges between communities, then it is an exercise in anger without purpose. Because many of us have the privilege to simply ignore what Robinson said or, if we choose, to express how those words hurt and have that hurt be met with wide agreement rather than abrupt dismissal.

After all, nobody has accused those criticizing Robinson's words of being "oversensitive" or "too politically correct," yet.

No matter which I choose, Robinson's comments do not threaten my ability to live my life to the fullest degree this society allows, and I will never have to wonder if they or others like them will, or if they have already. Instead, there is a discussion to be had about the understanding deficit between communities -- and for that, I'm listening.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 D2

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