Let's just say I was surprised.
London, Ontario. Photo via Flickr user Ken Lund
A few weeks ago I wrote this
VICE article about the four years of racism I experienced in London, Ontario while attending Western University, from which I graduated last June.
It was published on a Friday afternoon in early May, and while I thought it would do well, I didn't really expect much else. But when I woke up the next day, I had over 200 new Twitter followers, over 100 tweets, dozens of Facebook messages and friend requests, and a flooded inbox.
At first I didn't believe it, and I went through them all, trying to reply—they just kept coming in. My computer and phone crashed twice.
But the biggest surprise was that the overwhelming majority of responses were positive.
Many people had emotional responses to the article, saying they felt sick after reading its content. Others said it struck a nerve, as they or their friends had very similar experiences.
What I found most surprising was how many people—especially young white men—were apologetic for what I went through, and for trivializing racism. A man we'll call "Tom" sent me this email:
"I just wanted to thank you for writing the Vice article about how racist London truly is. It's all to [sic] easy for me to pretend like this is not the case but your article makes it very clear that this is a real issue that needs real attention. Thanks for taking my head out of the sand."
And one from "Nick:"
"I don't mean to sound like a self-pitying white kid, I'm just trying to understand your experience and how I can help change it. If the answer is to just fuck off, I'll be glad to do that, but if you have any advice it would be greatly appreciated ... I would also like to apologize on behalf of some of my douchbag [sic] friends who you've probably encountered at Western. They are dumb and ignorant."
My personal email inbox especially became a virtual confession booth of sorts. People were pouring their souls into my inbox and sharing their own experiences of racism in London.
While the fiery pit known as the comment section brought on a lot of thoughtful discussion and interaction, not everybody felt like joining hands and kumbayaing. In typical white privilege fashion, critics dismissed my experience because—wait for it—they hadn't witnessed or experienced it themselves.
One white critic said the following: "This article could be written about pretty much any city in North America. Btw it's not safe to live in London if your [sic] black? You are making a mountain out of a mole hill."
Another white critic made his point using a series of angry block paragraphs. "This article bothers me because some of the stories are clearly made up...I struggle to believe that some guy introduced her to 'his only black friend,'" he wrote. He also adds that he "just want[s] to make sure people read it cautiously, because it's spreading fast, and damns my city, where I've never seen (nor do the stats suggest) racism to be any different than in similar cities."
As I mentioned in my article, only a very small fraction (about ten to 25 percent) of hate crimes committed are reported; there are still no quantifiable statistics on the amount of implicit and explicit racism that black people experience. Even if there was a way to quantify that information, there would be too many instances per day—per person—to keep track of.
But in writing the article, I knew that no matter how much evidence I presented, there'd still be people who deny it and accuse me of reverse racism and whining. I could shit facts all day, retrieve my memories using my magical fucking wand, throw it in a pensieve for people to re-live, and they still wouldn't believe me.
Despite the resistance, my article went viral. Local news channels and radio stations covered it, some of which asked me to do an interview. Emerging Leaders in London asked for my advice on how to hold a discussion panel on racism in London.
However, even with the increased attention, no local politicians reached out to me, and when I reached out to them to see what they had to say, I didn't get much. The only councillors to take the time to write back and speak to me were Ward 3's Mo Salih, who I interviewed for the original article, and Ward 12's Harold Usher, the first black person ever elected to London city council. Due to Usher's work priorities, we weren't able to do an interview. He was London's only black councillor until Mo Salih was elected for the Ward 3 seat this year (but not without a good old London initiation first). I also reached out to Matt Brown, London's mayor, but never got a response. Honestly, I was hoping for some Brian Bowman shit but hey, we can't have it all.
Thirteen days after the original article, Salih did put forward a motion at the Community and Protective Service Committee that allowed the London Diversity and Race Relations committee to report back on recommendations needed to address the racism in the city. The points made in my article influenced those recommendations, and a town hall will be in the works for this fall.
Disappointingly, I also didn't receive any response from Western's president, Amit Chakma. I did, however, get a response back from Larissa Bartlett, Director of Equity & Human Rights Services at Western, who read the article weeks ago (although she didn't write to me until after I asked for comment from the university). She said her team will be reaching out to the University Students' Council and its clubs to discuss new models of education and support for students who are facing or vulnerable to racist behaviour. My inbox shows no new messages about progress on this, and nothing from local politicians besides Salih. The general lack of institutional response or personal outreach gives me the impression that they don't want to put in the hard work to address the issues I brought up. That silence will absolutely cause more harm to London's black residents and students.
Some of the kindest people I've met are from London. As polarizing as it sounds, I love London, but London doesn't love me back. London can be a safe place to live as a young student, but sometimes it can be an emotionally and physically dangerous place for someone like me. It can surprise you with it's progressive and stance on race and LGBTQ issues, but it can also transport you back to the 1850s. Challenging that binary doesn't mean I think the city is the Alabama of Ontario. It means that parts of the city's population is suffering and attention must be paid. By trying to dismiss it by saying that "every city is racist" or that "it's not that bad" does everybody—black or white—a great disservice, on an educational and safety level.
People lose their shit when you talk about race; they want to pretend that colour isn't an issue. They want to pretend that history has long passed and today's a new day full of sunshine and multi-coloured unicorns. That may be the case for many of the white people who think I'm full of shit, that what I experienced isn't real. That's fine if you believe that, but don't try to silence us because we make you uncomfortable. You have the luxury of reading my article, imputing an oversimplified, unqualified solution, and walking away from it. I have to keep living it. That's the difference.
But the fact that so many people in London took the time to send positive vibes says that I was wrong—something can be done for the city and its racism problem. It also says that there are more mature, understanding, and open-minded Londoners than I gave credit to, people who are willing to acknowledge their own privilege, identify their city's race issues, and work towards repairing it, even if it's simply by reading an article or having a discussion with their friends. It would just be nice if London's leaders did the same. Those in power have the ability to reach more people, and hold the voice of credibility. If they can't acknowledge the hardships of some of its most vulnerable citizens—let alone an article by one of its previous residents—not only are they dismissing an opportunity to implement anti-racism programs and education, but they also fail to learn more about how to protect those groups from hate crimes and other racial attacks.
Follow Eternity Martis on Twitter.