I wholly believe that personal narrative is of the most profound activism there is. This is a moment of unrest for so many, and a time to pass the mic. Today’s essay comes from Steph “Iron Lioness” Dykstra.
I’d like to share an incident of racism I experienced growing up, and how it affected me then, and now.
This is a tough, and uncomfortable story, but I promise, if you bear with its darkness, it may shed some light on who I am, and what my life experience has been like as a woman of color.
When we talk about racism, people in Canada proudly stand tall, and say things like, “we don’t have that here”, we are a ‘Melting Pot of diversity’. Much like the U.S., people love to assert we have progressed beyond racism, if they themselves have not experienced it.
While we have come a long way, my story, and countless other stories like it, is proof that we have much more work to.
My family moved to a small town called Pickering in 1988. My parents had recently divorced, my biological Father was M.I.A., and my Mom was doing her best to give my Brother, Sister and I the best Life she could, now as a single mother.
Starting school in first grade, I went alone. My siblings both being older went elsewhere. Off I went like a brave little soldier to my new school. I was a super courageous, precocious, high energy kid. In spite of everything that was happening at home, I really just wanted to make friends.
The kids did not welcome me and when they did pay attention to me it was to say some hurtful shit. They made fun of my hair quite a bit, and one girl told me Black people smell funny… kids can be dicks.
But it was my teacher, Mrs. Hodgeson who was especially foul. She was known to be a mean teacher, but I always felt she was especially mean to me, and wasn’t able to ‘name’ why.
Mrs. Hodgeson seemed to hate me. Now, I know this is the part where we want to deny my experience to feel better about the world. Hold tight. She always got super annoyed when I asked questions, occasionally grabbed me harshly. She hit me and one time yelled across the room for me to take my “cotton picking pickaninny hands” off something. I don’t remember what it was I was touching, but surely there was nothing in a grade 1 classroom that would warrant that from a trusted Educator, right? So yeah, she hated this little Black girl she was entrusted to ‘Teach’. I guess I learned a different kind of lesson than the other kids.
This abuse unfortunately was not limited to the classroom. In the school yard I was bullied by a boy who was a proud White Supremacist – again, I’ll remind you, this was grade 1, 1988, in Pickering, Ontario, Canada.
Ryan W., the boy who bullied me, didn’t do so without me fighting back. If he pushed me, I pushed him back, if he threw rocks at me, I threw them back, when he called me a nigger, I told him he was stupid, and we’d fight. One day I got the better of him and he told his older brother. At recess his older Brother accompanied by his high school friends came to my school and beat me up. A few of my classmates watched and laughed.
Think on that for a minute, go ahead, I’ll wait.
They beat me in such a way, to not leave marks on my face. But had fun pushing, kicking me, and calling me ‘nigger bitch, monkey’, (and a variety of other hateful slurs). I told a teacher. Not any one of my classmates did, I did. She made Ryan W. apologize, and that was it. No call to my Mom. I never told my Mom as I somehow felt responsible for what happened to me. Why did I have to be so different? These are the conclusions of a now lost, and broken 7-year-old black girl.
This was one of the worst times of my life. I felt worthless, alone, afraid, and helpless to the attacks that were happening both in the classroom, and on the schoolyard. I really needed someone to have my back, and I felt that I didn’t have anyone.
I took my lumps, and kept moving forward. I reached a point near the end of my first year in Pickering where I vowed to be so tough, no one would fuck with me. I fell in love with Martial Arts films, and comic books as an escape, because there was always an element of protecting the little guy. Being so skilled you could beat up a gang of attackers and so forth. So from this abuse, began the roots of something deep, strong, an element of me that people call toughness, discipline, grit, or drive. Whatever you want to call it, I think it was partially forged during this time.
In High School I ran into a drunken Ryan W. (the former 7-year-old White Supremacist). I was on my way home and attempted to avoid the interaction when he jogged to catch up with me, and asked if we could talk.
Ryan W. then proceeded to beg my forgiveness for how he treated me in Grade 1, and explained he had learned fucked up shit at home and that what he and his brother had done was horrible. I wasn’t ready to forgive him, but I did and we hugged it out.
Now, fast forward a little bit farther to when Facebook was a new thing, and all your childhood friends were sending you Friendship requests.
Some of the requests were the same children who stood around while I got beat up by grown boys.
Well that brought up some interesting feels.
One request stood out, as it was accompanied by a message. The message was from someone in my Grade 1 class, a guy named Andrew K. I had no bad memories of Andrew, I actually remember I thought he was cool because he also liked comics, and Lego (I was heavy into the Lego as well). In any event, Andrew reached out to apologize for what happened in 1988. He apologized because:
“’…connecting with you reminded me of how she (Mrs. Hodgeson) treated you, and only as an adult did I realize that her behaviour was clearly racist. At the time I thought it was just regular meanness.”
Thank you, Andrew.
I wish my exposure to pure hate was limited to this experience I shared, but it wasn’t. Unfortunately I have too many stories of violence from people who were simply scared of what they didn’t know. I can’t understand how people can fear people when we’re all more the same than we are different.
Hate is an interesting monster that some of us have seen up close, and personal. Some are lucky enough to never see hate like this, or they see only glimpses of it.
Those of us who have experienced this hate know its destructive power.
The small way I fight it daily is by the creation of a safe, welcoming place for people to come, get healthy, and relieve some of their stress. The gym my husband and I created is rooted in love, with an objective to help people, and make them better where ever we can.
Over the years I have developed a set of specific skills, that in the event shit pops off, I will fight for what is right. To protect myself and those I love.
Some of you need to ask yourselves when people share their fears regarding their experiences with racism, do you listen?
Do you listen to hear, soak it in, understand their experience? Without deflection, asking them to rewrite their experience to comfort you?
Do you tell them to be positive, move forward, and fight hate with love?
Here’s what I have to say on that – don’t ask anyone to do something you yourself are not doing.
Are you exhibiting the same love, by glossing over racism? By asking someone to not discuss their experiences because it makes you uncomfortable? By denying that hatred exists? Are you moving forward in love by supporting racism for personal gain?
We need to take care of our people, and our environment. If we make these things better, we make the world better, but instead, we only think of what makes us comfortable, and shy away from doing things that makes us feel uncomfortable.
To quote Frederick Douglas: “Without struggle, there is no progress”
In these times, we have an opportunity to pull together, and do better, but I feel it’s going to have to start with people of privilege acknowledging the monster of hate, instead of making excuses for it. To acknowledge that their experience is not that same as others. To not skip the step of discomfort in a call to love.
My story is worse than some, and not as bad as others, but I assure you it is real, and far too common.
I recently met a Fitness Hero of mine, Powerlifting Legend, Brandon Lilly. At a recent conference I attended, he told a story about him being so full of hate, he hated Black people.
From the lips of someone I looked up to, and now look up to even more.
Brandon went on to share that when his brother came out and told his Family that he was gay, he, his Southern Baptist Mom, and homophobic racist Dad were forced to confront their hate. He shared that their love for their openly gay son, was enough to have them question their hate. Brandon realized he didn’t have a reason to hate Black people, that was just what he had been taught.
After he shared his story, the good, the bad, and the ugly – I felt connected to him, because of its honesty, and vulnerability. Brandon stayed past the talk time to answer questions, but also to give everyone who wanted one a hug. I think I hugged him 5 or 6 times.
Get honest with yourself about your own history and views.
Acknowledge the monster of hate.
Do the work.
And then we move forward with love.