At the start of my December 2019 blog, I started to put into words an aspect of my journey and growth that has been… challenging.
SIDE, BUT IMPORTANT, NOTE: I understand that my struggles aren’t the struggles of BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People Of Colour). I understand that my struggles aren’t those of someone from a disadvantaged, at-risk, or LGBTQ background. They are only my struggles. They may not be much when held against the kind of real struggle experienced by those communities; AND because they are my struggles they are real to me. I can’t (and shouldn’t) write about what I don’t know. I can only write about my own experience, and add the disclaimer that I come from white privilege, so please take my lens as simply that.
I have been challenged to figure out where this part of my story fits into my Olympic journey. The answer is, that it doesn’t really; but it’s too important to leave out of my story altogether. I also recognise that the people following my journey are following me. Tiffany. And this is growth for me as a person, and therefore worth sharing. Especially in the forum where it will get the most exposure.
One of my sponsors on this Olympic journey, Amber of Verve Hair Lounge, is an outspoken racial advocate and First Nations woman. Her advice to white people in being allies is to share your experience and growth so that others can see the change as well. So here goes. This is not the entirety of my growth on the topic, nor is it an end point. I would love to speak to anyone who wants to discuss and debate (respectfully) on this topic.
Four years ago I became the Executive Director of a community mental health non-profit (New View Society). As an ED, I was entitled to join a Facebook group called ‘ED Happy Hour’. In this group, social justice issues of all types are discussed and debated – respectfully, and with passion. It was through this group that issues of race really started moving to the front of my consciousness.
Conversations would take place, and I would just read and observe. What I now recognise as my white privilege allowed me to pay attention at my own pace, and engage or ignore as I wished. I did not take action beyond being curious. In 2018 I was lucky enough to attend a diversity workshop at a conference I attended – even though I didn’t really think I needed it – and a story really stuck with me – making me realise that we can never really understand what someone else is going through. (My paraphrasing.)
Two neighbouring countries each contained a race of humans. The races were basically the same but had one major difference – one country’s people had red eyes, and those from the other had blue eyes. The countries could not seem to come to a mutual place of understanding on topics of international importance, because they kept seeing the issues through different coloured lenses. A peace keeping committee was struck, and their discussions resulted in the decision to have all diplomats from both countries wear glasses coloured to help them see like the other race – blue eyed folks would wear red glasses and red eyed folks would wear blue glasses. Though they got closer to seeing the world through the other’s lenses, red + blue = purple. It’s impossible to fully see the world through another’s experiential lens, but because both tried, they found a common ground in purple. In the end, they were able to come to common ground on their issues too.
In 2019 through an IG share of an active anti-racist climber friend of mine, Ayesha Khan, I came across a social media post by Melise Edwards-Welbourn and something in the comments triggered me. I had the self-awareness to recognise that it triggered me. I got curious. I started asking questions. It led me to the book ‘White Fragility’.
I started reading it, and it was heavy. Again, my white privilege meant that I was able to choose to put the book (and the work) to the side when I didn’t feel like I had the emotional capacity to handle it. BIPOC are not able to do this. They bear the emotional burden of their race and the colour of their skin everyday, with no ability to “put it to the side” when it gets too hard.
And then George Floyd. I don’t know why this time was different. I don’t know if people were bored at home and the collective liberal consciousness had time and space to contend with issues beyond their own lives. I certainly wasn’t bored. The COVID-19 response at work had me busier than ever. But it didn’t feel like just me doing the work anymore. And it felt too important to ignore. It felt like I could be part of something that wasn’t just BIPOC championing their own cause, but a societal shift. There were more obvious, and – I am slightly ashamed to say it – easy, resources and ways to help. It felt not only like I could help – that there was a place for me to speak out in all this – but that I should. The courage of the movement gave me courage as an individual. This is most often called mob mentality and used in association with violence and looting, but can also create positive impact. And it felt like the momentum could give more impact to any small contributions I could make. Like the donor matching theory of fundraising, where for every dollar you give, a major donor will match it – effectively doubling your contribution.
But I am getting off track. Let me give you a bit of background.
I was brought up in an inner-city neighbourhood in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I went to a small primary school with around 65 kids preschool to grade 7. By virtue of the school and its location, the ethnicity of the students, while still predominantly white, was very mixed. We had black-skinned kids of Fijian descent, brown-skinned kids of Indonesian and Malaysian descent, Torres Strait Islanders, and an Aboriginal teacher aide. This was the late 80s/early 90s, and I believe that the approach to race at that time was to ‘not see colour’. My understanding now is that this was a pendulum swing liberal reaction to the overt and accepted racism common in my grandparents’ generation. As a kid, race was rarely mentioned to me and being surrounded by many children who looked different to me but were going to the same school and having the same ‘kid’ experiences (or so I thought), it didn’t even occur to me to see them as ‘different’. I just treated everyone the same.
In high school, the racial divide started with less student diversity and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island student club which essentially separated those students from the wider population. Asians were common, but other ethnicities were rare. One student, of Japanese and Native American descent, gained the nickname ‘Pocahontas’. Although a term of endearment when used by me and my friendship group, I wonder how she felt about it.
In 2006 I left Australia to embark on a world tour. I travelled through over 30 countries and lived in Japan and the UK for a year each. The first time I recognised racism in myself was moving to the UK. One of the first things I noticed when landing at the airport was the number of black people. I noticed it. And then, in a country with a large South Asian population, I noticed how I reacted to Indians. After spending four months in India, I immediately distrusted any Indians I came across – in India most locals were trying to scam me, sell me something, take advantage of me, take me to their friend’s shop… I was no longer in India, but the look of someone gave me a prejudiced reaction to them. This faded in time, but was alarming for me to notice.
When I travelled alone through southern Africa, I was often the only white person on the bus. Being white in this situation played to my favour – even in countries where I was a racial minority being white was an advantage. After a nighttime rest-stop, I was the last to use the bathroom. Everyone piled back on the bus as I went into the bathroom. The bus started off as I raced towards it, still doing up my pants. Being the only white person on the bus, the passengers noticed I was missing and shouted at the driver “Mzungu, mzungu!” (foreigner), and the driver stopped. With all my belongings in the bus I would have been f*#cked if that bus had not stopped – thanks to the colour of my skin.
Reading White Fragility cracked my self-image around race wide open. I realised that I held the assumption that if I was racist then I wasn’t a good person. I realised that I had unconscious bias against people of colour, even if I was not overtly (or intentionally) racist. I realised that intention was less important than impact – i.e. if I am trying to be nice and not offend someone it doesn’t cancel out the fact that I have offended someone. And the biggest one for me – I realised that by treating everyone the same, I was denying the experiences that people of race had that were different from my own.
It took me a long time, too long, after this recent wave of the anti-racism movement hit, to realise that my partner from 2000 to 2009 was a person of colour. That I have three people of colour on my staff. That I have friends of colour with whom I have never discussed racism. I also recall instances where I have denied their experiences of racism with “well that person is just an asshole”.
The term “Performative” has attracted negative connotations in the topic of race, in the context specifically of corporations and Governments paying lip service to the issue through empty gestures, diversity quotas that are never filled, and tax-payer funded reports that issues recommendations that are never implemented. But I think it is an important term in putting actions behind words and discussion. What can we actually DO about this?
I struggled with “finding my story” as I went public around my Olympic dream and asked for support from people outside of my inner circles. I have lived a very privileged life – I am white, middle class, cis-gender female, bisexual but hetero-presenting. I have never experienced significant trauma, I am university-educated, I have travelled the world. What story could I possibly tell that is worth telling? I even did a coaching session to ‘find’ my story. In the end, my ‘story’ is just my experience of my life. What I choose to speak/write about can have influence, but authentically sharing my gifts of growth is probably the most valuable thing I can do – and hope that they have a positive impact on others.
The Instagram post I referred to earlier from Melise talked about how climbers wrote about the ‘challenges’ of their latest send from a perspective of white privilege. That those ‘struggles’ were so minor compared to the actual struggles of BIPOC every single day, that it made her mad that those folks got so much airtime. Why weren’t issues of life and death being prioritised? I recognise this challenge and feel the contradiction in myself. I want to share my experiences and offer my gifts of growth to others as I go through experiences that are challenges for me; but how can I do so in a way that honours that my challenges are minor when compared to those of oppressed minorities, including BIPOC, LGBTQ2IA+, those with disabilities including mental illness, and women too in some cultural settings? And how can I contribute in a way that doesn’t take time and space and airtime away from those who need it most?
I don’t have the answer. I think that this blog post is a start. Keeping these kinds of issues out of my ‘climbing blog’ serves no purpose, other than to continue oppression and perpetuate systemic racism. Thanks to Alanna Gillis for sharing this Estonian proverb: “The work will teach you how to do it.”