Judge Kristine Eidsvik told her class at the University of Calgary that she was uncomfortable walking into a room “full of big dark people.”
If you haven’t read the brief article in the Toronto Star, you can read it here.
Sigh. Welcome to 2018.
This type of comment isn’t surprising or shocking. It’s likely the reality for many people who are white. Here’s why:
First white people are used to being in the majority, number wise. When you’re used to being in the majority, it can be shocking to be in the minority no matter how short the experience. Numbers are changing. 22.3% of the Canadian population identified as visible minorites in the last Census (and in Toronto, that number is 51.5%), but this doesn’t mean the power dynamic will change.
Then, slavery and colonization required and perpetuated narratives about the inferiority of Black people and people of colour (including Indigenous people).
And finally, these narratives are still alive and well today. They hit us in the choices the media makes about who and what to report about, and whether they perpetuate or challenge stereotypes. They hit us covertly in the stories that are not told (i.e. murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls).
Plus, every Black history month we are reminded that Black people were slaves – not that they were stolen from their communities, not about the powerful empire that Africa was pre-colonization, and not about the many contributions civilizations from the African continent have made to the world over centuries.
Unconscious bias works against people of colour and Black people (and other marginalized groups) by continuing to run the same historical narratives alluded to above, but with a modern context. These narratives slip into TV shows, choice of news, how someone is described. They impact opportunities, life choices, realities and lived experiences, and ultimately who is in positions of power and who makes decisions. Because those positions are largely held by white people, these discriminatory and damaging beliefs continue to be perpetuated – overtly and covertly.
Which brings us back to Judge Eidsvik.
I’m not surprised by her comments. I’m sure she’s not the only one who feels this way. She just made the mistake of saying out loud what a lot of her colleagues (and other white people – and even some people of colour thanks to unconscious bias and systemic racism) are likely thinking. It’s the result of all of the above. And because we take these narratives as “truth” we don’t catch ourselves when we think in racist ways or when we act in racist ways.
Judge Eidsvik has apologized. I’m sure she’s mortified that her inside voice was heard. It’s kind of not her fault: It’s due to centuries of storytelling from one point of view. But that doesn’t give her a free pass.
So now what? We need change, not just an apology and business as usual. An apology is not enough. It doesn’t equal awareness or meaningful change. Judge Eidsvik will continue to work with people of colour, to teach students of colour – and that fear of dark people and being away from the “riff raff” will spill into how she speaks to people who are not white, how she grades them in her classes, how she treats them in her courtroom, the decisions she makes, and her other contributions to law that – with this bias – are likely to negatively impact people of colour in disproportionate ways.
We don’t know all of the implications of our bias and prejudices.
But the people who are impacted do.
Maybe this year will be the year that we don’t just talk about the sh*t people say about (and do to) marginalized groups and demand apologies. Maybe this is the year we will start demanding real action and change.