Both sides of my family are Dutch immigrants who came over to Canada after World War II. Like many immigrants they had to learn a new language and deal with prejudice.
Canada’s attitudes towards immigration were different at that time. My Mom sometimes talks about being referred to as a “dirty DP” when she was a young girl. That stood for “displaced person”.
It’s strange to think about Northern European white people dealing with prejudice, right?
But “otherness” encompasses more than colour.
Both sides of the family worked hard to create a life for themselves in Canada. They stuck together and prioritized family. And part of that was family events. Back then it was weddings, birthdays, and reunions. Now it’s sometimes funerals that bring the family together.
One of my uncles had a home near Lake Erie. He had a couple of wooded acres and sold firewood to campers in the summer. To my memory it was a beautiful property.
Family reunions were usually just family. But once, one of my cousins brought a friend who was half black, half white.
I don’t know how the wrestling match got started.
But at some point a group of men and boys in attendance circled round as my grown uncle and this teenaged boy began to grapple.
My uncle used to crow about having a body that “men feared and women loved”. There’s no justification for him wrestling a young boy at an event he was hosting.
But it wasn’t outside the norm at these types of events. People tended to drink a bit too much. Activities were a bit “unstructured” shall we say.
So my uncle was wrestling this kid.
He got the best of him at one point. Pinning him and sitting on his chest, he made the mixed race boy say:
“I love white, I hate black”.
I wish I was making that up.
I’m glad I’m not making up the next part.
Seeing an opening, the young mixed-race kid reversed the hold. He pinned my uncle. And he yanked handfuls of hair out of my uncle’s chest and made him say, “I hate white, I love black”.
And that was it. Everyone seemed OK with how things had turned out.
My uncle had gotten his comeuppance.
Everyone else may have been OK with how things went that day. But that moment has stuck with me my entire life. I’ll never forget it.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve been invited to a social event. There are lots of people there you don’t know. You’re different from them.
At some point people circle around you, while one of them wrestles you to the ground.
Then they make you say that you hate part of yourself.
That you only love the part of yourself that they like.
What if someone made you say you hated your mother? Or hated your religion? Or your children? (That last one might be a bad example at times.) How many times can you be forced to renounce yourself before you break? My examples are extreme. But so is the racism, misogyny and cruelty that people face daily.
The young mixed race guy at my family reunion was navigating a mostly white space. He was being brave. And he was forced to fight to preserve his sense of self as reward for his bravery.
I was a kid and had no control over how things played out. But I wish that had never happened. That young guy would be in his 40s or even 50s now if he’s reading this. I know that’s unlikely.
I wish I could tell that guy I’m sorry.
I wish I could tell that guy that he inspired me to make it my life’s work to help other people feel safe, secure, and good about themselves — all of themselves.
Their real, authentic, complete human selves.
Because of what he taught me that day, I will fiercely defend my gym as a safe, welcoming, body-positive, space for people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life.
We all have the right to be at the party.
No matter how we show up. No matter who we are.
What happened was a gross display of ignorance.
Some of my blogs involve the creation of empathy. How you can learn to be compassionate. That you have more in common with people than you think.
Being bullied was a catalyst to developing empathy for me. I knew I hated being humiliated and beaten up.
Then I realized that others must feel the same way.
Feeling our own pain, and witnessing the pain of others, can help us develop empathy.
Watching what happened to this kid makes me sad to think about it. And maybe that’s a good thing. I should be sad.
Being sad teaches me something here. It inspires me to do better.
Being the “other” is shifting ground.
“Fitting in” is only a temporary pass to the fun club.
The mixed race kid at the reunion was accosted and humiliated for not being “white enough”. I was beaten and humiliated for being chubby. In both cases the real reason for our abuse was that we were “other”.
We stood out enough that the rest of the tribe was compelled to circle round and try to destroy the “otherness”.
Of course the young mixed race human being at the reunion has no choice but to be mixed race. I got lean and passed for “part of the club”. Funny how that works.
So what’s the takeaway here? What’s the cool conclusion?
Suspicion of the “other” is ubiquitous. It’s historic. It’s natural. But so is cancer. And if I had that shit, I’d fight it tooth and nail (like my she-ro sister who beat leukemia).
You can’t control where you’re from. But you can control where you’re going. Make a choice to have compassion for others. Look past the details to see the human.
Compassion for others is a skill. It can be learned. Sometimes that skill is developed as a result of exposure to really unpleasant stimuli. But wouldn’t it be great if it were just a natural consequence of living in a fair-minded world?
This kind of story is hard to tell. It’s unpleasant. But it’s experiences like this that led me to try to make my gym a safe, welcoming, body-positive, space for everyone. Like you.