Blackface! Brownface! Dual citizenship! As someone who has experienced racism, discrimination, and, yes, dual citizenship, I found the 2019 federal election, with its personal attacks and disrespect among party leaders, stressful and disappointing.
Remember the man in Montreal who leaned in and suggested that Jagmeet Singh ought to remove his turban, to “look like a Canadian”? That exchange reminded me of a man I met at my first public function as lieutenant-governor, in 2006. With doubt in his eyes and skepticism in his voice, he said to me, “We’ve had good lieutenant-governors. I hope you will be, too.”
Many observers believed Justin Trudeau should have known better when he dressed in black- and brownface as a younger man. They suggested the Montrealer should not have told Singh, “In Rome, you do as the Romans do.” Both actions were clearly racist. But is racial discrimination so systemic, so ingrained in our society, that it is normal, almost unseen?
How many people who criticized the prime minister or the man in Montreal can truthfully say they have never laughed at or said something inappropriate about race? How many of us have always walked away from someone sharing an offensive joke or asking an offensive question? I cannot help but wonder how many people actually understand the true meaning of what we witnessed last fall, and why certain behaviours are so degrading and insensitive.
Recently, a white man in his forties told me that he had no idea what blackface meant before it surfaced during the campaign. When I hear things like this, I explain that, regardless of your social status, you are privileged if you are white. When you wake up each morning, you do not have to wonder if you will get through the day without someone doubting your abilities because of the colour of your skin. You are never profiled for shopping, driving, or walking while black.
Make no mistake: painting your face is racist and insulting. But the issue goes beyond the act of dressing up or commenting on someone’s turban. The larger issue is about the legacy of slavery and colonization, about micro-aggressions and unconscious bias, about overt and systemic discrimination. How many Canadians can honestly say they fully grasp all that?
These are the types of issues I raise in Mayann Francis: An Honourable Life. I have spent more than two decades in the public eye. Being the first black person in any field or profession is a challenge. For me, that has often meant trying to be perfect — because if I was not perfect as the first of something, there might not be a second, third, or fourth. I would not have survived without my faith in a higher power. I write about this and describe the barriers I have climbed over while on the path to success. Even as the highest-ranking person in Nova Scotia, I experienced behaviours and actions that raise uncomfortable questions about race. For my first three years as vice-regent, for example, I had no official residence: Government House was closed for more than half of my historic appointment.
Many people don’t realize the levels of prejudice that exist but are willing to listen and learn. I also know that many others are quick to deflect the issue altogether, by pointing to matters south of the border. Still others maintain that racist or xenophobic innuendo has nothing at all to do with racism or xenophobia. Deny, deny, deny.
I decided to tell my story in ways that would raise tough questions, without naming names. And I decided to deal with very real contradictions: I lived in the United States for sixteen years and had many positive experiences, but of course racism and discrimination exist there too. I talk about the first black president and the challenges he and his wife faced because of the colour of their skin — and how their response to those challenges gave me strength.
I wrote to inspire people to follow their dreams, to weather the storm — regardless of who they are. I wrote to encourage people to take a good look at themselves and honestly consider these pressing issues, so that we can all move forward with faith, hope, respect, peace, and love in our hearts. I recognize that there are those who won’t acknowledge racism and discrimination as their problem — who believe society is fine the way it is. But is there really a difference between chants of “Make America Great Again” and the urge to maintain the status quo here in Canada?
I hope everyone can learn something from my journey. I also hope we can all remember that everyone has a bias or two buried in their subconscious. It’s how we manage biases when they surface that matters most.