Silenced Stories: A Look at Racism Faced by Canadian Black Youth Today

by Rev. Denise Gillard

Rev Denise Silenced StoriesIN MY ROLE AS A PASTOR AND EXECUTIVE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR of The HopeWorks Connection, a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to empowering youth through the performing arts, academics and relieving poverty, I have been working with racialized children and youth and the people who love them for over 30 years. It is in this setting I have called youth to live and move and claim their being in the context of a church that many times fails to address or otherwise admit to the complex and challenging realities they face, most especially when it comes to dealing with racism. The subject of racism is a touchy one for Canadians as a whole, taboo for the Christian community and therefore, in the church the intricate psychological, sociological, cultural and spiritual dynamics of their stories are silenced.

…the racism that youth in Canada face is most commonly the “civilized” kind. You can’t always prove it exists…

First of all, the racism that youth in Canada face is most commonly the “civilized” kind. You can’t always prove it exists – something happens but it is subtle, quiet, reserved, and you can’t easily prove it. It causes you to second guess yourself. It is underneath the surface with an invisibility that weighs heavy on the spirit.

You put your hand up in the classroom and the teacher never seems to pick you until you eventually stop putting up your hand but your report card says that you refuse to participate in class discussions. “That’s not racist,” you are told, “maybe the teacher just didn’t see you and you should try harder.”

The youth pastor always asks you to carry things, help with the clean-up and serve at the dinners but you are never invited to serve on the leadership team or allowed to take part in the planning. “That’s not racist,” you are told, “it’s just that no one can understand your accent and we don’t know if you have enough experience to plan well.”

You wear your hair in a natural style and someone you have never seen before reaches out and touches it, asks if it is real or if you actually wash it. “That’s not racist,” you are told, “it’s just curiosity.”

When you try to make suggestions you are told, “Our church is multicultural; we don’t favour one over the other; we don’t need to do the Black history thing; we are beyond that, all people are welcome. We don’t even see colour.” But when you look around, the real leadership doesn’t reflect anything about your culture and you can’t envision a call of God on your life. “That’s not racist. Most people, especially church people, are nice. You’re the one with the problem; you’re doing something wrong. You are paranoid!”

Sons coming home from sports matches carrying gym bags can still be randomly stopped by police; daughters showing passion for a topic are still told they are too loud or pushy. “That’s not racist, you just stand out.”

These simple stories and others have been shared with me by young people over the years – same stories, different formats, males and females—time and time again. They are not dramatic. They are seemingly harmless. Yet, I know them by heart and can finish their sentences from my own experience as an 11th generation Canadian Black woman. This is the matrix of powerful yet camouflaged forces racialized Canadian youth try to navigate on a daily basis. These are the so-called harmless experiences that threaten to shake up, shred, anesthetize, dismantle, disempower, dismember, and tear them apart. This is why so many are dropping out, turning off and leaving our mainstream churches. I believe there are solutions that can lead us all through these challenges. First, church leaders must be willing to authentically engage racialized youth by listening to their stories, validating their experiences and offering them relevant opportunities.

I also believe that the silence around complex issues such as racism only serves the privileged, allowing folk to hide under the guise of “niceness” while maintaining the status quo.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Imagine with me the things that will change when we all begin to see these young people as God’s handiwork. Each of us could support them as they discover the good works God has prepared in advance for them to do. We could then fearlessly hold each other accountable to overcoming the bias that devalues, disempowers and isolates us, one from another. This has radical theological implications in combatting systematic racism however, and perhaps more importantly, it is a strong foundation for empowering youth to develop the resiliency they need to thrive in spite of it.

This article is found in the Spring 2016 issue of CBM’s mosaic magazine, read it here.