The horrific mass murder of innocent pedestrians in Toronto on April 23 triggered a mixture of torment and grief. The pain many of us experienced for the innocent lives lost in the traumatic act of violence and brutality was heartbreaking, fear-inducing and life-changing.
The praise given to the Toronto police officer, Const. Ken Lam who arrested without incident the accused mass murderer was widespread.
Was the fact that the police officer was Asian one of the reasons he did not shoot or kill the accused? Did his racial identity have anything to do with his reasoning? Or did the racial background of the accused impact his decision?
Did Const. Ken Lam learn from the past mistakes of the Toronto Police Service, especially the Andrew Loku shooting?
These questions have not been fully unpacked in our media but have certainly been spoken about over coffee or tea in many activist circles. These closed-door conversations of grief have manifested among politicized Black people and racialized folks who could not help but compare the facts.
As a witness and participant to these conversations, I wanted to share some of the ideas that come out of them. I write about racism’s impact on health and so I discuss these ideas as they relate to our health and well-being.
Black lives matter
To many, it feels like a white-skinned mass murderer’s life is still more valuable than the life of a Black, Indigenous and/or racialized person who has “no weapon” and has killed no one, in Canada or elsewhere.
In general, media coverage of crimes involving accused Black perpetrators include photos resembling mug shots, with faces devoid of emotion. The perpetrators are assumed to be “guilty.” In contrast, news stories often show white accused perpetrators with smiles, in photos from “better moments” in their life.
These images can give viewers optimism and cause them to doubt that the accused committed such heinous crimes (the Bruce McArthur alleged serial killer as well as the Kalen Schlatter case in Toronto comes to mind).
The grief we feel is cumulative as we witness over and over that Black lives do not matter but white mass murderers’ lives do matter and are protected by any means necessary.
Microaggressions add up
Some people use the idea of microaggressions to explain subtle offences or insults. But use of this term renders the long-term impact of racism on racialized people’s health null and void and denies the real insidiousness of experiencing harm and violation on a daily basis, due solely to skin colour and other intersectional factors.
Read more: Racism impacts your health
In fact, “microaggressions” are cumulative and detrimental to our health.
These include being followed in a popular drug store or clothing chain, so much that you never bring other purchases into the store (out of anxiety) or you do not open your bag until at the cashier (out of hypervigilance and fear of being accused of shoplifting) while simultaneously seeing that other white people are not being surveilled. This causes stress to one’s system. These are not subtle nor “micro” actions when they happen every day.
Some recent examples of anti-Black racism, racism and anti-Indigeneity include: Afghan men hanging out in a fast food diner abused by a fellow patron for speaking Dari; three Black teenagers falsely accused of shoplifting while shopping for their prom dresses; Black folks being asked to pay before eating at a restaurant; Black men being racially profiled and arrested while waiting for friends; A Black woman being arrested while eating; Black women being harassed while engaging in leisure activities; Indigenous boys being profiled while on a university campus tour. The list goes on and on.
White colleagues passing you in the hallway and staying silent when you greet them, colleagues tensing up physically or trying to avoid you — these are not subtle, they are real manifestations of the racist violence experienced on a daily basis in mainstream (white) workplaces.
The impacts are often sadness, distress, anger, grief, anxiety, isolation, fear, job loss and dissociation (sometimes strategically as a way to survive often virulent environments) — and these affect one’s health.
These same white colleagues are often in positions of power and have sometimes even worked in social justice, social work, public health, international development and global health realms where they are praised for their “diversity” lens and given many opportunities.
Two recent examples illustrate: The recent resignation of prestigious legal scholar, Angelique EagleWoman, from her role as dean of Lakehead University’s law school because of anti-Indigenous racism; and the anti-Black racist statement to a Black junior scholar by Michael Marrus, emeritus Prof. of history and holocaust scholar, during his tenure as Senior Fellow of Massey College, University of Toronto. His statement was: “You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?”
Both examples demonstrate that racism, sexism and other forms of violence are rampant in our daily systems and represent a microcosm of our daily experiences.
The blatant difference in treatment experienced by people interacting in the same way creates distress, emotionally and physically. We experience trauma and grief from this long-term impact, even when we simultaneously are uplifted by our over-earned resiliency and resistance.
In cases of white mass murderers versus innocent Black folks, the different media portrayals — and therefore public empathy — of innocent victims and survivors based on racial identity are significant. We often see racist portrayals of Black victims/survivors.
Black lives matter and we continue to fight for our voices and communities to be heard, remembered, respected, empathized with and healed. To put it simply: We fight not to be killed (figuratively and emotionally), humiliated, traumatized and violated on a daily basis locally and globally.
It is with this lens that we view the recent tragic events and the heroic actions of the police officer in Toronto, as we mourn and grieve for so many lives taken by senseless violence. We continue to try and heal lived experiences of violence and dismantle systems of oppression.
This leads to sometimes uncomfortable and critical conversations.