In June, as protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd rocked the United States, many Albertans may have struggled to know how to respond to the polarizing news coverage, far removed as we are from the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an attempt to bridge that gap, former Ronning Centre director David Goa and Newo founder Rajan Rathnavalu invited Steve Bynum, longtime senior producer for Chicago Public Media’s weekday global affairs program, Worldview, to contextualize the human experience driving the moment for Camrose community members via a virtual conversation.
Bynum, an old friend of Goa, visited Camrose and Edmonton in 2012, delivering a lecture at King’s University on the experience of the Black man in America called “Obama and Me: Wearing the Mask, Wanting to Scream in the 21st Century” (a recording of which can be heard here). He can also be heard here in a recent podcast conversation with Goa.
On June 10, Bynum offered his virtual audience the gift of personal vulnerability, speaking his heart to strangers even as he was reeling from a heartbreaking CNN segment featuring the family of a Black Texas man named Javier Ambler, who was tasered four times by police and died in March 2019.
“He said, ‘Save me,’” a cry that Floyd would utter, echoing countless others before him, those “who were brought here against their will, across the dark ocean. Fifteen million who did not make it to this country, who died on the passage…With the crack of the whip they said, ‘Lord, have mercy,’” as children were carted away and sold, a continental lineage, encompassing Indigenous Peoples, of articulated suffering falling on deaf ears.
Being heard, however, is no longer the issue. For decades now, cameras and social media channels have validated injustices that might once have required a white guarantor in court.
“We have been screaming for 400 years,” said Bynum, in a voice wearied by a lifetime of unresolved injustices. “I don’t wish to be heard. What I wish, more than anything, is to see the true form of empathy that manifests itself in action.
“I am tired. I am tired of the rhetoric of action,” he continued, doing his listeners the honour of telling them the difficult truth. “I don’t need progressive pablum, respectability politics, or fake-assed liberal piety and pity disguised as empathy. What I, no, what we, require is for all white people and all non-Black people of colour who have aspired to whiteness and bought into this delusional American dream, to talk amongst themselves, come up with a strategy, be willing to forgo their own privilege, and tell us what they plan to do. I am tired of having to explain, justify, defend, seek validation.”
Given that life for Black and brown people is “a daily obstacle course” (consider the constant anxiety of not knowing whether one’s son will return alive when he leaves the house), it’s not good enough for white people not to be racist; we must be anti-racist.
“Race and racism are two separate, distinct things…race is a diversion,” said Bynum. “Racism is a system and a construct that was created for a certain purpose — to maintain power and control in every aspect of our lives — and white supremacy is the same force and system that oppresses and subdues working class and poor whites in the same manner that it does People of Colour. We must always talk about racism, not race.”
He went on to explain that anti-racism is not simply the absence of malice; it involves addressing systemic failures of environmental, criminal, and economic justice in an era characterized by mass consumption, mass extraction and emphasis on GDP as the measure of success.
“Comfort is a place none of us can be anymore. We cannot afford this, because the world is literally on fire,” Bynum said. “If you’re comfortable, you’re not trying hard enough. If you’re at peace, then you have chosen your privilege over your very soul.”
Martin Luther King Jr. also talked about how the fight for justice requires the willingness to bear suffering, to lose jobs, standing, and privilege.
“I’ve borne this burden too long,” Bynum said, (speaking in the collective). “It’s time for someone else to carry that guilt now. That is my call. That is my demand. That is what love looks like to me. Love is a demand. Love is a verb.”
“You all have a role to play,” he continued, with loving frankness admonishing his largely white Canadian audience. “I have no tolerance or time for your guilt. I don’t need your guilt. I don’t need your platitudes. I need your strength. I need your blood. I need your determination. I need your sustained action. I need you.”
As Bynum’s listeners sat with this message, Goa reflected on Canada’s history, on how the suffering of First Peoples has been met with indifference by descendants of settlers who were driven from their own lands by oppression.
“There is a grief that blinds us to the grief of others,” he said, but that does not absolve us of the task of deciding, “No, I will not have more” than my neighbour.
Rathnavalu described coming to Camrose at age seven after living in the First Nations community of Wabasca-Desmarais in northern Alberta. He was uniquely placed to experience of being a member of two different Canadas.
“I was awestruck by the privilege of this community,” he said. “This society had no idea where it was living, and in many ways it seemed to tarnish the gift of having such enormous privilege and wealth.”
In an ostensibly Christian community, there was a chasm between the descendants of First Nations people, who had provided the land, and the descendants of settlers who inherited the material comfort society built on that land.
“The (Christian) foundational premise is to love thy neighbour. If you love your neighbour, you will inquire about your neighbour; and if you inquire about your neighbour and hear them suffering, you will be committed to relieving that suffering.”
Editor’s note: In a follow-up discussion, Rathnavalu commented on why a company like Newo is concerned about racism: “There is an intimate connection between unfettered resource exploitation and racism. Africans were brought to this continent for economic purposes. Land was taken from the First Nations to further a particular vision of ‘development.’”
“In order to commit these violent acts, Africans and Indigenous Peoples were dehumanized, just as perspectives that value the land and its gifts in more than economic terms were discarded. We continue to struggle with this legacy today. In light of this, I hope companies like Newo might show what happens when we use the diverse gifts of our human community to map our way forward.”