In March, I wanted to step up on my platform and broadcast loudly and enthusiastically about the “opportunities” the pandemic was showing us. Look at what we’re capable of! I wanted to shout. We’ve transformed entire industries in mere days! Imagine what else we can create together!
But as I saw my close friends struggling to manage work-from-home situations with small children and both parents working, as case numbers and death counts grew worldwide, I realized my own sunny optimism was merely privilege, not positivity. Preaching about “possibility” in the midst of a pandemic was purely problematic.
So I gave myself the snow as a timer.
In mid-March in Kelowna there were still patches of snow on the ground. It could be seen in struggling huddles and almost-puddles in our backyard, camping out in the shade of the trees beyond us, on the hills in the near distance, and in the mountains on the far horizon. I said to myself, until the snow has completely disappeared, I will share nothing about the “hopeful, possible future” I was seeing. Perhaps the timing would align with a shift in the pandemic’s pace, and we would all be more ready to engage in these topics at that later time.
I used that time instead to listen, to learn, to wonder, and to pay attention. What experiences are happening that are different from mine? What perspectives are here that I need to hear?
I’ve been watching the mountains every day, straining in my heart to share with you my hopefulness, restraining my fingers from typing. The whiteness on the hills, every morning, became what I looked for, like a reverse sign of Christmas. Has the snow gone yet? Can I share yet?
Today, the mountain I can see from my house that has been the most persistent peak to preserve its precipitation, finally released its last patch of white.
I’m free to speak and share now.
I was going to tell about my vision for a world made better. You’ve heard bits of it before. I wanted you to see how if we cooperate on a mass scale, as we’ve just proven that we can, we can co-create a prosperous planet that truly prioritizes human well-being.
I used to think the only thing stopping us from pursuing that future was a lack of a shared imagination.
I’m starting to see it differently.
For some of us, it’s not a lack of imagination that stops us from pursuing a more abundant future, but the presence of…something else entirely.
* * *
A couple years ago, I participated in a session called When Cultures Meet. It’s a workshop that intends to help participants understand what happens when two different cultures, with different traditions and norms, come together.
The workshop divides the learning group up into two groups: most people stay in the main room, but a small minority are sent off to a separate room. In their own spaces, the two groups discover their own “cultural traditions” — the values and practices and stories that define their own groups. A simple piece of paper listing these traditions is handed out, and the groups are given the task of constructing a somewhat-silly paper-craft “monument to their culture,” while living out those same values. Pretty straightforward, and maybe a little hokey, but we were good sports.
I was part of the minority group. My values, according to the script, included clear communication, a preference for physical contact, and default of group collaboration — and so our small group worked together (in a very friendly manner) to create our monument. It was going well, until an announcement was made: our group had been acquired by the other group. We left our monument where it was and were told to help the other, larger group, build their structures instead.
We realized as we joined the main room that they had all been given much higher quality materials than us, though we were still proud of our structure. It was clear they were working in a very different style from us, which appeared to be quite competitive. I moved to a table to join in, but sensed a strange rebuff.
At first it was subtle. I saw the looks on their faces. They would wince. They would look away from me. They’d step back when I came too close. I asked how I could help, and they wouldn’t meet my gaze.
It grew more apparent as the session progressed. People began to make jokes about my mannerisms, about how much I talked, or how touchy I was — or people would take wide circles away from me to stand at the other side of the table if I got too close.
I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out the majority group held the values of minimal communication, minimal touch, and personal autonomy. As I attempted to live out my own group’s values in the presence of the majority, I was met with continued resistance.
I worked hard to make myself useful. I tried to observe this majority culture’s patterns and did my best to play along, though I could tell I wasn’t getting it right. I asked everybody how I could help, which, it turns out, just annoyed them more.
Eventually, somebody said to me, “I know how you can help. You can hold this right here.” He brought my finger over to hold up a party streamer in the middle of the room. And then he taped my finger to the streamer.
I was livid. He had literally reduced my potential contribution to the most menial job he could imagine, as a way to get me out of the way. And he did it with a smirk, while everybody laughed and went back to work.
“Don’t they know what I could contribute?” I thought. “Don’t they know I’m valuable? I know I’m valuable. And yet they have eliminated, overlooked me, uninvited me, tied me up and kept me aside because I’m not conforming to the unspoken rules of the majority culture.”
I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t valuable after all. If I should just do what they all clearly wanted, and disappear.
But I had bigger hopes. I removed my finger from the streamer and chose relentless insistence on my own worth. I called to my other teammates around the room. I gathered them together and I rallied them with a chant, clear words to unite us, eight of us in a sea of eighty, bound together, making our presence and significance known to the majority.
But afterwards, in the debrief, I couldn’t find things funny. My jaw was tight and I couldn’t smile. I was annoyed, intense and unforgiving towards the person who had taped my hand, though it was all in service of learning. To this day, I can bring myself back to the unfunny reality of that room: the small aggressions of the majority, being bound (even lightly, by tape) by an aggressor, being forced to assert my own worth, by force.
* * *
Before the snow melt, I wanted to tell you about how “anything was possible,” but now I realize that’s only true for those in the main room. For everybody else, they will continue to have their value overlooked, their resources removed, their contribution ignored and their selves held back.
I am no longer held back by the self-imposed timer that restrained me.
But a minority of Canadians will remain held back by the white-imposed restraints that time alone will not release.
The snow has melted, but the whiteness is still here.
Until we gain a consciousness of our role as the majority in causing the continued oppression, reduction and removal of the minority, we are missing incredibly valuable contributions, and losing our humanity in the process.