Years ago, when I genuinely was a young, white, middle-class, suburban punk (as opposed to the same angry guy wrapped in a 44 year old body) I looked, well, different.
I had hair about a cm long (more than that and I’d feel like a hippie) or that and a weird Tintin piece in the front. I wore a uniform of hightops (converse of some variety always) or a mix of monkey boots/combat boots/Docs. Jeans or cut off Canadian Forces combat pants were my bottom of choice (I was also prone to work pants that had been altered to to be tighter at the ankle). T-shirts from shows and a plaid shirt finished off the look. Sometimes there might be a baseball cap on my head, or a bandana (either over the head or in the old school suicidal tendencies style). I was, to put it clearly, the very picture of suburban punk rock kid.
I also reviewed music and other arts for a string of college papers so I went to A LOT of shows. (One year i worked out that I’d been to close to 150ish – this may explain some of the hearing loss that 44 year old me has). This put me in places that nice middle class kids don’t usually go, looking not all like the middle class kid I was.
This gave rise to interesting experiences because, outside of our little bubble of alt/punk Montreal, we stood out as scary, dangerous and dirty. This probably suited us just fine a lot of the time but some of Montreal’s finest weren’t in love with us.
To whit: one night 5 of us were on the sidewalk outside Foufounes Electrique, we were scattered about trying to decide where to go for a drink. 5 people can’t block a side walk, especially not the way we we standing. Next to us another club had roped off enough of the sidewalk for their line that people were stepping into the street to get bye. A police officer came up to us and told us to move on because we were blocking the side walk. When I politely asked about the next door club he pulled his nightstick and shoved me with it and told me to shut up. This sort of thing was hardly uncommon.
When I grabbed the night bus to go home I’d get off in the suburb I grew up in the roving public security van would follow me home. One night when it was -30 I went over to the driver and said “look, we both know you’re going to follow me home. We both know you know where I live. Why don’t you just give me a lift, I’ll buy you a coffee and we’ll both go on about our night?” He laughed at me, said no and then followed me home on my 30 minute walk.
Speaking of bus or metro rides: I always got seats. ALWAYS. Seats would come clear in the way that Moses could part seas. It was magical.
But here’s the thing. Back in my closet was another wardrobe that I could put on, one that clearly went with the cloak of white privilege I could never take off. I had nice pants, going to church shirts, a tie or two. I could shine up my Docs, wear the normal pants, cut out the swearing, take off my earrings, grow out my hair a bit and manage what I always thought of as the “lapsed Mormon” look.
This guy had a most of a degree, this guy spoke correctly, this guy belonged. This guy had choices. This guy had been born with that (in)visible cloak. This guy was playing the game on the easy setting.
But this guy had had a tiny glimpse through the curtain and this guy remembers.
That’s why this guy STFU when people of colour, women and LGBT people talk about their experiences and day to day challenges.
If you’re denying that racism and prejudice don’t effect people’s lives or worse, if you’re saying they don’t exist, then you are part of the problem.
Two additional thoughts:
1) as scary as the nightstick (and other) incidents were, I came out of them without getting hurt or even being arrested. Further testament to that cloak.
2) another experience that opened my eyes was going to see KRS One at a venue in Toronto. I was one of eight (I counted) white people at the show. I went to a high school with a good mix of minorities so I’ve never been one of those people who feels uncomfortable around people who didn’t look like me (this smacks of “some of my best friends are…” Please know I’m aware of this) but it dawned on me that night that this must be what a lot of life felt like for the people of colour I’d gone to school with.