I Held My Breath for a Year

Taken from the book:  I Held My Breath for  Year
I have learned strategies to deal with these micro-aggressions because it has been my usual response to do what I did as a boy. I did nothing. I said nothing. We are experts at doing nothing, not because we don’t want to act, but often because we don’t know how.

Today, I practice a strategy that begins with not accepting silence. Silence means agreement. It means acquiescing. I say to myself that to stand up for that boy within I can no longer accept silence.

So what does one say?

First of all, I repeat back the distressing words in a calm and dispassionate way. This distancing effect helps me calm my emotions and manage my anger.

I must admit that in the past I have over-reacted and this is wrong. Plus, it never works to shame anyone, no matter what.
So after I repeat the words, I state how I feel about them. It is important to own one’s feelings as a way of being a witness to your own heart. I use the word witness very deliberately because being a self-witness is an effective way to be an ally to the child within, to humanity itself.

Self-witnessing is about actively resisting hurtful or ignorant words. It’s also a way to monitor yourself and stand up for others. After I state my feelings, I invite a productive conversation about how to end the expression of thoughts and language that marginalize and hurt others.

I am not that great at self-witnessing, but it does work. It is a lot better than swearing at your steering wheel or kicking the cat. I believe self-witnessing is one important human competency. When we learn to stand up for ourselves, then we learn how to stand up for others. If we get good at standing up for the vulnerable and the unwanted, then we can call ourselves leaders.

When I think back to the person who left me those messages I wonder. But my main thought now is how to end hopelessness in our Indigenous youth.

We are a good people. When we hear bad things, it is an ethical act to stand up, especially if it is for those who cannot stand up for themselves. A more inclusive, more fair, and a more equitable place is what makes our country distinct and that is what makes me most proud of being a Canadian.
But we can do better.    
When I was a boy, someone used to leave messages for me on the trail to school. They were handwritten on white 8 x 11” paper. The messages lasted about a year. They started in Grade 8 and ended in Grade 9 when we moved away. They appeared mostly on Mondays.

Sometimes the paper was held down by rocks so the message wouldn’t blow away. Sometimes the paper was taped to a skinny fir.

When I walked through the trees on my way to school, I always held my breath. Sometimes I would avoid the trail. Sometimes I would run as fast as I could.

Mostly, I kicked dirt over the paper and later, when I grew up, I just tried not to remember.

I have never told anyone what was written to me. The words were “Eff Off, Chinaman” or “No Chinks Allowed” or “I Will Kill You, Yellow Nigger.”

It’s difficult to remember exactly how I felt back then. I was always afraid. I felt in ways that I don’t have the words to describe, despite the fact that I am a writer.

I can tell you now a fragment of my truth. I wanted to disappear. I felt helpless, like nothing.

To be frank, this was nothing compared to what other kids faced. Reserve girls were raped. Some kids went to school in the same shirt for a week. And we got used to kids who were just plain hungry. The new girl from India – well, I can’t even describe the blank face of a child who has been terrorized.

In Canada today, we have come a long way from Williams Lake in the 1970s. We passed anti-hate and discrimination laws, and we do our best to be an inclusive society. We are a fair people. And unlike most other countries, we know equality of opportunity, not simplistic equality, is the answer.

So, I can’t help but want to ask the child in me about what I endured. I also want to know how my early life shaped the adult that I have become.
For the most part, I turned out fine. I went to school, did what I was told and I have always been surrounded by loving family and friends.

So why is it that once in a while, someone says something at work or someone posts something on Facebook and I feel like that boy again, the boy who held his breath for a year?

There is no overt racism in my sphere anymore, but there are still the events sociologists call micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are small acts committed by people with privilege that make us feel unwanted, hated or merely less than human.

Discrimination is systemic; its impact persists across generations and when you feel it, it can trigger you. My buttons get pushed and I become that boy again, holding my breath for a year.

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