It’s been almost three years since George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The 46-year old Black man’s death, a tragedy and blatant act of injustice, was made more horrifying because the incident was caught on camera. The video went viral and became a spark that thrust the Black Lives Matter movement into the forefront of conversation almost like nothing before.
It sparked an uproar that reverberated beyond the United States and spread outside of the Black community.
“The irrefutable video evidence of a Black man being killed by police was, for many non-Black people, the straw that broke the camel’s back — an inflection point that (by choice or by circumstance) could not be ignored, and which demanded reflection,” writes Stephen Dorsey.
Dorsey is an activist, community organizer, and entrepreneur. He’s also the debut author of Black & White: An Intimate, Multicultural Perspective on “White Advantage” & The Paths to Real Change published last year. Making a distinction between white privilege and what Dorsey calls “white advantage” is a central focus of his book.
Like so many others, the summer of 2020 was a time to reflect on the role of race and racism in society for Dorsey. This was a particularly complicated process for him because he’s half Black, half white, and and grew up in white families.
Dorsey says he grew up feeling “like a white kid in a Black body” and that the events of 2020 started him on a journey to discover his Blackness and put his book together.
This is where my conversation with Dorsey began.
The following Q&A interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve said the death of George Floyd was a jump-off moment for you that made you reflect and got you on the path to writing the book. Was there a particular moment when you realized you needed to tell your story?
It took a week before I could watch the video. Of course, I’d been keeping track of the Black Lives Matter movement and all of the discourse going on around me in my community and across the country generally and it reminded me of my youth and all of those feelings were coming to the surface. Then I got involved in lots of conversations, even a local controversy.
I found myself really in the centre of the discourse, and I found myself saying “I wish someone would say this. Why doesn’t the government do this?” then I realized, why don’t I? I can say and do something. Also, I realized I’m Black, I’m white. I’m French, I’m English. I’m an Easterner. I’m a Westerner. And I’m a community guy so people reach out to me to understand things. I’m a writer and communicator. So, if there was ever a time to take action, this was it.
You cite the crown jewels of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Is there an equivalent in the moment we’re having now?
Let me clarify, I don’t think we’ve had a reckoning or an awakening around the issue of race, especially anti-black racism, since the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t think we’ve had legislation in this country that mirrors what happened in the United States in 1965. And actually, if we take North America as a whole, we’re backsliding a little bit.
But where I find hope and where I think the milestone is, is it’s the first time in almost 60 years that we’re having a broad societal discussion about the continuing issues of race. In Canada, it’s quite different because it also has to be unearthed, if you will, from this marketing and branding of multiculturalism. Of course, I’m proud of Canada and of the idea of multiculturalism. I think we’ve demonstrated through immigration, through different laws of how we’re trying to make that happen, compared to, a place like France, for example, which is really about segregation and discrimination.
I think that that’s the distinction; the awareness, the reckoning of racism against Black and Indigenous people. So when people say, “I never knew anything about residential schools,” I say, “okay, I can understand that you never learned it in school but it has been in the public discourse for the last decade-plus.” So, from that standpoint, I think it is a milestone but if we’re talking about real reform, we haven’t gotten there yet.
In the book, you bring up conversations around being racist vs being anti-racist, like the example of the Home Hardware owner’s controversy. It was interesting when you said ‘Is he racist, I don’t know’ because what I’m grappling with is the fact that just being complicit in certain systems, you’re condoning racism, you’re allowing it, and doing what the racist system wants you to do.
You’re complicit in the continuation of systemic racism, that’s essentially it. People always focus on overt racism. “You’re a stupid n-word.” “I don’t like you people.” Whatever. I can almost deal with that. It seems now if someone said that in the middle of a meeting in a corporate setting, they’d be fired immediately.
Now, we did see in Quebec the nurses treating an Indigenous woman like trash and they didn’t lose their jobs. Basically, they did it because they knew there were no repercussions. But if you walk into most businesses today and say something anti-semitic or racist towards a Black person, there’s a likelihood you’re going to get either fired, demoted, reprimanded or something. So, I’m not so worried about that.
The worst part is systemic racism; where the systems continue to advantage some while disadvantaging others. And that’s where it seems white people are reticent to want to fully understand it because I think down deep, they probably think and know that means that they’re going to lose some advantage.
You said “What became most evident to me, however, was an almost universal need to build bridges of understanding between Black and white Canadians. A need to inform and educate so that hopefully, in due time, we can arrive at some level of consensus to achieve real change.” What does that mean, what does that look like?
I think the first part is that especially after the George Floyd murder, there were a lot of books and a lot of activism, which was merited and with some anger at what was going on. You had the Black Lives Matter movement and the Desmond Cole’s of the world did the work of activism, of shouting to power and trying to get a broader audience of Canadians to understand that this was critical and an emergency for Black people. That was the spark.
So, my position is especially with what happened with the Home Hardware guy and all the vitriol on social media. There were people saying burn down his store, boycott him, and then other people saying “I’ve known him for 25 years…he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” It’s these two sides and if this is what happens as we go forward, how do we reconcile these views to get to change?
I’m a business guy that looks to achieve objectives in my life. In this case, I want white people and Black people to come together and figure out how we can go forward. So, how do we get there? One of the things that’s really informed my view is the process of truth and reconciliation. I’ve spoken with Indigenous leaders about their focus on this and asked, “What does truth and reconciliation really mean?” They noted that the first thing was that we all need to acknowledge truths; Black people, white people, allies. If you can’t acknowledge the truth of the past and what’s happening today, then you can’t move forward. And how do you do that? You have to have conversations, you have to look at facts and come to an agreement on what that is. Once you have the acknowledgement of the truth, then you can reconcile around that truth. Only then can you move forward and figure out what we have to do to fix it together.
You need to convince people of all stripes to come together, bridge the divide of understanding, and have good communication. You can’t just be angry; I don’t think that’s going to get you anywhere. And for white people, you can’t just be defensive and say, “Oh, that wasn’t me, I’m not bad, I’m not biased.” This is where unconscious bias comes into play.
You may have “white advantage” simply because of your whiteness and you may not even be aware of it. But now I’m going to tell you what that looks like, and after I tell you I want you to spend some time and do some more learning and when you’re finished that, come back and check-in. And then once they have that understanding, they go “aha!” and want to take action to actually do something about it to make change happen.
What were your thoughts and feelings when you were realizing the multicultural story that we were told about Canada, and Canada’s brand, are myths?
In the last decade and with the Black Lives Matter movement is where I started. Before that, I was just busy with my life and just heard about things on the news. I didn’t know anything about carding for example but there was a multitude of things that I read in books and heard from activists. I did always have some sense that things were unfair but honestly, writing my book was an awakening and a revelation to me. The rich history of Black people in Canada — from cowboys to pioneers and loyaltists, slaves that were brought here in the 17th century — I didn’t know about any of that or the accomplishments. So, by doing research, I did the work that should have been taught to me when I was in school. I was starting to excavate that for myself.
I started to go “Oh my God.” I knew that Canada wasn’t the perfect brand it pretended to be but by excavating all the information I learned so much through the process of writing my book. I knew that I had to do all that research because I wanted to make sure I would have an argument based on facts if someone claimed what I said wasn’t true.
I learned so much and I think it’s part of me getting closer to the Black community, which is an ongoing thing for me. I grew up in a white home in white neighborhoods with white friends that went to white schools. So, I’m still on a journey to fully understanding my Blackness.
So, in putting this book together you had to research, went about debunking the Canada myth, reflecting on your past and going on a journey of self-discovery. What has that been like for you personally?
First, I had to reconcile with myself. Then I had to deal with my mother and find a way to talk to her and let her know why I needed to write this book and now. She needed to understand that it wasn’t going to be a personal attack, that I just had to get my truth out. That took a lot of emotional effort.
The other part was sharing some very intimate stories. Telling the world that you peed your bed at nine years old is embarrassing but I thought that it was a story that needed to be told to make people get closer to the understanding of what racism looks like for real people. That was hard; writing it, putting it down. It’s not that I hadn’t talked about it with close friends before; I’d kept that one in a box because it was traumatic.
The third part is, let’s take my chapter on Quebec; I still have family there, I have friends there. I knew that there would be risks associated with stating my candid opinions even though they were rooted in a love for the province and the people. Potential professional risks, and personal risk of being attacked for my anti-Bill 21 views for example or causing rifts with my French, Quebec-based relatives.
But I decided I needed to do it and I was telling the truth and that I was prepared. I had to lean on some advisors and people to support me and get through that. That was the hardest chapter because I had genuine fears about truth-telling that would be unpopular with some.
Given that it was so difficult to write the book, between the research, the emotional labor, the potential ramifications, what are you hoping this book is able to achieve?
The book’s been out for over a year now and I think it’s already had the impact I was hoping; it’s started lots of conversations. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “Stephen, I didn’t know any of this.” Or that my personal story was moving and hard but it also humanized the information I was trying to convey, and the gentle scolding of white advantage. And I’ve spoken in front of thousands of people who’ve said “wow, I didn’t know, I want to learn more, I want to be an ally.” So, I think from the standpoint of bridging the divides of understanding, I think I’ve contributed my little piece of that.
The crazy part is it’s my first book, and once you write the book and it’s out, in a weird way, it’s not your book anymore because people are going to make their minds up about what you’re saying. So the past year has really been about listening and reacting to people’s reactions of what I wrote.
One of things I did in the title of my book is I used white advantage, not white privilege. And the reason I did that is because in so many conversations I had with white people, when the subject of white privilege came up they got defensive and, they’d say “What are you talking about, I’m not privileged, I come from humble beginnings, I’ve worked for everything I have, etc.” That’s not what we’re talking about I would reply. We’re talking about the advantage you have simply because of your whiteness, and you may not even be aware of it. I realized that once they heard my detailed explanation around white advantage that, they were just so much more open to the conversation. So I think the book has had that impact, as well.
I do think that white advantage is a more accurate description of what it is, and it’s easier to understand and also easier to accept because of examples like white immigrants who face their own struggles.
In our capitalist society, privilege is most often associated with money, power and access to opportunity. So, if they’re poor white people, they’re going, “You’re not talking about me, what are you talking about?” Words matter.
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.