I’m from Winnipeg, which has a racism problem. It does. And, as much as I like to think that I’m some sort of exception to this racism, I’m not. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I have played a part in perpetuating that racism, and I’m not proud of it.
Since a Maclean’s article put this issue in the spotlight, I’ve taken some time to reflect on what role I play in this complex and messy problem, which has existed in Winnipeg since well before I was born, and sadly, will be an issue for the foreseeable future.
I moved to Winnipeg’s West End in 2010, which is known as a poorer area and has had a history of gang violence. As I moved from my family’s home in a cozy suburb in the north east of Winnipeg, I was well aware of the racism that exists in the city. However, I thought that somehow, as an “enlightened” individual, I was immune to perpetuating racism. I learned very soon that I was wrong.
As a house warming gift, my beloved grandmother bought me a pot of begonias. Although I may not have the greenest thumb, I took good care of those begonias, putting them on the balcony so that they get enough sun, watering them regularly, and showcasing them on tours when family members came to see my new place.
One sunny afternoon, as I was out on the balcony watering my begonias, I saw a large aboriginal man walk by, stop in front of the house and look up at me. Immediately I put up my guard and froze. I immediately assumed that something negative was about to follow. Instead, he asked, “What kind of plant is that?” Taken aback, I then responded in a very porky-piggish kind of way.
“A… bega…bego…bega…begonia.” I uttered. Like a fool.
“I like plants,” he said. “You keep watering that thing.” He then wished me well and continued on his way.
After this pleasant interaction I felt a mixture of emotions. While up-lifted by this positive, neighborly moment, I felt a profound sense of shame at how I had put up my guard and judged a fellow human being for looking a certain way. The instant he asked me about that begonia I realized that the “wall” that I had built up around myself came crumbling down, and I with it. For that moment in time I became vulnerable, which was beautiful. In that split second, we shared our humanity in a way that we would not have been able to otherwise.
From then on it was just two people and a plant.
It’s probably fair to say that most Winnipeggers, if not Canadians, have encountered someone on the street and reacted similarly. Sadly, not everyone was lucky enough to have a begonia there to make the encounter a positive one. These small moments of connection can be mutually transformative if we allow them to be. However, all too often, as we navigate through the public sphere we act guarded.
To me, pacifism can act as a begonia by reminding us to put down our guard, because at the very core of pacifism is the virtue of vulnerability. And it’s this virtue that strips us down to nothing more than our common humanity.
For me, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, pacifism requires a conscious effort to consistently keep one’s guard down while respecting the vulnerability of others, which is uncomfortable, but rewarding. Adopting this as a daily practice, I believe, is one important step in starting to address many of the problems that plague our urban spaces. Whether it be racism, mental-illness, poverty or fear, which are invariably intertwined, these problems often stem from a society building up barriers around itself. If we collectively make ourselves vulnerable—in both big and little ways–those barriers between us may come crumbling down, because when we’re vulnerable we open ourselves to hear the voices of people who we would otherwise ignore and see more than just the “other”.
If we are going to tackle these problems, we need to change the way we interact on a daily basis, which is why Winnipeg … no … Canada needs a begonia. To me, that begonia is pacifism, because pacifism is so much more than a belief. It’s a daily practice.
By Cory Funk, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office.