When our son turned one, my partner and I quickly felt our small downtown Toronto condo closing in around us. We needed more room than a 640 square foot space gave us, so we packed up our life and moved 50 kilometres out of the city for greener pastures.
Life was good in the small town in which we started anew — for the same amount we were paying downtown, we had a big detached house with more bedrooms than we actually needed and a huge yard with friendly, albeit mostly geriatric, neighbours. Sure, we were far from the majority of our friends and couldn’t simply step outside to cool cafés and shops, but our son could run and play and have his own room, which at the time, was the most important thing to us.
Soon after we moved in, we met one of the only other families with young children nearby and they happened to live directly behind us, the only thing separating our yards was an old chain link fence. We practically lived on the same property — what luck! The kids’ mother (let’s call her K) and I started chatting over the fence about all of the things that bond new mothers.
Why did she assume it was acceptable to utter aloud these prejudices in front of me? Was it because she looked at me and saw another white woman living in the suburbs and thought I was like her?
These casual chats turned into backyard play dates, which morphed into treks to the park together and eventually a drive to a beach to watch the kids play in the sand. As usual, my partner was away for work half of the year and I didn’t have much help, so when K regularly suggested my son play in their backyard with her kids while I prepped dinner, I was tremendously grateful.
K and her husband were a Catholic, blond, blue-eyed Caucasian couple, with equally blond and blue-eyed children. I am also Caucasian but my father was Jewish, my dark brown wavy hair, dark eyes and olive skin not exactly subtle.
The more we hung out the more I started noticing K and her husband’s flippant comments about race, religion and cultures that were different to their own. These microaggressions would come out of nowhere. I tried not to make a big deal about it — I hardly knew the woman, and I certainly didn’t want to make things awkward. I assumed it must’ve been a small town attitude so I shrugged it off and neither agreed nor disagreed with her — I ignored the comments, hoping they would go away, or that she would pick up on the fact that I was incredibly uncomfortable in those moments. But the remarks kept coming: Why did she assume it was acceptable to utter aloud these prejudices in front of me? Was it because she looked at me and saw another white woman living in the suburbs and thought I was like her? Or did she even think about it at all? The intolerances were so ingrained in her they were said without a morsel of self-consciousness or shame.
Other than being neighbours and parents, we didn’t have anything in common. It was a short and convenient relationship that peaked over a summer. When K and her husband decided to sell their home and move to the next town she told me about the successful couple who had bought their house. She made an offensive remark about Jewish people, referring to the couple who were about to move in, and I was stunned and shocked into silence. I retreated quickly, needing to remove myself from the reality that this person was a toxic presence and, let’s face it, a racist.
The next couple of days were a struggle for me. Do I call her out on her careless words and stand up for what I know is right, or do I let it go and just promise myself I’ll speak up next time I encounter someone like her? What were my options? She was moving and I would likely never see her again, so I could chalk the experience up as one of those things, easier to ignore than to deal with. But then I would be enabling her intolerance, and even worse, giving the impression that I agreed. What kind of human would I be then?
So, I did what comes naturally to me: I wrote her a letter.
The comments she thoughtlessly threw around over the summer upset and offended me and I told her so. I highlighted how startlingly clear it was that we do not share the same views on otherness and that our values are not aligned. I described my diverse network of friends and the beautiful patchwork that makes up the fabric of my family, groups that comprise skin colour in varying shades and colours, people who are Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, Atheist, Indigenous, Asian, Black and LGBTQ+, to name a few. And I told her about my father who was raised as an Orthodox Jew during the Second World War in England and his family’s enduring fear of persecution because of their ethnicity. It was cathartic telling her that her unreserved expression of racial and cultural stereotypes perpetuates narrow-mindedness, making it harder to break the cycle of intolerance, and that I could not and would not, be part of it. My words made it clear that I do not agree with her racist remarks, stated or insinuated, and that I embrace difference and surround myself with people who do the same.
I never heard from K again, not that I really expected to but I do hope that my words made an impact, even if it was only small. As a Caucasian woman, with Jewish roots, who considers herself an ally to minority folx from all walks of life, I felt a responsibility to condemn her conduct. Perhaps by setting those boundaries it’ll make her think twice about so carelessly expressing her intolerant views the next time she meets someone new, or maybe it will bring to her attention something she didn’t even realize she was doing. Either way, the experience has revealed an unpleasant fact: that people may think you share their views simply because your skin colour is similar or you live in the same neighbourhood. By not speaking up, I felt I played a part in fueling hostility and hatred and that was not kosher. And so, writing that letter wrote my racist neighbour off but I righted many wrongs in doing so.
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