Author and business consultant Stephen Dorsey lives by the mantra, “Be better, do better, live better, together.” In his talk organized by Nimbus Publishing at Congress 2022, and adapted from his book Black and White, Dorsey tells his story from a “pan-Canadian” perspective, as someone who is both Black and white, French and English, and who has lived in both the east and west. Mixing his personal history with facts and statistics, Dorsey paints a picture of a Canada that is both racist and able to transcend that racism, provided we all work together.
The idea of writing a book about “our crazy personal story with individual and systemic racism” had been with Dorsey and his brother for decades. But following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Dorsey felt it was time to finally put words to paper. He got a boost when a hardware store in Toronto put up an “All Lives Matter” sign, and Dorsey decided he wanted to meet the owner. Dorsey met and interviewed him, wrote the story, and later wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail entitled, “If Canadians hope to achieve a more just society, let us eliminate ‘white advantage’.”
Like many new authors, he ignored his friends’ advice, and he read the comments. Now when someone says, “Oh Steven, that’s the past, Canada is much better,” he shares a few of the 160-or-so racist comments Globe and Mail readers shared with him.
Dorsey appreciates the works of Black Canadians like Robyn Maynard and Desmond Cole, but he felt, in his interactions with the hardware store owner and others, that there needed to be someone to bridge divides of understanding around systemic racism, particularly white privilege. He felt he could be that person.
Many white people, Dorsey said, told him they simply did not understand what he was talking about when he talked about systemic racism in Canada. Caring and friendly white Canadians would get their backs up when Dorsey discussed “white privilege,” as though it meant their successes had simply been handed to them.
Dorsey tried, in hundreds of conversations and in the book, to explain that was not how white privilege worked – it didn’t mean everything was easy for white people; it meant they did not face the racist disadvantages Black and other racialized people experienced. As an example, Dorsey said that Black youth were twenty times more likely to have an incident with the police in Toronto than white youth. Every time a young Black person leaves home, their parents have twenty times more reason to worry that the police may hurt their child. White people may have plenty to worry about, but twenty times less reason to worry about that.
Dorsey spoke about Canada’s racist past – one he learned nothing of in school – and of the structural disadvantages Black people face, but his own life provided the meat of the discussion.
When he was very young, he and his brother moved to the suburb of Longueil with their white mother and white stepfather. Dorsey and his brother had no concept that they were different, as the only Black children on the block – but other kids did, and they let them know. Dorsey’s parents, meanwhile, told both the children and the neighbours that Dorsey and his brother were adopted, when in fact their father was an African-American man from Upstate New York. When Dorsey asked to play hockey, his stepfather said he couldn’t, because Black people have weak ankles.
In 1979, the family moved across the country to Victoria. Soon after, the parents left the children there, moving to Europe with a promise to send the kids money for board, but ending up shunting them to foster care. Dorsey felt angry and rejected, but when he was seventeen he realized that this was not who he was – he was happy as a child, and he wanted to be happy again. “I decided to honour my true self,” he said, “my happy disposition. I will not let what happened to me decide my life.”
He had a great career and worked all over the world, but there were headwinds. Traveling, he had trouble with co-workers who told racist stories, Australian police cadets who bragged of “abo-bashing”, and European police who pointed machine guns at his chest to ask where he was going. In Canada, there was the usual litany of hearing the n-word, women clutching their bags, being mistaken for the help, and so on. “Imagine all of this happening before you start your regular life of taking care of yourself, your family, your career,” Dorsey said.
“That’s what we’re talking about with systemic and individual racism. One advantage of not being Black is you don’t need to think about that.”
Dorsey describes himself as a goal-oriented person, and the goal he wants Canada (and the world) to pursue is a world without individual and systemic racism. This means forming coalitions to reform the system, including “persuadable” and allied white people. The final chapter of his book is entitled, “Be better, do better, live better, together.”
Be better means moving beyond your own biases and prejudices, by learning and doing your own research on this country’s past and present. Dorsey is optimistic, saying, “I think we’ve raised that level of awareness over the last couple years.”
Do better means do the work of equity, diversity, and inclusion everywhere we can – on an individual level, community level, and in our professional lives. He brought up the prototypical Thanksgiving dinner, when grandpa says something racist. Instead of ignoring it, Dorsey suggested telling the young people, “Don’t worry, grandpa is still learning.” As John Lewis (and the TTC) said, “If you see something, say something.” Dorsey encouraged corporations to “go deeper” and start looking for leaders at the high school level. He then encouraged everyone, right then and there, to think of three things they can do to improve EDI in Canada. “If you believe there is a need to do things differently, you need to do things differently,” he said.
And if we can accomplish that, then we can “live better, together.” “Imagine if Indigenous people didn’t have to worry about their rights, if women were treated equally without worrying for safety,” Dorsey said. “I think we’d live in a much better world for everyone.”
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