Racism is more than just a conceptual issue or topic. For people who encounter it, racism becomes a personal experience.
That was one of the prevailing themes that emerged from a conversation encouraging participants from across Thunder Bay to talk about how to bridge the racial divide.
The first of two sessions was held Monday at Lakehead University with about 80 people in attendance, including a group of grades 7 and 8 students from Westmount Public School. A second followed in the evening at Ka-Na-Chi-Hih.
Participants also spoke of deep-seeded racial tension in Thunder Bay, a desire for a safe community for all and skepticism about whether racism can ever be eradicated.
Coun. Rebecca Johnson, co-chair of Diversity Thunder Bay and member of the city’s Anti-Racism and Respect Advisory Committee, said there needs to be action.
“Is racism prevalent in Thunder Bay? Is it increasing? I don’t know that it’s increasing but it’s not decreasing,” Johnson said.
“I think that when we start looking at some of the incidents we have, we have to make some changes.”
Aftab Erfan, the session facilitator, said dialogue is needed to bridge racial and cultural divides.
“We want to bring together voices that don’t normally speak to each other,” Erfan said.
“We know that in Thunder Bay, and really actually all through North America and around the world, there’s this division of people who are different from each other racially, culturally and around religious lines. The idea of this dialogue is the more they don’t talk to each other, the bigger the gaps will be between them.”
The session used a method where participants stood in the centre of the room, where they were able to move around to show whether they agreed with each speaker.
When people agreed, they were encouraged to move closer to that speaker. If they disagreed, they were asked to step away.
“It’s not a panel discussion or experts telling you how to deal with cultural differences, it’s people speaking in their own voice to each other,” Erfan said.
“We get a quick sense of what the different views are, where are the differences and what people are really thinking and feeling. We’ll have a deeper conversation than we would have just sitting around the dinner table and potentially getting into a fight.”
The participants also spoke about the importance of embracing diversity and differences, rather than requiring minority groups feel required to adapt to become part of a mainstream culture.
It’s through talking and learning that racism can be addressed, Johnson said.
Policies passed by any level of government aren’t necessarily effective, she added.
“The way we really address racism and make change is one-on-one,” Johnson said. “To just carte blanche say we’re going to have a new bylaw or something, it doesn’t work. You can’t teach people but you can have dialogues and conversations.”