Colour-coded: Decolonising Hearts, Minds & Spirits

Sep 7, 2017

It was another one of those silly games, those apparently pointless games that lie at the heart of conflict transformation and experiential learning.  ‘Lifeboats’ is primarily designed to harvest information from the participants in ways that are fun, kinaesthetic and, often, sneaky.  In this case, why don’t we set up an exercise that is deliberately provocative, deliberately oriented towards a dominant white culture narrative and experience?

In ‘Lifeboats’, the story is that we are all in a ship – maybe on the Mediterranean or the Nile, the Brahmaputra or the Boac; in this case, the St Lawrence – and it’s going down.  The ‘passengers’ are assured that we are well equipped with lifeboats, no lives will be lost – but that we like to be organised about who gets into which lifeboat.  So, all those wearing blue today will get into this lifeboat over here.  All those who are pastors will come over here to get into this lifeboat – which may include those wearing blue now required to switch lifeboats.  A boat is reserved for those who access new media, whether online, print or broadcast every day, another for those who play a musical instrument.  The latter are asked to tell us which instruments they each play, and would they please play us a tune.  The pianos start playing, the djembes are tapped on knees, fingers fly off air guitars and the flute adds its dulcet tones – to laughter.  There are other lifeboats for those born outside the country, for those who have been taught to fear the police.

Once back inside, we set up sacred space and gathered together our intentions, settling into discomfort as a place of learning:  to understand colonisation and decolonisation within the gob-smackingly arrogant concept of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Then there is one for those born in the decade in which Little Boy and Fat Boy were dropped (Hiroshima and Nagasaki; 1940s), the decade of the ‘Bennett Buggies’ (1930s), of the ‘Day the Music Died’ (1950s), the fall of the Berlin wall (1980s), that Martin Luther King was assassinated (1960s), that saw Nelson Mandela elected into South Africa’s highest office (1990s), the decade in which Wilbur Howard served as the first Black Moderator of the United Church of Canada (1970s), in which ‘Indian Residential Schools’, first opened in 1848, finally closed (1990s).  It requires talking with your neighbours:  what in the world are the ‘Bennet Buggies’?  who are Fat Boy and Little Boy? who is Wilbur Howard?

Eventually, the lifeboats are filled, distributed between the 1940s through to the 1990s.  Once there, each group is asked to sing a song from the decade in which they were born.  We’ll eavesdrop on my group, that of the 1950s and the ‘day the music died’.  We are one francophone Haitian woman, a Taiwanese migrant who served as a Member of Parliament for a nearby riding [district], a Jamaican African-descendent church executive, as well as three white, dominant culture people.  We can’t seem to reach a decision.  Only half of us were even here in the 1950s and the pleas of the native-born for Elvis or Sinatra or Jerry Lee or Bill Haley or Chuck Berry or Patti Page or the Everly Brothers or Fats Domino are declined.  We weren’t here, the other three say.  Oh yeah, right.  The Taiwanese man suggests, interestingly enough, ‘Que será, será… the future’s not ours to see…’  Doris Day.  And so we sang.  Badly.

The 1960s sing ‘Yesterday’ a Beatles classic.  Over protests that they were infants in the decade in which they were born, the 1980s sing the theme song from Sesame Street.  Over in the 1940s, they sing ‘I’m looking over a Four-leaf Clover’.  It’s the largest group and in the middle of the group, one woman is crying into the arms of another.  She is MJ, of Korean origins.  To her, our song, ‘Que será, será’ sounds like something else; not Spanish but a Japanese song she learned as a child.  She is in distress; her group is caring for her.  Almost thirty-five years into the Japanese occupation, she was born, given a Japanese name, learned Japanese songs.  Her younger sisters, born post-occupation, were given Korean names; she kept her occupier name, a reminder of the pain of occupation, of grief and loss and dislocation, so present.

Back to the 1950s.  ‘So you did that intentionally, right?’ Michael asks.  What?  That we ask questions skewed towards the dominant culture with expectations that you’ve been here long enough to ‘get with the programme, assimilate?’  Perhaps, yes.  Sidelined again.


In a workshop provocatively entitled ‘Colour-coded:  Decolonising Hearts, Minds and Spirits’, 29 participants spent an April Friday evening and all day Saturday exploring issues of race and racism. Here in this country, we have seen branch plants of Black Lives Matter, rising up in distinctively Canadian forms.  We have lived through, observed, the submission to Parliament of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), its 4,000 pages and 440 recommendations going mostly nowhere and then the seven years of Truth-and-Reconciliation storytelling, gut-wrenching testimonies of 150 years of European settlers attempting to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.  We began on a sunny but crisp Friday afternoon, forming a circle in the still dormant gardens of a Toronto area United Church.  Six Nations of the Grand River Territory Elder, Renée Hill-Thomas, gathered the men, keepers of the fire, to light the four sacred grasses, huddling against a stiff breeze, smudging our circle in a ceremony of grief-cleansing.  Grief-cleansing.  Women, keepers of the water, passed a cup of water, allowing some of it to pass through our chilled fingers, purging pain.

Once back inside, we set up sacred space and gathered together our intentions, settling into discomfort as a place of learning:  to understand colonisation and decolonisation within the gob-smackingly arrogant concept of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ (flag piercing the skin of our land, they say, now ours), to get at what we bring and what we seek, doing the personal as a gateway into the systemic, grasping the necessity to not run away from difficult conversations.

participants gather in a small group

In the hours that followed, we examined issues of identity, what shapes us, conditions us; how we learn to ‘other’ the other, how we arbitrarily exclude and include, how to identify, interrupt and disrupt unconscious bias, the unmerited privilege dominant cultures harvest without thinking, the systemic reach of personal prejudice.

Using a tool called ‘Creating a Violent Society’, we examined in small groups the intersectionality and common roots of all oppressions, laughing hysterically at times as we traversed this dangerous territory; through story-telling by Michael Blair and Renée Hill-Thomas as well as Reginald Crenshaw, African-American, Anglican and a monk, presenting race as both social construct and social contract. It is not DNA that puts some people at one end of a continuum racialised to privilege and, at the other end, to not-privilege; it is socially constructed, agreed-upon, often supported by the latter through unconscious or conscious internalisation of endless messaging about who’s who and who’s not. Perhaps most profoundly, we talked about de-colonisation as a joint task of colonised and coloniser:  we all have unlearning to do, as oppressed peoples confront their capitulation and oppressors their cluelessness.

We recognised the tendency of the dominant culture, upon hearing stories too hard to hear, retreating into self-flagellating guilt, a place centred on the suffering of the self rather than on the task of moving beyond guilt and into action and allyship:  who grants it? what does the dominant culture need to do or learn in order to earn it?  what is the grace and forgiveness available when we allow ourselves to accept our conditioning and begin the work of consciousness?

Participants hold hands in a large group and share challenges and solutions.

Towards the end of the training, we heard a story offered by LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Executive Director of the BPFNA, a painful story of the challenges of entering into difficult conversations, to which the participants responded with advice from their own experiences. How do we take risky steps into conversations we’d rather avoid, conversations that seem to hold the prospect of a price too high?  Go along to get along?  Or find the words, take the risk, reframing the issues through understanding and un-learning.

In a closing circle, led by Renée, we ritualised our learnings, our hopes, our commitments to ourselves and to one another, to a world looking for love.


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