In every child’s upbringing, there are always a few seminal moments that shape who they become as adults and remain seared in their memories for the rest of their lives. I remember one Christmas, awaking to find “reindeer” tracks on the roof outside of my window, which led me to believe in Santa for longer than what I’m sure is considered normal. Another paradigm-shaping memory was when a childhood friend and classmate died in grade two after a lifelong battle with cancer. Facing death at such a young age is a confusing and harrowing experience, but one from which you can grow tremendously.

The most profound memory I have from childhood, however, has nothing to do with Christmas or friends; it has to do with a fence post, a black marker and a very controversial word. It has to do with racism, conflict and growing up in suburbia. But most of all, it has to do with learning the difference between hate and love, and the importance of understanding.

I grew up in the sheltered dome of suburbia in a community that was largely Italian-Catholics, which my family is not. I went to French school in Niagara Falls, and can only think of one classmate who was of a different ethnic background. I was as white-bred as they come. To me, racism not only didn’t exist as an act, but also as a concept. I had absolutely no knowledge of the fact that people with a different background might be viewed negatively solely because of their skin colour. That was until one day, when racism was staring me in face, right in my very own front yard.

I can’t remember all of the details leading up to the event, but I do remember it was a spring day, during the week as it happened after I came home from school. The school bus dropped my sister and I off across the street from a sidewalk that led directly to our house. As we were turning the corner onto our property, I noticed something on the first fence post. I stopped to look. In big, black, capital letters was a word I’d never seen before.

NIGGER.

I didn’t know who or what it was, what it meant or even if it was an English word, so clearly I did what any child would do – I asked my Dad. Again, the details are blurry, as I don’t think I asked him what the word meant by saying it aloud; I think I just told him there was something written on our fence and asked what it meant. What I do remember clearly is standing in my front yard with my Dad, in front of the fence post that was on our property, and asking again what it meant. My Dad looked down at me, held my eyes and said, “It’s a very bad word that some people say to hurt others.”

“But why?”, I asked, (I was overly-inquisitive, even as a young child). My Dad took me inside and explained that there are lots of different types of people in the world, but that they are all very much the same too. He also explained that some people didn’t think like that and sometimes they said mean things. He didn’t explain that the word referenced black people in particular, or that it invoked memories of slavery and oppression for many people. He probably thought that was a bit too much for an 8-year-old to take in; rightly so, I suppose.

This one act of violence was not directed at anyone in particular… the fence was on our yard and there were no black families on my street. This was just a random act of hate, directed at no one, but affecting everyone. Up until the fence incident, I believed naively that everyone in the world got along, or at least respected each other. Sure, there were kids at school that weren’t my favourite, but I didn’t hate them. I mean, I still gave them Valentine’s Day cards.

The graffiti made it clear, however, that not only were there people who didn’t like each other, there were some people who hated entire groups of people and were proud of it. They wanted to display their hate, show it off, in a public place. I made the decision that day that I would never say the word, because I never wanted to hate an entire group of people, it just seemed so unfair.

Since that time, I’ve obviously grown and experienced a lot more, but I still remain steadfast in my convictions to never judge or hate an entire group of people. I’ve experienced racism first-hand, (which, as a white woman, is not exactly common), and know how frustrating it can be to have to defend yourself before you’ve even done anything.

And this is not limited to racism; people have strong opinions about all sorts of people. I’m sure there are many people who would claim they hate Nazis and have no issues saying it. And while I support their right to say it, I don’t support the notion that they can hate every individual within a group without knowing them personally and I don’t support the pride in their hate.

Hate is not something to be proud of; it is bred from ignorance and small-mindedness. Hate is easy, and quick and blind. It takes much more courage to get to know the people with whom you disagree, to talk to them and try to understand their point of view or their experiences. Conflict and violence stem from hate, from an unwillingness to understand, and an adamant view that there is only right and wrong, not different and equal.

What the world needs now is not more love or more peace, or even less hate, what it needs is a greater willingness to understand those that are different. Because it is through understanding that we can truly grow and unite as people.

And while the fence post has long since been scrubbed clean, its message, but not its word, lives on with me.

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