LANGLEY (NEWS 1130) – While Black Lives Matter rallies and marches on the Lower Mainland have attracted thousands of demonstrators, a local woman is challenging everyone to take a long hard look at how their own biases contribute to systemic racism in B.C.
Kim Willis is white, her husband Sydney is black, and they are raising two children in Walnut Grove. Willis says she first faced overt racism against her son when he was just a toddler at a public swimming pool.
”He was in the water trying to go toward another young little girl and the parent kept moving the child away. I thought that was rather odd but, you know, he would go and try to play again and she would redirect her child to play with someone else, not him,” she tells NEWS 1130.
“At first, I thought this really is racist. Really? It was quite shocking for me. He’s just a little boy. That’s probably the first time I’d ever experienced anything to that degree and had to realize what the reality was.”
It’s a reality Willis and her family have faced often.
“We’ve never hidden racism from our children, and we’ve tried to educate them the best we can to be aware of things. I definitely have learned that I have extreme white privilege in that I don’t ever worry about being pulled over, I don’t worry about someone following me in the store, I don’t have those concerns in my life. Whereas for my children, I’m very fearful that they get pulled over,” she says.
“My son has been pulled over and quoted gang lingo. He had no idea what the police officer was talking about and he was harassed by the officer – ‘you don’t know what I’m talking about?’” she explains.
“When you’re young and driving in a car alone, it’s very scary. Being handcuffed in Walnut Grove because he’s walking after dark and there was some situation at the high school, he actually was able to get his hands out of the handcuffs behind his back and that terrified me,” admits Willis, who says she had stern words for her son afterward.
“Don’t ever do that. You stand there and say nothing. Be calm. Because I don’t know who he’s dealing with. For me, I believe if a black child is pulled over, you need to stop and you need to videotape. I’m not saying all police officers are racist, but we need to hold them accountable and we need to protect our children.”
Willis says she also learned early in their relationship that her husband would often be treated differently than she would.
“Syd would always have us in better vehicles – I had a brand new Envoy — and he always drove junkers as a second car. We had gone through a roadblock and the officer asked where I was going and away I went … he flagged me through and I pulled over. The police officer on the side of the road asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘you’re going to pull my husband over and I need to wait for him.’ He looked at me like, ‘what are you talking about?’ And sure enough, there he was pulled over behind me. He was detained for a few minutes and questioned and then we were let go. I know that most of the time he will be pulled over.”
Willis feels many people in B.C. don’t believe racism is a real problem.
“We have to be aware of thinking that way because it happens more often than I think some people believe. When I’ve posted on Facebook, I’ve had comments and I’ve had dialogues with different people who don’t believe this actually happens here in B.C. or in Walnut Grove. They have no clue and I’m a little bit shocked by that because we don’t live in a bubble. You can see it. I guess I can understand it to some degree because you don’t live it, but it’s a bit shocking to me that people don’t think this is what happens.”
Willis says, as a white mother, she faces situations many others in B.C. don’t ever have to think about.
“I didn’t grow up fearing police. But what I tell my children is very different to what you’d tell your children. If a police officer pulls you over, put your hands on the steering wheel, don’t reach for anything. I don’t have to do that, but for my kids it’s better to be more cautious,” she says, adding that unconscious bias permeates all parts of their lives.
“It is a systemic issue that has been ingrained in our society for years. When you go to school and you’re automatically asked if you need the lunch program, is everyone asked that? I’m not saying that person is being mean in asking, but why are you just assuming it’s the black child who needs the program?”
She says she has watched the anti-racism and anti-police-brutality demonstrations unfold in the U.S., centred around the death of George Floyd, the unarmed black man who died while pinned by the neck by a Minneapolis police officer.
“I hope that this is not just a hashtag for people. The social dialogue is overdue, and education is important, but even more important is the internal dialogue. How do you treat people? Why do you think that way? Does your wife clutch her purse if a black guy walks by? Do you get out of an elevator? What does that look like for you, internally?” Willis asks.
“I think people sometimes believe that they are not racist, but you need to have that internal dialogue with yourself and actually think about the things that you say or your reactions to things, what that looks like.”