I thought that racism was a thing of the past.
I was wrong.
After the murder of George Floyd, I realized that racism hasn’t been declining but just hiding in plain sight. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement created a whirlwind in society - outspoken racists came out of the woodwork, anti-racist activists were given a platform and the racist status quo got called out. Anti-racism became the standard and “I’m not racist because...” got cancelled. This made me see things from a different perspective.
Memories are a funny thing because they can morph depending on the lens you put on them. All of a sudden, my perspective had changed and my memories no longer seemed harmless.
In grade school, I had a teacher who nicknamed me ‘peanut butter’. At the time I thought it was annoying but meaningless. I now realize I was singled out because of my skin color. This teacher was demonstrating to my peers it was okay to single me out based on my race.
Another time, while working as a landscaper, the residents of the apartment buildings I was working at would call the cops regarding the ‘sketchy individual’ eating lunch on their property - at least that’s what the cops would tell me when they realized I was just on my break.
These experiences, and many like them, have attributed to many insecurities I now have while navigating this world in this skin, despite not realizing they were racist experiences at the time.
Intersectionality is the overlapping of identities and the resulting experience. Being a first-generation Latino-Canadian, black-indigenous, male, paraplegic, with an afro I get to see the world from a perspective that many others do not.
Before my accident I would be viewed as a threat and have the cops called on me for eating a sandwich in the ‘wrong’ place. Following a car accident which left me paraplegic, I now have strangers coming up to me and touching my hair without consent. If I were able-bodied and went up to them and touched their hair without consent, they would definitely call the cops on me, and with good reason to this time.
Looking for role models in the SCI community I still face the same challenges of representation. Wheelchairs are rarely depicted in the media, and it’s even harder to find a person of color in a wheelchair. Recently, I have learned how healthcare and racism are intertwined. Many communities of color often don’t have the same access to care as their white counterparts. A current example is looking at how COVID is affecting communities of color in the USA and at home in Canada.
I have come to realize the privilege I have of receiving healthcare without thinking of debt, receiving treatment from medical staff who specialize in SCI, living in proximity to world renowned medical facilities, the means to be independent, the opportunity to participate in para-sports and having supportive family, friends and SCI community.
I don’t take my privilege lightly and recognize that because of it I have a responsibility to others with SCI, specifically to people of color. I hope I can contribute positively to this community by being vocal about destigmatizing disability, taking opportunities to try new things (like being a Scotiabank Marathon captain), participating in new SCI research, and sharing my successes and challenges with my Instagram community (@paulowheelzz).