White Rabbits

I write a lot about my grandmother Elsie (my mom’s mom) and the four simple words she shared with me. She was a force of nature and profoundly impacted who I am today. You can learn more about Elsie in a talk I gave in March 2020

Age and circumstances meant I did not get to know my other grandmother as well. Frances Ethel Wainwright was born in London (UK) early in the 1900’s and immigrated to Owen Sound ON with her parents when she was young. She and my grandfather, William Hammond (or Bill to his friends) met in Toronto when she was working as a secretary for a wool company that operated in Toronto (!) and my grandfather was working as a copywriter for Eatons. My dad describes them as living a proud middle-class life and has many fond recollections of living in the Oakwood/St Clair part of Toronto. 

My few memories of Nanny are of a kind, old woman who passed away when I was fairly young. I remember her living in a very full apartment in Toronto with my grandfather until he had to move into a senior’s residence. My dad and mom made sure that my brother and I saw them often. They would come up to visit us in our Toronto suburb home or we would go into the city and have a meal in Grandpa’s party room in the Leisure World residence. While I was not very close to Nanny, this week I have realized her legacy still impacts me today. 

‘White Rabbits’ was one of Nanny’s favourite expressions that I remember. She would always say it on the first of each month as a wish for good luck. Apparently, Dad’s entire family used it as a greeting on the first of each month. There is not a lot of clarity on where the saying started although apparently it is mentioned in a 1909 book called Notes & Queries that children would start their days by saying ‘rabbits’ as a sign of good luck. The addition of ‘white’?  Well, that is not so clear. Whatever its origins, the expression was part of my Dad’s family’s language and he and I will still use it in our extended family WhatsApp group on the first of most months.

As we celebrate Black History month, I am asking myself what to do with an expression like White Rabbits. The honest answer is I don’t know. It should probably begin with wondering what my non-white friends think about this expression of welcome and why ‘white’ was the added adjective rather than lucky, fortune or, black. 

I am very much a work in progress when it comes to understanding my privilege and how I have clearly benefited from being a straight, white, male growing up in Ontario when I did. I know that doors that open for me just because of the way I look, often close on others for that exact same reason. What is both embarrassing and a blatant reminder of how much learning I have ahead of me is that sometimes I don’t see the door opening. Or closing.

My commitment to growing Service Leadership into a movement that benefits everyone comes in part from a burning desire to shine a light on this discrepancy and look for ways to build more equity and belonging into our families, organizations and communities. Our social, environmental and yes, economic futures depend on a world that does not run on systems of inequity or oppression.  

True Service Leadership (unlike the concept of servant leadership) demands that we build equity into everything we do. Including how we think. That means I need to understand and acknowledge that my privilege blinds me to understanding what it is like to be Black or a person of colour living in our white-centred society. It means that I have to be honest about how I have benefited from walking through all these (unseen) doors. And, it means I need to give my time and energy to help people who look different than me get through those doors. 

These are hard conversations and I am learning (through many missteps) about the scale and scope of the inequities in our society. What I am finding is that the more I lean into these difficult conversations about my privilege, the more I want to learn about the systemic pressures that others face. The discomfort, guilt and shame do not go away of course and nor should they. And the more I am involved in hard conversations about race and privilege, the more I am able to (try) and see through a different life lens than mine.

My experience is that this takes practice, mistakes and grace from others. I consider myself very fortunate to practice this practice as I am in front of groups multiple times a week with training or facilitation work. All our Four Simple Words sessions start with three specific things: a land acknowledgement, a personal acknowledgment about my privilege and a mental health check-in. Thanks to this 2 min grounding, I have shared my struggles with privilege with thousands of people! While I can’t speak to their reaction, I can tell you that the more I talk about inequity the more natural a conversation it is and the more time I can spend trying to be a proactive ally or co-conspirator. (If you are interested, you can read a version of my acknowledgments here.)

So, what do I do with ‘White Rabbits’? Being the first to admit the insignificance of this decision, this is the year I retire Nanny’s expression from my lexicon. To be honest, I will miss it, as it has been a link back to my Dad’s family. That loss, however, is outweighed by the learning and growth that has come from reflecting on it. In fact, this week I have understood it is a gift that Nanny, in addition to my handsome eyes, has given me. Will this change the world and balance the injustice in our systems? Of course not. And, I hope it is another step on my journey to look at systems differently and ask what they are really in service to. 

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There are lots of ways you can learn and celebrate Black History Month. If you are in Guelph/Wellington the Guelph Black Heritage Society would welcome your donation to their “Give A Cup” Capital Campaign to support their renovation work at Heritage Hall. 

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