Riding to Rainbows

Daily riding and running is keeping me in a great state of mind. And writing and sharing pictures about it is inspiring me to make an effort to travel to interesting places.

Today’s destination is one I’ve known about since moving to Toronto over fifteen years ago. It’s only a about 4-5 km from here but by transit it is not convenient to get to so until today I’ve never gone there.

I head up the usually-busy but mostly-empty Don Mills road, battling a headwind as I go. Most of the drivers are really courteous, giving me tons of space. Bus drivers are especially courteous, I find and the two that pass me give me so much space I smile and wave. I don’t feel the same goodwill toward the driver of the black muscle car that passed too fast and too close. But I forget about it just a couple of minutes after he roars off up the hill toward Markham. I only remember him briefly ten minutes later as I pull in to the park and see an identical car leaving the park. I scowl at the driver before realizing that this car is missing the racing stripes that the other one did. Sorry, sir!

Like most of the larger parks in my area, this one is down in the Don Valley and the road turns down a big hill. I can’t ride too fast, though, because there are many people going up and down the hill to enjoy the park.

At the bottom of the hill there are even more people, mostly families and couples. The majority are staying respectfully apart from others which is great to see. Soon I’m at the Don River – the same river that passes by our house and has been in so many of these other entries.

After a quick ride to the river I decide to investigate a pond I saw on the map before coming here. I leave the paved path filled with people and find myself alone on narrow single-track.

The ride is slow and peaceful. It wouldn’t be prudent to ride faster than a jog lest I surprise someone along the way so I just take in the sights. The path goes around the pond, keeping it always on my right.

Once I get back to where I started my circumnavigation, I turn back down the paved path, heading for the destination that inspired me to come here in the first place and soon I arrive.

Most drivers in the city know of the Rainbow Tunnel as it’s easily visible on the east side of the Don Valley Parkway. Many people assume that this related to the Pride flag but, in fact, this painting predates that by almost seven years. In 1971, artist BC Johnson lost his friend Sigred in a fiery car crash on the Don Valley Parkway nearby and painted this as a memorial to her – they’d often walk together in this area.

At that time the city would repeatedly come by and paint the rainbow over in grey but he kept coming back to paint over it. Eventually, the city embraced it. Since 2012, a group called Mural Routes has been maintaining it and its murals inside, repainting it and covering over tags and other unwelcome graffiti as necessary.

Not far from this tunnel which is completely free of tagging and writing, there’s another tunnel. This one has a number of things written in it – more timely messages.

The news has been filled with anti-racist protests and protests against police brutality and murder of innocent black people. And it’s for good reason. The situation has been bad for literally centuries. Some progress has been made, but not enough. Ruby Bridges, the first black child to go to the William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, escorted by federal marshals for her protection and facing down an angry mob as she went to school, is only 65 now. And while many of the laws have changed, many of the minds haven’t. In fact, even overt racism goes on. For example, it wasn’t until 2017 that Cleveland, Mississippi gave up the fight to keep its schools segregated after a federal judge ordered them to. That’s right – up until less than three years ago there was still at least one “whites only” public school in Mississippi. And even when schools are not nominally segregated, opportunities are still very different for white and black students in many places.

I exist in a state of great privilege. And part of that privilege has meant that even my very assumptions of what the world is can be very wrong. In 2014 when Jian Ghomeshi was arrested, I was shocked. Yes, of course by the case, but more so by what happened after. Women I knew in person and on social media began speaking out about sexual harassment and assault that they’d experienced in their lives. Because behaving that way was something I couldn’t imagine doing as I saw it as so very wrong, and because I am not a woman and haven’t experienced it I had no idea the extent of it. Once people started talking about it, I needed to adjust my world view. Lots of men, likely even some of the ones I was friends with, behaved badly toward women. Sexual harassment and assault were not just done by sketchy strangers fitting some TV-drama based profile and appearance. They were friends, neighbours, and coworkers. And once you know, you can’t ignore it. You can’t look at movies with gratuitous violence against women made by men the same way. You can’t listen to “locker room talk” and sexist humour shared by friends the same way. You have to speak up and take action.

I grew up in Vermont, the state that at least in 2007 was populated by 96.2% white people. In my decade or so in schools there I can remember maybe 5-6 non-white people attending in total. We learned about racism and the civil rights movement in school but that was about people like Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. This was, to a teenager in the 80’s, ancient history. And often the history was taught as if it were a battle that was won. Schools, lunch counters, and water fountains were desegregated, and laws were passed to give everyone equal opportunities for education and work. Yay! We fixed it!

But like my experience with understanding the situation of women, my privilege and a lack of input from people of colour gave me a blind spot. We didn’t fix it. Some things improved for sure, other things got pushed underground. Racist jokes left the office but the racists stayed there, keeping their thoughts to themselves and their close friends. Until, of course, the arrival of the Trump campaign and administration when there was a normalization of racist rhetoric allowing many people to come back out of the closet.

This creates a pretty toxic atmosphere but I feel like what that really means is “it creates a toxic atmosphere for those of us with privilege.” Racist acts and behaviour never stopped being experienced by people of colour. They were just talked about less openly by white people.

So here is our opportunity. People are in the streets and we have a chance to listen, act, and adjust our behaviour. We can hold our children, neighbours, police, and elected officials to a proper standard if we stay strong and are unwilling to back down. So the question is: will you?

13 thoughts on “Riding to Rainbows

  1. Great post Todd.

    Perhaps that last picture says it all, “where do we go from here?” When my wife and I lived in Scarborough(30 years ago – yikes) and from driving along the DVP, I remember the Rainbow Tunnel well. I didn’t know that it was painted as a memorial.

    1. Thanks! I feel exactly that way also. Of course we’ll move forward, but where that “forward” takes us and how – and how long it takes before “forward” means progress is the question. I am encouraged that more and more people are at least talking.

      I also didn’t know it was a memorial until a few months ago. I saw the rainbow and assumed that it was painted in a Pride month in the past. I was really surprised to hear just how long ago it was painted also.

      Thinking now, I hope that the tunnel is a good metaphor for the struggle against racism. In the beginning of the tunnel’s life, people kept painting over it, trying to erase it and keep the status quo. Eventually they saw the point and were able to embrace it. The optimist in me hopes that we are experiencing that sort of change culturally as well.

      1. Thanks! I hope that soon most of us can start to embrace the good we see around us too. In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep repainting the tunnel until people realize how beautiful it is.

      1. A little beautiful spot is great! Love the sentiments behind the rainbow tunnel! May I use the rainbow tunnel image for one of my post and link your post as well? Only if u ok with it… thanks 😊

  2. For that rainbow tunnel, I would have also gone there like you did. The greenery and water bodies and the pathways are added incentives. For the second part of your post, even as women we have indulged in talks that were sexist without even realizing it and once you know it you can’t be the same again. This is true for every other person that is different from ‘me’. And, even if we do understand it and are aware our unconscious biases remain. We are judgmental about everything and everybody, and often not knowing so.

    1. It’s surprising it took me over 15 years to go looking for it when for more than half that time we lived a 15 minute bike ride from there. One thing I’m learning from this experience of not being able to travel far is that there are lots of interesting places right nearby and I should go find and appreciate them.

      I know what you mean about people from within a group being -ist about that group. Even I am guilty of this to some extent. You should hear me talk about Americans sometimes.

      And I agree – the biases often do remain but over time I think they can change as well. The first step, though, is even seeing they’re there. A great example of this is when, some years ago Weird Al Yankovic came out with a song called “Word Crimes” adapting “Blurred Lines” (speaking of sexist garbage!) in to a song about people making grammar mistakes. Yay! I thought, thank god he made the song better. But then, after starting to work with adults learning to read and write – some of them also learning English and my own experiences learning another language I realized how mean-spirited the song really was. And once the blind spot was revealed there was no going back.

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