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McDONALD: If we can't have racial harmony, how about peaceful co-existence?

August 25, 2017 - 12:00 PM

Only a masochistic opinion columnist would purposely wade into the quagmire of ignorance and biases we collectively term racism and expose themselves to the Internet haters, right?

Hold my beer.

I’m not sure when I became aware of other races, that I was white and some other people were not.

All I know is by time I reached my teens, I knew of the Fong and the Dhaliwal families down the street.

I knew the Ireland twins, Bobby and Billy, from a native Indian family living off-reserve and the Eccles brothers, born somewhere in the West Indies but now living in Edmonton’s working class north-east corner.

There was the Fayad brothers too, but there was also the Drahanchuks, the Potestios, the Stobers, the Knudskovs and so on.

Throw in some farm kids (we were on the edge of the city) and some army brats (CFB Edmonton was just a few miles away) and you get an idea of the racial, cultural and ethnic make-up of the neighbourhood in the 1970s.

While certainly no melting pot, there was already a measure of diversity and many of the kids I grew up with were first-generation Canadians, me included.

Whites were still clearly predominant, though visible minorities didn’t much turn heads walking down the street.

But apparently familiarity (and inculcation?) does breed contempt because it was at that time I also became aware of the racial slurs directed at them.

I met my best friend Steve in junior high school. I will never forget (as I’m sure he won’t) the fall day he showed up in our grade 8 class.

Just days after immigrating to Canada, the poor kid shows up wearing his British school uniform (pressed trousers, shirt and tie with a cardigan, as I recall).

We were wearing blue jeans, band T-shirts and long hair. Did I mention he had a thick British accent and is quite black?

By time we reached high school, Steve had grown to full height and was good with both fists and feet which came in handy on the high school party circuit, given the open racism he would sometimes face.

It didn’t happen every time, but with tiring regularity, the N-word would start to float around, usually from the back of the crowd but sometimes right to his face, once beer-based bravado kicked in.

Loud arguments often ensued, nasty words were frequently exchanged, sometimes more than words. (The irony of giving a racist a ‘black eye’ did not escape me.)

Don’t tell Steve we are all happily tolerant in this country. He has long since faced, to varying degrees, racism of all kinds from the unspoken to the plainly stated. And it continues to this day (although he's found more mature ways to deal with it).

Steve still talks of how I was one of the few kids he met who were “colour blind” and how my family met him with open arms, apparently oblivious to his skin colour. Except I’m not truly colour blind and my father openly admits he is racist. (“It’s just how I was raised,” he says.)

And as liberal as I may think I am, I can revert to racial stereotype just as fast as you can say NWA.

I remember walking with a friend into a small after-hours bar in Salem, Oregon a few years back, looking for a late-night drink.

There was only a dozen or so people sitting around drinking but except for the Asian bartender, every one of them was black and every one of them was glaring right at us as we walked the length of the bar. (Or it sure felt like it.) All the clichés of racism flooded my mind. (They're black. This is the United States. Must be a gang. I'm gonna die.)

Was I uncomfortable? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. Does that make me a racist? It certainly seems to make me something other than truly colour blind. Was my fear warranted? Not 15 minutes later, we were drinking beer with them.

This is not some I-share-the-pain-of-racism story but rather to show how easy it is to project unwarranted fears onto someone who doesn't look like you. For in my view, we all exist on a spectrum of racism (even Steve) from the colour blind all the way to the sorts of extreme racial views we’re now unfortunately seeing openly expressed.

I say unfortunate because I don’t buy into the argument that a closet racist is somehow worse than a guy who espouses his views on TV while wearing a Nazi helmet. Any kind of public white rights march is an attempt at power projection and domination and seeks to pull others into their sphere of influence.

My word to them? Your right to spout hate speech in public is equal to my right to shout you down until you crawl back into your sweaty little hole. Stay there and foment white supremacy with others of your kind online or in person. Just don’t expect to strut about in the light of day spreading hate without a challenge.

And if you’re one of the many soft racists out there then expect me to confront you when you let slip your real views — you always do.

I realize now my arguments (nor Steve’s fists) were never really changing anybody’s underlying racism or their place on the spectrum. What we did do is convince them to put a cork in it. I believe now that at least some racism is inherent in us all and the best we can hope for is peaceful coexistence and the discovery of our "better angels".

I’ve given up on trying to convert the unconvertible and am content now with merely getting them to shut up and follow the rule of law.

Rodney King, the black victim of a beating by white police officers, said it best during the height of the murderous riots that erupted in Los Angeles when his assailants where acquitted.

“Can we all just get along.”

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.

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