No doubt about it, we humin beans done been here a long time now. So long, that it feels like racism should have passed its “best before date”. Since there’s still so much racism everywhere, there are obviously a lot of racists out there. So, what’s it like being racist? Like, if someone is basing their discrimination on a stereotype, how many people outside that stereotype would it take to prove the stereotype wrong? It’s not one or two, so how many? What if 70% of the First Nations one passed on any given day weren’t “drunk and lazy”, would that be enough to put that stereotype to rest? And if one passed ten First Nations’ people and two of them were drunk and one was lazy, is that all it takes to make a stereotype and get some hatred going?
It can’t be easy to be a racist… to be afraid of people simply because of the colour of their skin… to feel threatened and scared because someone in their vicinity is different from them… to always feel angry, to always feel a burning hatred in the belly of their brain… to basically feel like who they are and what they are is based on the colour of their skin. That’s gotta suck.
There was that one time I was on the cusp of being racist. And it did suck. It happened during my second year of university when researching First Nations’ education and came across the Residential School System. At the time I was still learning about all things native after my Canadian high school education and finding out I had official “Indian” status, with a card to prove it. Being adopted (**) by a non-native family at the age of 8mths, I grew up in “white” middle-class suburbia with three older brothers and spent my formative years pretending I was a little boy like them. Anyhow, learning about the residential schools was shocking, and the more I read about how the students were treated, the angrier I became. I was angry with my parents as I associated them with the white ruling class who were responsible for what happened to my native ancestors. And before long I started feeling angry in general, towards every white person.
As luck would have it though, I ran into my high school history teacher one night while I was out. He was that one teacher who made school bearable, who made learning Canadian history fun and interesting at a time when I didn’t care to learn anything. We were ‘friends’, as much as a student and teacher could be ‘friends’. He knew my brothers, he had met my parents somehow, and he was funny. So when I saw him that night, I laid into him without so much as a hello. “You never taught us about the residential school system! You never taught us about what really happened to the First Nations! What kind of teacher are you?” I railed at him. I dunno what else I ranted but he finally put his hand up and said “Eh, oh. Lemme tell you a story.” And he proceeded to tell me about how he had been up for a Rhodes Scholarship back in the day. Only the most prestigious award one could get as a student. He was actually offered the scholarship by the Rhodes selection committee, “if”, they said, he would take out all the references of what really happened to the First Nations in the paper he had submitted with his application. He said no, so they threw his paper in the trashcan and he didn’t get the scholarship.
When he finished telling the story, he looked at me with sad droopy eyes and said that he had wanted to teach me the truth, but he had to teach the curriculum. And just like that, all the anger I had been projecting at a group of people based soley on the colour of their skin, dissipated. I was flooded with memories of how my mother and my brothers had shown again and again that they were not racist, and I knew they didn’t even know about the residential school system, and then I remembered Dr Bryce, and of course, the Underground Railroad. Dr Peter Bryce was a non-native guy, hired by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1907 to report on the health conditions of the Residential School System in western Canada. He was the first to report that First Nations’ children were dying at alarming rates from tuberculosis, amongst other things. He suggested a few easy and cheap ways to prevent the deaths but his report was not only ignored, it was suppressed. The government didn’t want anything to change as the First Nations children were dying off fast and this would help solve the ‘Indian problem’. As a civil servant of the Government, he was legally prevented from doing or saying anything publicly, thus Dr Bryce waited until his contract was over in 1922 and then published his report as a book, condemning the treatment of the First Nations by the government. So, yeah, I know that not every white person is racist and I knew it back then, but still I found myself confused by the overwhelming emotions that had me looking at everybody with scorn and anger and disdain.
It’s easy to ask “how can someone be racist?” with an incredulous tone, but the seeds are everywhere. I was lucky that in my vulnerable state I had a chance meeting with someone I respected who was able to understand and respect my anger. But not everyone is that lucky. I could easily have crossed paths with someone who could have fueled the feelings of discontent and might have ended up in a very different place. So, the problem is not just that there is racism, the problem is how do we get rid of it in a way that doesn’t cause chaos? And how do we live with what Nina Simone angrily lamented in Mississippi Goddam, that it’s going to be “too slow”?
Racism is like an illness that won’t disappear overnight. Realistically, it’s going to take years, like reconciliation with the First Nations. Buuut, we can help it along. We can keep looking to the arts and the artists, who have been breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes for years. We seem to be strongly influenced by our media and our arts, which is why movies like “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, “Do The Right Thing” and “Straight Outta Compton” are so powerful and important. Along with television shows like Degrassi, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Dear White People, they make us uncomfortable; they push boundaries, create new status quos and force people to look at themselves introspectively. We need to see the so-called minorities in the mainstream media rather than just in the news, to see them on television shows, just doing what they do rather than being a designated stereotype. We need to stop the whitewashing.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel either. I think most racists have been denied the truth and that’s caused a lot of negative feelings that they didn’t have to be carrying around. It’s not their fault and they deserve a chance to know and see the truth, and if after that they still wanna be racist, well… But holy crap if there’s actually going to be a race war! Cuz there’s a whole lotta people out there who wouldn’t know which side to be on, like me. I’m Ojibwa, Cree, Norwegian and French. Plus I don’t wanna ‘fight’ anyone because of the colour of their skin or mine. I don’t want to fight, pointe finale… Reminds me of that saying, what if they held a war and nobody came?
** PS: my apologies as it is not clear… I am what some call a Native Adoptee – one of the sixties/seventies scoop babies. Both my biological parents were of First Nations ancestry – one Ojibewa and one Cree, going back (many) generations there is French on one side and Norwegian on the other, and there is some Scottish in there as well but I’m not sure where… I was given up at the age of 6mths, and put into a non-native family at 8 mths. They were told I was either Cherokee or Blackfoot so I referred to myself as a Cherryfoot. It was only at the age of 18 yrs that I learned which nation I was and that I had ‘official’ Native Status. – August 17