July 8th again. As regular readers of this blog know, today is the anniversary of my brother Tyler’s murder — 18 years ago, in 1995. The years tick by. His kids are growing up. He has a granddaughter nearly 3 and a grandson on the way (btw family — I had to find that out on Facebook?!!). His murder, as I have talked about in 2010 and in 2011 was based on racism. Something not really that surprising to me since our hometown of Peterborough isn’t really known as a bastion of cultural diversity.
Racism is once again in the news these days (not that it ever really isn’t if you pay attention). I’ve been watching stories as the world waits for Nelson Mandela’s death (before a CTV interview last week I was told “If Mandela dies your interview will be cancelled”). I know that there will be a great many news stories about apartheid, and South Africa, and there will be a sense, I suspect, in most of the Western World, that this is an old problem, a solved problem.
But racism is present. Brittney Cooper’s story of encountering racism on her flight back to Louisiana for July 4th struck a chord with many of my friends. In talking about her seat mate for the flight she says “Then just as the call came to shut our phones off, I glanced over at her, and she was still texting, rapidly. I caught a few words of the end of her text that made me look more intently: ‘on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me.’
My breath caught in my chest.
And then there was pain. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Anger.”
Cooper’s experience is sadly not unusual. What is perhaps unusual is her bravery in confronting the woman; something that isn’t always safe for someone to do.
On the subway from Downsview the other day I overheard two people discussing race and racism, particularly in the context of Paula Deen’s recent (and not so recent) racist comments that have been hitting the headlines and the blogosphere. What was most interesting to me though was the total shock they were expressing that someone a) could hold these views in this day and age and b) would publicly express them. This was pretty typical of many of the reactions that people have had to Deen’s comments.
Some interesting reflections have emerged in the blogosphere.
1) “I confess myself refreshed to hear Paula Deen respond “Yes, of course,” when asked if she used the word “nigger.” We have conditioned ourselves with a kind of magic to believe that racism is a matter of kindness and prohibitive vocabulary — as though a hatred of women can be reduced the use of the word “bitch.”” More here…
2) “So for a moment, let’s set aside the fact that Paula Deen is accused of a lot more than saying the n-word. Never mind that she is alleged to have contributed to a hostile work place for black people. Let’s put aside the fact that the n-word is not the only indicator of racism, any more than people who repurpose flame retardant white sheets at night are the only people participating in or benefiting from racism.” And it continues here…
3) The Huffington Post reported that Deen’s comments elucidate “the part institutional racism still plays in our lives in America.” This phrase strikes at the heart of the issue; racism is in many ways still ingrained in our society. While I hope and I believe that most Americans no longer judge character based on color, racist attitudes are certainly overlooked and even forgiven in some cases, especially when it comes to celebrities. And more here…
Having spent three years living in the US South, down in New Orleans, I’m not surprised at all. I found the understanding, or rather, misunderstandings of race in the south to be very interesting, especially as a Canadian from a mixed race family.
Racism in the south is, as all racism is, a learned behaviour. At the same time, southern racism is almost in-bred. It is institutionalized. It is unconcious. It is so common, so much a part of the fabric of life, that most people don’t even realize that they hold or express racist beliefs because everyone they know thinks the same way. This isn’t KKK racism. It’s not necessarily overt or even conscious; it’s what they were taught, in school, at home, in the media.
This isn’t, by any means, a defence of racist behaviour. It’s not a way of excusing away what Paula Deen did by blaming her southern roots. But it shows me that there is so much more work to do to help people gain an understanding of racism, to develop race conciousness.
When Tyler was killed I was actually working in Ajax-Pickering as a race relations coordinator. My team of youth and I made an anti-racism video and dedicated it to him. In 18 years there have been changes; in 18 years nothing has changed. As they say in French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.