My first object lesson in the ugliness of racism was written in the blood dripping from my own nose.
I do not recall much else I did that day in a grade 7 social studies classroom at St. Stephen’s Junior high school in Calgary, Alberta. I don’t remember what I was wearing, nor what the weather was like, nor what I did after school.
I do remember the three mean words I uttered, the crack of knuckles against my face and a hot sting stabbing through my nose. Above all, I remember the shame hurting worse than a bloody nose because, in a very visceral sense, I felt like deserved it.
I don’t clearly remember why I argued with the Tsuu T’ina nation boy with long black hair who sat behind me. I don’t remember his name. But I do remember getting angry and turning around in my desk to let him have it.
“Nice fucking braids,” I said.
So he punched me in the nose.
My ego was more bruised than my face, but the lesson was instantly learned.
In the heat of that moment, as a foolish child, I had no way to know how deep those three words could cut.
I did not understand my words carried with them a racist legacy that First Nations Canadians have been dealing with more than century. I knew little of the discrimination this boy must have faced or that his parents and grandparents had to learn to live with. I had not yet learned of residential schools, the forced removal of children from their parents or social problems on reservations.
Of course, I know better today, but that short, sharp lesson has always stayed with me.
And I cannot help but wonder how many other times someone mocked that boy because of his cultural expression? How many other times did he face overt racism? How would those experiences have shaped his life?
My transgression was born of childish ignorance and anger. How much worse would it have been if it had been a calculated attempt to wound him? I learned how wrong I was because of that boy’s fist, my parents’ guidance and life long friendships I would build with members of the Tsuu T’ina Nation. But what if I did not have that guidance as a child? What then?
If you need an example of where unfettered racism can lead, you need only look to the Niagara community of Port Colborne.
There vandals broken into the home of a teenaged white girl who is dating a black boy she goes to school with, destroyed much of the house and spray painted a vile racist slur – “Nigga Lover” – across the girl’s bedroom walls.
It is the kind of thing that we, as Canadians of 2017, would relegate to the actions of a villain in a movie set during the American civil rights struggle. But it is no fiction. It happened.
The sanctity of a home was shattered. Two families – the girl’s and the boy’s – have been traumatized. Two children, keenly aware they were the direct targets of the attack, no longer see their school as a safe place to learn and grow, but as a place that likely harbours those willing to commit such a cowardly act.
No suspects have been identified, no arrests have been made, and there is no clear motivation to explain why vandals targeted these teens beyond the obvious and insidious racism that doesn’t tolerate the existence of an interracial couple.
We won’t know for certain the entire scope of their motives until such time as police arrest a suspect and that person or persons are put on trial. But there are many questions to answered.
Among the unanswered questions of who and why is also the how. How did the people reach the point where acts of racist vandalism designed to terrorize a teenaged interracial couple are even acceptable as a thought, let alone permissible as an action? Who are the influences on these bandits? Assuming for a moment they, like their victims, are teenagers, is there no one to educate and guide them? Family? Friends? Have the institutions they interact with, from religious institutions to schools, failed to instill an abiding respect for other in them? Was anyone in a position to influence them aware of their world view?
And therein is found an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. All things being equal, these racist vandals reside here in Niagara, probably in Port Colborne. And so as awful as they may be, as cowardly as they clearly are and as cruel as their intent obviously was, they are part of the fabric of Niagara’s community. Outliers perhaps, but still part of the community nonetheless.
Which means the rest of the community ought to speak out and show support to the victims of this hate crime.
We often think we – as people of this century, living in this country – are a rather evolved lot. We like to think we have evolved ethically, that the zeitgeist has changed from that of our ancestors and we are, by and large, beyond such ugly ideas as racism.
We are not.
Our hatreds remain as fervent as they always have been. Far too often human existence is still, as Thomas Hobbes said, “nasty, brutish and short.” We still carry base animal instincts and reactions – what Charles Darwin called the indelible stamp of our lowly origin. Tribalism is often our default status.
Where and when we have risen above these base instincts we have done so through the conscious practice of empathy, ethical philosophy and the recognition that we all bleed red, as the cliche goes. When we lower our guard, when we cease to be vigilant, those awful ideas are given room to express themselves again.
There will always be hateful and harmful attitudes in our lives, and we each have a duty to confront them when they arise and rally with those who are victimized by them.
Sometimes the simplest intervention is all that is needed. Sometimes, a sharp punch to the nose – preferably a metaphorical punch rather than a blow of bone and meat – is all that is required to change someone’s mind.