Monday 8 November 2010

Racism: Alive and well, thank you very much

I grew up in an average white Canadian neighbourhood during the 50's and 60's. While it might not have been the picture of diversity, I can say that my parents raised me without a shred of prejudice or ill will to any other group based on race, colour or religion. Let me repeat that my parents themselves were not in the least bit racist. I never heard anything racist and I never saw anything racist. It has been said that racism is passed down from generation to generation but in my upbringing, nothing in this regard was passed down.

In the mid 1960's, out of the blue, a black family moved into our neighbourhood. Apparently this gentleman was an engineer and had recently taken a job which required him to move to my town. My mother told me this story sometime later as I was unaware of what was going on.

Our neighbour, whom I'll call Betty, was born and raised in Louisiana, a pure breed Southern gal. She apparently took exception to a black family moving to our neck of the woods and told my mother that she wanted to start a petition to get this family out. Her explanation for this was that we, the others in the neighbourhood, had no idea of what "these people" were like.

For whatever reason, certainly not due to Betty, the black family moved after a little more than a year. I have no idea why but it was then my mother told me about what Betty had said. I remember being quite perplexed by this comment. I was aware of racism; I had read about it but I had never personally encountered it myself. Since I knew Betty, I could not for the life of me fathom why she would have expressed such an opinion about a family she didn't know, an opinion which seemed to be based solely on the fact these people were black. I didn't get it.

In 1969 my father was doing some work for the Canadian government and the entire family went to one of the Caribbean islands to live for an entire month with him. We did the same thing again in 1970.

I remember my sister, who was only 6 at the time went to a local school. We have a photograph of her in this class of about 30 kids and she is the only white girl. We all had a great time. We were the only whites but we never encountered any racism.

In 1971, I attended a local community college for a year taking various courses relating to business. One of my classes was computers but humorously enough, back then computers were mainframe computers and programming such as it was consisted of typing up punch cards. Oh you've come a long way baby!

I partnered up with a guy from Pakistan who had recently immigrated to Canada. His English was broken with a heavy accent but we got along fine. One day we were working with some other students and one of them turned out to be from India. My memory is foggy so I can't fill in any details of where, what group he may have belonged to or what. The big surprise for me was when my Pakistani classmate referred to this Indian guy in disparaging terms while using the English word "nigger". I was absolutely shocked. Why would he hate this guy, a total stranger, to the point of using such a vile word? For me, what was really strange is that the N word was something that had always been used in North America in describing the racism of whites for blacks. I looked at this Pakistani guy and his skin colour was so dark that from a distance, somebody might mistake him for being black. Of course upon closer examination, I could easily see that he wasn't black but of some sort of Indian descent. Nevertheless, I was completely taken aback by his use of the N word, of how he showed such distaste for this Indian guy based on what exactly? Race? Religion? Culture? I never was sure.

In 1983 I went to a university where there were a number of foreign students from the Middle East. I had an occasion at some party to sit with 2 guys from Lebanon, one Christian and one Muslim, both of whom lived in Beirut and witnessed first-hand the 1982 invasion by Israel.

Side story: One of the guys, Nadim had been working as a photo-journalist for a local magazine, all at the ripe old age of 20. This is 1982, the height of the PLO presence in Lebanon and the war with Israel. One night, he is standing outside his apartment building in downtown Beirut having a smoke when all of a sudden 5 bullets smash into the wall just above his head. Obviously, he ran for cover. Wow; when was the last time I had somebody shoot at me?

During the war, the PLO was using a stadium in Beirut as a headquarters and ammunition dump. The Israelis bombed it. Nadim is on the roof of his apartment building taking pictures of all this. The stadium was apparently only 10 blocks away. I asked Nadim if he was scared. He replied, "Nah. The Israeli's are very accurate."

I still laugh about his cavalier response of "The Israelis are very accurate." That is certainly not something I've experienced in my life.

In any case, back to this party. Nadim and this other guy attempt to educate yours truly about the Middle East in explaining the underlying reasons why the Palestinians and Israelis are so at odds with each other. Of course, this is also told as why the Jews and Muslims don't get along. Recounting to me the history in reverse chronological order, they describe how one side does something to the other side because of some event that happened previously. That event has been caused by something prior to that. And so on and so on.

After their story goes on for 20 minutes with them saying that the Palestinians do this because yesterday the Israelis did that and the Israelis did that because 2 days ago the Palestinians did that and 3 days ago the Israelis did this, I get up to leave telling both of them that their story is just a little nutty. There is no resolution. Muslims hate Jews; Jews hate Muslims and the justification is to keep backing up in time until we find something, anything to justify the hate. My parting shot was that if I someday fully understood what they were talking about, I would be just as nutty as everybody in the Middle East. One could argue this is more political than racist but I certainly heard the words Jew and Muslim a lot.

Flash forward to the present day.

My wife and I saw Schindler's List. Watching the film reminded me of other things I've read and how I remain stupefied that institutionalized racism could transform an entire nation.

A few years ago, my wife and I watched the film Hotel Rwanda. In 1994, the ethnic group the Hutu slaughtered 800,000 members of another ethnic group called the Tutsi. This was purely based on ethnicity.

Last year, we watched a special on TV about white supremacists in the United States. This involved interviews with people belonging to various groups like Aryan Nations. Listening to the convoluted logic, the bizarre justifications to explain how they were right was incredible.

In June 2009, there was a child custody battle in Manitoba, Canada when it was discovered that the white supremacist parents of a 7 year old girl had taught her to hate blacks and to repeat racist comments. They sent her to school with a swastika and other Nazi symbols drawn on her arms.

I recently discovered that North East Indians whose ancestry may be tied to the Chinese have been referred to as "chinky" by people in New Delhi in reference to the appearance of their eyes. The word "chink" is used in North America as a derogatory term for the Chinese; I'm surprised to see it being used elsewhere in the world.

When my wife and I visited the south of France, we ran into some French racism towards the Maghreb, the people of North Africa. I walk into a small shop in Lyon to buy a local newspaper and the French shop keeper, completely unsolicited, starts telling me about how he doesn't like the Algerians. What?

With the spat in the headlines over some disputed islands between mainland China and Japan, protests have taken an ugly turn. I've read that the Chinese can be racist towards the Japanese. Who knew?

Final Word
Racism seems to be everywhere. However unlike my narrow interpretation of the word relating to the situation between the whites and blacks here in North America, I find racism is alive and well in numerous situations across the planet between groups far removed from my world. It surprises me; no it shocks me to see such hatred for someone else based on a characteristic which is so trivial in the big picture. Considering the evil which exists in the world, I can think of many reasons, all of them valid reasons to hate somebody but to do so based on a skin colour or for that matter, a religion or something else like sexual orientation, well, it just seems so bizarre.

Then again, as our neighbour Betty said to my mother, we just didn't know what "those people" are like. I hope I never know.


Wikipedia: Racism

March 21: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Wikipedia: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on 21 March. On that day, in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid pass laws. Proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.


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