I was sitting with a friend the other day watching the news on TV. There was a story about a concert by First Nations performers to benefit Haitian earthquake relief. One of the artists being interviewed mentioned that this sort of thing was part of aboriginal culture, to give to others who are in need. I was startled by a sudden response from the person sitting to my left who yelled out that it was a joke to hear an aboriginal person say that.
They started going on about how First Nations peoples “only take! They never give!” My immediate reaction was that this person must have an underlying disorder that allows them to spout such hateful things as if they were gospel. After determining that the comments were not the result of mental illness or some organic brain damage, I concluded that they must have misplaced their hood and robe somewhere between where we were and the Klan meeting they had just left. I tore into them and called them all sorts of hurtful names before being told by the person I was with to not say anything as it was impolite and embarrassing to call them out for their hate speech.
The reason I felt compelled to write about this incident is not so much that I was surprised to hear this sort of speech. It was the fact that the person felt that they should be supported by those around them in this opinion. This is what blows me away. We as a city, province and nation implicitly condone and accept this kind of racism to the extent that people spout their racism without fear of reprisal. Most of these racists are surprised when they are called on their arrogant and ignorant views. It is this silence on the part of everyone else around them that gives them the courage to continue with their ridiculous propositions.
At first I was disgusted and angry at the woman as she sat there smugly basking in what she felt was her brilliant take on race relations in Canada, but soon after I began to feel less angry and more sad. I was sad for many reasons. Sad for the obvious fact that despite the evidence of historical records, people still feel that the First Nations of Canada have somehow gotten more from the Canadian government than what they have given up.
I was sad that I was the only one in the room that felt the need to respond to the hate speech. It seems that along with fat people and smokers, the aboriginal peoples of Canada are among the small number of groups that are apparently fair game for ridicule and discrimination. It is a sign that we are not the kinder, gentler nation we like to think we are.
There is a reason why it is important to speak up when people spit these poison darts of hate. I have no illusions that my response (it was also fairly vulgar, unfortunately) will change the mind of a person who has held these views for the majority of their life. The reason is not to change their mind, but to make it clear that it is no longer socially acceptable to spout these things in public — that it is time for those of us who do not hold these antiquated images in our consciousness to hold others accountable.
I believe we need to make it very uncomfortable for these racists and bigots. I believe we need to embarrass them and be rude to them. Would we allow someone to spout racially charged language about black people or newcomers from south Asia? I think we would not. We would see it for what it is: racist, hateful ignorance. We would call them on it and we make it clear that it is not acceptable. So what is different when it comes to aboriginal people? What makes it ok to hate them and tell jokes about them? I don’t have a good answer for this. I have only shame and embarrassment that people I know and love are capable of such evil.
Stephen Milner is disgusted with some of the things the people he loves say.