I have very high standards when it comes to defining what actually constitutes an act of racism. Mounting a reasoned critique of the fairness and efficacy of affirmative action is, in my opinion, not racism. Objecting to certain elements of the Liberal Party’s refugee policy is, in my opinion, not racism. Likewise, meeting me for the first time, noting that I’m a visible minority and asking me about my country of origin is also not racism. (My standard answer to that question, if you’re interested, is this: “I was born in Fredericton but my parents emigrated from the Caribbean in the late ‘60s. Where is your family from?”). In fact, I’ll go on the record as saying that I find this notion of “micro aggressions” (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about) to be, at the very least, petty. However, telling me that my application to a certain job will not be considered simply because I’m brown is clearly a textbook act of racism. And, unsurprisingly, so is the act of using some vulgar racial slur to describe me.
I’ve experienced the latter a handful of times throughout the course of my life although, admittedly, never to my face. Rather, I always hear about it second hand. Do you know what so-and-so said about you?” a friend or colleague might say. “He actually said that you’re a ‘f***ing [insert racial slur here]!’ ”
I’m not exactly sure why people feel the need to keep me apprised on such things. One of my best friends from high school often made it a point to report back to me on some bigoted remark his uncle occasionally directed my way. On one occasion, I remember repeatedly insisting that I didn’t want to hear it— that I’d much prefer to remain ignorant— but, smiling, he insisted on telling me, implying by his oddly prurient tone that I ought to find his relative’s prejudices somehow amusing. (I did not).
For whatever reason, I’ve noted a slight uptick in these experiences recently. At least three times within the last couple of years, various people have reported back to me regarding some vulgar slur that others have been using to describe me. So, in case you were wondering, I’ll tell you what it’s like (for me, anyway) to be on the receiving end of these racial slurs.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re walking down the street, heading off on some mundane errand when, unbeknownst to you, a stranger approaches you from behind and, without warning, smacks you in the back of the head. Immediately, you’re stunned and disoriented. What happened? Where did it come from? Was it accidental or deliberate? A playful act of mischief from a friend or the first salvo of an attack from an enemy? This— to an admittedly lesser degree— is my immediate emotional response to finding out that somebody has referred to me by some hateful racial slur. Initially, at least, I’m so shocked by the viciousness and temerity of the insult that I’m left frozen and disoriented— unsure of what to say or do. And, strangely enough, there’s something hopeful to take from this reaction. What it says is this: Overtly racist insults are so rare in our culture that they are indeed shocking when they actually happen. If I were to remain nonplussed by every racial taunt thrown my way then it could be said that our culture is indeed steeped in racism, not unlike the Jim Crow south when the N word was used so casually and contemptuously by whites. Thankfully, things are not so here.
Once the shock wears off, however, I’m left with two emotions: outrage and suspicion. I am outraged that another person (a stranger or acquaintance, friend or a parishioner) would smear me with such a dehumanizing epithet. I am outraged that to them I was never truly a neighbour— a living human being formed in the image of God and bearing his divine likeness. Instead, in their mind, I was nothing more than a representative of some alien identity group— in short, a “f***ing [insert racial slur here].” At this point, if I am not diligent enough in prayer— if I am not mindful enough of our Lord’s call to enemy love— I can easily slide into a state of prolonged bitterness and resentment.
It’s the second emotion, however, that is the most insidious of all; namely, suspicion. The logic of this emotional reaction goes something like this: If I see one mouse scurrying around in the pantry, chances are there are more of them in my house aside from the one that I’ve actually identified. I’m sure you get the idea but, just in case you don’t, let me connect the dots. Just because I know for certain of one person within my community who harbours some kind of racial prejudice toward me doesn’t mean that he or she is the only one. Indeed, in all likelihood, there are more of them. The question is, where? Take, for example, that middle-aged woman who was rude to me in the checkout line. Was she having a bad day at work or did she resent the fact that I— a brown guy— had the gall to be, not only in her country, but in front of her in grocery queue? That surly old man who works at the parking booth: Does he have an ornery disposition towards everyone or just me? And if just me, is it because of my race? Do you see how this messes with your head? Needless to say, If I were to let myself, I could potentially grow fearful and suspicious of all my white neighbours— even the vast majority of them who find racism just as vile and detestable a thing as I do. This is why racism is such a socially corrosive force— it compels us to hunker down in our identity groups, fearful and suspicious of those who are not, superficially at least, like us.
There is, however, something that we can all do about this. Let me put it this way: the next time someone informs that, behind my back, I was referred to by some racial slur, I will say something like this to them: “When you heard such language directed against me, you were in a unique position to defend me as your friend— to ‘re-humanize’ somebody who has clearly been hatefully caricatured in someone else’s mind. Did you take that opportunity or did you remain silent? Furthermore, when you heard somebody use caustic and bigoted language that you know to be socially corrosive, you were in a unique position to call your neighbour to a higher standard of speech— in short, to stand against racism. Did you take that opportunity or did you remain silent?”
Perhaps the answer to this question might be, “Sorry, I didn’t say a thing.” Believe it or not, this is understandable. After all, as I’ve already suggested above, being stunned into silence is a perfectly legitimate INITIAL response to words of race hatred that (from my subjective experience, at least) are now relatively rare in twenty-first century, Canadian society. Note, however, that I emphasize the word “initial.” Once the shock has worn off, I would urge you to get in touch with your friend or family member and make clear exactly why you possess moral objections to their clearly prejudicial sentiments. If you do not possess the courage to at least do this then, to be blunt, I would find it difficult to call you a friend.
Of course, I’m not saying that you should police your neighbours over every aspect of their use of language, scolding them for saying “coloured person” instead of “person of colour.” What I am saying is this: When a friend or family member uses some ugly, dehumanizing slur in reference to me or anyone else you care about then, please, voice your opposition. Whether it changes the person’s mind or not isn’t really the point. It is, however, tremendous reassurance to people like me who are reminded that, while there are racists in this world, there are many more like you who are, in the words of Martin Luther King, willing to judge people “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
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