ismaila alfa

CBC host Ismaila Alfa was born in Nigeria. His dad is Nigerian. His mom hails from Pipestone, Manitoba. (CBC)

I remember the first time racism found its way into my life. It was Edmonton in 1981. I had just moved to Canada from Nigeria. 

That's right, a mixed race six-year-old boy with a name that wasn't so popular on the prairies. I probably had a bit of an accent too. I was in the playground near my home playing with the other neighbourhood kids. I thought everything was cool until out of the blue one of them yelled out "Ni**er" and it was directed at me! Now, I don't remember what triggered it and I didn't actually know what it meant but, I knew it was mean.

I went home and told my Mom what happened. She, like any protective Mom, was furious. She explained the "N" word is a "derogatory term some people use to describe black people." 

From that point on while living in that neighbourhood, I had to deal with being called the "N" word whenever one of my "friends" or schoolmates was angry with me or wanted to make fun of me.

At its worst point, three neighbourhood kids chased me down the street with baseball bats calling me racist names because they didn't want me to play with them any more.

At first, after learning what that word means and realizing that there are people out there that hated based on race, I got angry.

Each time I was confronted with overt racism I would either respond with a rude statement of my own, or fists. The more this happened though, I saw that I was the one who was losing. The other kid would achieve his or her goal. My blood pressure would go up, I would get in trouble from teachers or my parents for fighting and at the end of it, there was no closure. I would be left completely unsatisfied and spent.

My Dad eventually explained to me that I can't control the way other people act. I can only control how I react. I know myself better than anyone else so, if someone calls me a name because I'm black, I know better.   

Another kind of racism in Winnipeg 

When I got older and moved to Winnipeg I seemed to fit right in at my new school. I didn't hear the N bomb throughout my time in elementary and junior high here. I felt as though I had escaped racism but I hadn't.

Actually the racism had just gone beneath the radar. I realized as I got older and my circle of friends got bigger, that I often heard people talking about things like being scared on the bus downtown because they had been mugged by a couple of "native" guys.  

This type of racism didn't fade as I grew up either. Just last winter I was walking home through the Winnipeg skywalk when I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a couple of years. He also happens to be black. We stopped off to the side of the skywalk and chatted. We hadn't even been talking for 10 minutes before a security guard walked up, stood between us and said "you guys have to move along. You've been standing here for almost an hour getting in people's way. This isn't a place for you to hang out."

I asked him why he thought we had been there for an hour. His response, "I was watching you on the security cameras." I was angry not only because he had singled us out - of  the hundreds of people who stop throughout the day to catch up with a buddy in the skywalk - but because he was lying to make a case for kicking me out.  

I asked if we could go and look at the time code because I had been paying attention to the time and knew we had only been there for about 10 minutes. He declined. I told him that I knew what he had seen: two black guys with hoodies and toques stopped in the skywalk.

I could feel my blood boiling as the security guard contacted police who were in the area and had them come to escort me out.

As I got angrier and the police arrived, it dawned on me this is a no-win situation for me. This security guard wasn't going to back down, nor would he admit he was judging two books by their covers and apologize.

 As the security guard stood his ground and one of the police officers pointed out that I would have to leave if security wanted me to, I could hear my Dad's voice in my mind, "You can't control how others act, only how you react." 

I decided to leave the skywalk before things escalated even further. In the following days I used that skywalk a number of times.

On each trek I saw people standing and talking to each other. One day I even saw a man, who happened to be in business attire and was white, drinking a coffee sitting in one of the skywalk window areas.

No sign of security in the area. 

That lesson from my Dad has been invaluable to me through out my life. Not only did it give me a way to deal with racism without losing, it also allowed me not to be distracted by someone else's views. 

A racism no one calls racism 

The truth is, racism is alive and well in Winnipeg. But it's a type of ignorant racism or racism that no one calls racism.

It has worked its way into regular conversation. Many acknowledge it but say it's harmless. It has become part of everyday language so that it goes unnoticed by most, beneath the radar, until it bubbles over like we recently saw when comments from Lorrie Steeves made on Facebook went public this past week. 

What do we do about it?

Well, I'm a true believer that people can change but I can't force them to change. I just think back to what my Dad told me as a kid in Edmonton and resign myself to the knowledge that no matter how much I argue with someone, they will keep on believing what they believe until another experience contradicts it.

While I don't believe we can force a bigot to change his or her tune, I do think we can be a part of the experience or the conversation that prompts someone with racist views to change their mindset.

Those of us lucky enough to work in media have that added responsibility. I try to lead by example as well as open up frank discussions about race with a large audience.

I do believe that those who are guilty of what I call "ignorant racism" would change their ways if they realized some of their actions or statements were considered racist.

My responsibility as a Winnipegger who is a visible minority with a reasonably large audience, is to be that friend; the one who lets you know, in private, that what you said was out of line.

Not to ridicule but to help out a friend who I care about.

Though I don't believe I alone can make a bigot change their tune, I do believe that as a media personality I can play a major role in opening people's eyes to ignorant racism.

I mean if you don't know you're offending minority groups why would you stop?