'Oh, we are all racists'
Joanne Seiff reflects on a recent CBC poll that reveals racist attitudes held by Canadians
A recent CBC poll indicates that Canadians continue to struggle with racism.
In particular, Canadians have complicated attitudes about immigration and their relationships with aboriginal neighbours.
I’m a newcomer to Canada. Yet, as an American, I see that both countries have different discussions, and still share universal issues.
Shortly after we moved here, my husband and I were invited to a backyard potluck. We sat in a gazebo to eat. Almost immediately, partygoers found out we’d moved from Kentucky, we’d lived in North Carolina and that I was a Virginian.
Out of the blue, another guest began to lecture us about racism against African-Americans in the American South. The speaker’s facts were out of context, and some of it was incorrect, but we weren’t allowed to respond. There was a gaping silence, as though we had personally committed acts of atrocity.
Immigrants’ cultural and religious traditions are things to be honoured, studied and experienced. This is not the reaction I’ve seen to a powwow or traditional aboriginal medicines while in Canada- Joanne Seiff
Separately, we both thought of arguments to combat the comments. We’re from immigrant families, so neither we nor our ancestors were likely involved with historic issues of slavery or racism. As educators, we’ve worked to overcome inequities as we see them arise.
The speaker also missed that we’d both lived in other places and that this was not merely a “southern problem.”
In fact, in the American South, we lived in integrated neighbourhoods. We’ve had positive relationships with people of colour that are sometimes difficult to nurture in some areas of the North, which are segregated geographically by race.
In the end, we said nothing because the speaker’s discourse on American slavery quickly morphed into a scary diatribe against Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. I was horrified. I was in a terrible situation.
New to Canada, I didn’t understand what racism meant here. I didn’t have a way to speak up. Instead, I got out of the gazebo and away from the people. Better by far, I thought, to be bitten by mosquitoes than to hear hate speech.
Since then, I’ve thought about this topic repeatedly. In the media, in conversation with neighbours and in work interactions this Canadian racism dance is prevalent. Folks are both aware and sensitive to race—as long as the person isn’t aboriginal.
The issue of race in relation to immigration is frequently discussed and many are careful to treat immigrants of colour with great respect. Canadian immigrants, for the most part, seem to be respected as they bring their talents, professional skills and knowledge to our shores.
Immigrants’ cultural and religious traditions are things to be honoured, studied and experienced. This is not the reaction I’ve seen to a powwow or traditional aboriginal medicines while in Canada.
As a kid, I was fascinated by what we called Native Americans. My parents read me books about potlatches and hunting buffalo. I learned about beading. On a Florida vacation, I practised making Seminole pine needle baskets.
Yet, it wasn’t until I moved to Kentucky as an adult that I first met a Cherokee in person. Later in Winnipeg I met aboriginal people as community members.
In Virginia, whites had long ago driven out or killed off the native peoples. I saw it as an incredibly enriching thing that I could now attend powwows at the Forks. My twin preschoolers practised jingle dances in our living room after seeing their first powwow and I was thrilled that they got the opportunity right at the start to celebrate this important part of Canadian culture.
Yet, it’s as though many Canadians are driving around looking to avoid discrimination, but don’t have their car mirrors adjusted. There’s a big blind spot when it comes to the First Nations people all around them.
Even the most well-intentioned among us have an unconscious discomfort with what we do not know, the "other" that we can’t recognize or understand.
In the American South, the process of othering begins early. Even the most tolerant and motivated person of any color sometimes sees unconscious racism in herself.
My best friend’s mother, Mrs. B., was born in Alabama. Her family owned a plantation; she was surrounded by slavery’s history.
Despite this, her lifelong efforts have been to teach and love others, motivated by her strong religious faith. She travelled to Africa to teach English as a young woman.
Throughout my teen years, I’d meet immigrants from across the globe at her dining room table as she threw herself into her work, teaching adult English as a Second Language classes.
What did Mrs. B. teach me? She said something like this, in a strong southern accent: “Oh, we are all racists. We have to work, every single day, to love one another, to reach out, and to take care of each other, no matter where we come from. We are all family.”
Indeed this poll reminds us that we are all racist, in one way or another, whether we like to admit it or not. At the same time, we are all one human family.
We need to change this conversation so that, regardless of colour, we can do the right thing and treat each other with respect. Or in Mrs. B.’s words: “Love one another.”
It’s takes gumption to roll up our sleeves and do right by one another. This is, actually, the hardest work of all.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books, Fiber Gathering and Knit Green, and lives in Winnipeg.
Read CBC's poll here: