'It's draining': Winnipeg man hopes for more awareness after racist run-in

A Winnipeg man was driving to work last month when he became the target of racist slurs and intimidation.

Motorist says 2 younger men shouted slurs, abuse after following him into parking lot

Ron Smith says he was harassed by two men on his way to work in Winnipeg last month. He says they followed him to a parking lot and proceeded to shout racist slurs and insults at him. (Wendy Jane Parker/CBC)

A Winnipeg man was driving to work last month when he says he became the target of racist slurs and intimidation.

Ron Smith said he was waiting to make a left turn on Henderson Highway when a car approached going in the opposite direction. The two men in the car were shouting, yelling and swearing at him as they passed, and then followed him into a parking lot.

"One was out of his vehicle and I rolled down my window, and he said, 'Don't get out of the car you effing N-word or I'll smash your head.' And I responded, 'You're racist,'" Smith recalled.

"They told me to 'Go back on crack, old man,' and [said] 'You effing N-word,' and 'Get the eff out of here.'"

At that moment, Smith said he didn't know what to do.

"I was really angry. I was tempted to get out and start a fight with them, but I chose not to. I decided I was going to write down their licence plate number and was going to follow up on it, but chose not to."

Smith said it's painful to relive the memory. But as two Flin Flon, Man.-area women face charges for uttering threats and public incitement of hatred based on racist comments they posted online, he said he'd like to see more awareness of racism in the province.

"My first thought was about my children and how was I going to tell them. I didn't tell them for, I think, three weeks," he said.

"My second thought was, I was a little mortified, because I realized at that moment, at 50 years old, that this wasn't going to go away in my lifetime. At 50, now I've got 20-year-olds saying this to me."

Bystanders must speak up or be complicit: expert

Smith was born and raised in Winnipeg, and he said he's encountered racism multiple times throughout his life. The encounters range from hearing shouts of "Get that n--ger" from opponents' parents during soccer games as a child to getting into fights with peers who used the slur when he was a young man.

Telling the story of what happened last month makes him relive his childhood, he said.

"It's draining. It saturates my life," he said. "It saturates my life experience."

He said he feels terrible for the Flin Flon woman who lost her job at a hair salon because of the comments, but he wants others to get the message that the behaviour isn't tolerable.

"People need to understand that it isn't acceptable and the only way that it will stop is if the people on the other end realize that there's repercussions," he said.

Annahid Dashtgard, a senior partner with Toronto-based inclusion consultancy firm Anima Leadership, said the onus should be on people with privilege to step up and take notice of discrimination happening around them.

In cases like Smith's, that could mean stepping in to support the person experiencing racist behaviour.

"You say or do nothing, then you've been part of the harm that has been enacted on that person," she said.

"You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror every day and know that you did nothing."

What to do if you encounter racism

Bystander intervention — that is, stepping in if you witness discrimination — is part of being an ally, Dashtgard said. But she cautioned against doing it the wrong way.

"We tend to think of allyship as swooping in to be the superhero, and it's not," Dashtgard said. "It's about always taking our cues from the person that faces the barriers or faces the particular form of marginalization, and finding a way to support."

Depending on the scenario at hand, the proper response could look different.

"In some moments that might be standing behind the person and letting them lead and articulate what they need. Sometimes it might be standing beside them, if somebody has for example raised a point or brought forward ways they might be experiencing sexism or racism in the workplace," she said.

"And sometimes it's stepping in front of and being a voice for [them], because the person ... is not comfortable or isn't able to speak or the risks are too high, and taking on our own shoulders the responsibility to say something before that person has to expose themselves."

Discrimination may not always look the same, she added. It could be somebody having a more difficult time getting their voice heard in a meeting or getting into a streetcar.

"When we experience privilege, being proactive is about, 'I'm going to step into my responsibility to make things easier for others,' rather than waiting for somebody to wake me up or waiting for somebody to make me aware," she said.

"That's my unspoken responsibility being part of a community, being part of a collective."

With files from Wendy Parker and Marcy Markusa