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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

In-between the end of summer and the start of winter, I often wear my Dorothy Grant jacket. It’s a casual but elegant piece of clothing, black with a gold eagle on the back in the Haida style and a gold wing down the left arm. It’s by far my favorite jacket, and I wear it as often as I can without freezing myself to death, which is why I was surprised at the reaction it received a few days ago.

I was leaving after a visit with some acquaintances, the first of which I have close ties with, and the second of which I tolerate mostly for the sake of the first. The second one has a tendency to argue with half of what I say, and to derail the other half with irrelevant puns and feeble jokes.

He seems to think, too, that he can advise me and I will follow his advice, even though I have shown no signs of doing so for decades (if I ever did). The truth is, his view of me has so little connection to the reality that his advice usually strikes me as outlandish. Usually, I hear him out, then thank him for his opinion before going ahead and doing what I intended before he spoke to me.

I was putting on my jacket when I saw him frown and make motions as though he wanted to talk to me in private. Doing up the zipped and adjusting the collar, I reluctantly went into the corner, already anticipating an embarrassing scene.

“You can’t wear that,” he said. “People might think you are an Indian.”

I thought I was prepared for anything, but the comment took me by surprise. I had the sense that he thought I needed saving from myself, that I was so naïve I might unconsciously cause trouble for myself by wearing the jacket. In his world, I sensed, being mistaken for First Nations was one of the worst things that could happen.

I don’t think there is much chance of me ever being mistaken for First Nations, considering my features and hair color – although I suppose I might be mistaken for one of the many these days with mixed ancestry.

More to the point, I considered myself well-dressed. To me, Dorothy Grant is an artist in cloth, and although I can only afford the cheaper of her designs – and even then only when they are on sale – I consider wearing a jacket by her a privilege. It is so obviously a work of art that I regularly receive compliments when I wear it.

Yet in his racist world view, being mistaken for First Nations was something to avoid at all costs. Where I saw art, he saw something tacky.

After I had left, I thought of all sorts of comments I might have made, but at the time I could only mutter, “Oh, you think so?” and make for the door faster than I had intended. I wonder, though, if he had any idea that all he had done was make me think even less of him than I had before.

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I once heard someone claim that “aborigine” was a racist term for First Nations people. By analogy to “abnormal,” he interpreted “aborigine” to mean “not of the same origins,” and refused to believe me when I said it was simply Latin for “from the beginning” – that is people who have always lived in a land. However, after doing a little digging, I believe that he may have been right for the wrong reason.

I had always assumed that “aborigine” was a word coined by the builders of the 19th Century European empires. Recently, however, I found that the word was used by the Romans themselves since at least the start of the common era.

The best known use of the word is by Virgil in the Aeneid to refer to the original inhabitants of Italy. As you may know, the Aeneid gives Rome’s ruling class a heroic ancestry, making them the descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled the sack of Troy by the Greeks and lengthy wanderings and adventures, settled in Italy. The Aborigines were the local people Aeneas found there, fought with, and eventually dispossessed.

Besides this myth of origins, “aborigine” also seems to have used outside of literature to refer to the city states and cultures around Rome that were conquered during republican times. Eventually, these cultures would absorb Roman culture and receive full rights as citizens, but as late as the last days of the republic, they were considered not quite as good as those born Roman. For instance, the lawyer and orator Cicero may have been a senator and even served in the highest offices of the government, but he was always known as a New Man, meaning someone not born in Rome, or with any pretense to nobility.

In both these useages, the innocuous-sounding word takes on a more unpleasant connotation. In both Roman literature and history, “aborigine” did not refer only to the first people who lived in a country. More specifically, it was a word applied to those conquered by the Romans.

When the word was revived in the days of European imperialism, anyone with even a few years of education was likely to have studied Latin, so this connotation would hardly have been missed. In using the word, the Europeans were comparing themselves to Rome, and the peoples of North America and Australia to those conquered by the Romans. If any were not conquered, they were eventually destined to be. Such a designation for other people is hardly unusual – after all, “Wales,” the English name for Cymru, originated in the Old English word “wealh,” meaning “slave.”

The word is inaccurate, of course. Especially in British Columbia, the First Nations were never conquered, instead being decimated eight or nine times over by disease until they could no longer resist Europeans settling in their lands. This fact remains a basic premise in dozens of lands claims.

However,even more importantly, the word implies that the First Nations are inferior. At the very least, it suggests that they are unfit to govern themselves, and should be controlled by others. As a racial epithet, it might be slightly better than “nigger,” but only because few people today are familiar with Latin, making the insult less obvious.

Still, the insult exists even if largely unknown. I strongly suggest that people banish “aborigine” from their vocabulary except when explaining the connotations, and use “First Nations,” as most of the people denoted prefer. Describing them as aborigines is no more accurate than calling them Indians – and even more insulting.

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If I talk or write long enough, I’ve concluded, I’m going to say accidentally something that I didn’t mean to say. I don’t mean that my words will suggest a double entendre, which nine times out of ten only causes everyone to laugh. I mean that what I say will have implications that I didn’t intend, or will be interpreted in a way that I never meant them. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later I’m going to slip and embarrass myself.

The first of these situations that I can recall happened shortly before Trish and I married. We were sitting with a mixture of friends and strangers in the pub at Simon Fraser University. Naturally, the talk turned to the possibility of children. I said that one of the reasons that I wanted to work from home after I graduated was that I thought that toddlers would benefit from having a parent at home.

I got up to get another round of drinks, and, when I returned, a woman who had arrived when I was speaking was blasting me for being a sexist. With Trish’s help, I managed to convince the woman that I was not talking about female social roles, but my own.

However, for the rest of the evening, my cheeks could have served as neon lights at the thought that anyone – even a stranger – could have imagined that I was expressing views so foreign to my actual ones.

Another cringe-worthy moment happened when I was teaching a first year composition class to a class with a large proportion of foreign students. I got on well with the class, and I often bantered with the students.

Just before the start of a class, I heard one Asian student complaining about staying up late the previous night to finish the assignment that was due that day. “Oh, you people have it easy,” I said.

By “you people,”I meant “students.” But as an awful silence fell and students started to stare at me, I realized that what people were hearing was “Asians.”

With nightmare visions of official accusations of racism scrabbling around in my head, I quickly added, “You students don’t know when you’re well off.” To my relief, everybody immediately relaxed, and the moment passed without ever being mentioned again. But after that, I was considerably more careful about what I said in class.

In fact, for a couple of decades I was successful enough in watching what I said that I managed to forget such incidences were possible. There was the time that I remarked, “small world,” to a dwarf I kept meeting at the elevators of the Skytrain, but I only realized what I had said afterward, and he didn’t seem to have taken my words as a joke at his expense.

Then, a few days ago, another one happened.

I had just finished a biography of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and colleague of Charles Babbage. As you may know, she was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Millbank. She was raised entirely by her mother, who fled Lord Byron’s sexual abuse and mental cruelties and divorced him.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for Millbank. Any of Byron’s victims might be pitied, but as an infatuated innocent, Millbank must have suffered more than anyone else would have under his treatment.

However, after reading how Millbank continually tried to control her daughter, right to her dying day, I developed a strong distaste for her as well. Tweeting comments about the biography, I said, “I wonder if there were two sides to the divorce of Lord & Lady Byron.”

Shortly afterward, a colleague objected to the comment. My first reply was, “Not saying that Lady B. wasn’t right to divorce. Lord B. was impossible. But her treatment of Ada suggests she was a control freak.”

Another protest followed. I realized that, in attempting to express sympathy for Lovelace, I was minimizing Byron’s cruelties by suggesting that aggravating but commonplace behavior was just as bad.

I’ve done it again, I thought, and admitted that I’d been too flippant. Perhaps Millbank’s self-righteous evangelism would have been irksome to Byron and to many other men as well, but that can’t possibly justify his rapes and sadism – and, put that way, I had to agree that I had implied something I had never intended to say.

Later, I told the colleague that they were quite right to call me on the comment, and I believe the apology was accepted.

However, the embarrassment – the utter chagrin – lingers. I suppose three or four mistakes of this kind in as many decades isn’t the worst possible record. Some political leaders make as many slips in a single ten minute speech.

But the memories aren’t comfortable ones, all the same. Remembering them, I almost don’t want to write or speak at all. Like many writers, I’m overly-fond of sarcasm and flippancy, and, if I’m not careful, being pithy sometimes matters more to me than being accurate or thinking of implications. As a result, the possibility of another episode is always there.

But not speaking would be cowardly (to say nothing of impossible for someone like me). Anyway, I can imagine situations where silence could be as damning as speaking.

As a result, I’ve decided that, while I plan to watch what I say, some misunderstandings are inevitable. In fact, my determination to avoid them just might make me nervous enough that they become more common.

However, I have decided that, the next time I find myself in such a situation, I will explain what is happening as soon as possible. An apology is embarrassing in itself – but not nearly as embarrassing as being wrong, or branded in someone else’s mind as sexist or racist because of a few poorly chosen words.

Even with an apology, I suspect that some people will say that my original words are a Freudian slip that reveals what I really think. But I can only deal with my imperfections as best I can.

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If you believe the media, Canada is the model of a modern multicultural society. The official story is that Canada is a place where people of different cultures meet and interact without much friction. You sometimes hear about people being stopped by the police for “driving while black” or the recent allegations that the niqab is a security risk, but these are generally seen as exceptions caused by a dwindling minority of bigots. Most of us, the official message reassures us, are not like that.

Recently, however, I’ve become increasingly aware that at least one group (or, more properly, one set of groups) for whom face to face racism is a daily given – the First Nations.

In some ways, this realization doesn’t come as a surprise. The media is quick to depict First Nations people as uneducated, rural hicks, and victims. You rarely hear about the small but growing professional classes among the First Nations, people who balance urban life and upper middle class expectations against a wish to remain rooted in their own cultures. For the most part, First Nations cultures are barely acknowledged, except when they can add quaint experiences to tourism. You have to search long and hard to find any media depictions of the First Nations as people rather than stereotypes, so in one sense it seems understandable that non-First Nations people should respond to the stereotypes while ignoring the realities.

However, as I explore Northwest Coast art and become friendly with some of the artists, I’ve come to understand that casual racism is part of many First Nations people’s daily lives. Even the artists – gifted people who deserve respect for their accomplishments – have to endure it. Almost every First Nations person I get to know has a story or two about racism, and some people bring them out as a sort of test, to see how strangers will react and to judge their trustworthiness.

For instance, one First Nations instructor says that people regularly compliment him on how well he speaks English. What do they expect? That in 2010 he speaks broken English, or maybe Chinook? Since he teaches, he must have at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. What would be surprising is if he didn’t speak well.

Similarly, an up and coming artist tells me that a client who commissioned a carving by him told him at length how “his people” were so spiritual and connected to nature compared to the rest of industrial society. The client had never met him, and did not even know what nation he was from – let alone his clan – yet she was convinced that she could tell him all about his culture. Probably, she thought she was complimenting him. Still, at least she was paying for the privilege (personally, I would have added another few hundred dollars to the price).

Still another artist who is scheduled to inherit a chieftainship, told me that during the Olympics torch relay, an official asked him if “you could get your people to line up on the side of the road to hoot and holler.” A big man, he looked down and said calmly, “We do not hoot and holler.”

Another First Nations man says that he doesn’t receive much open racism because he is tall and stocky, and was raised in an upper middle class family. But he does receive all sorts of covert racism – things like bank clerks lingering just a little longer than necessary when checking his I.D. or cashiers treating him as though he was brain-damaged. Similarly, one artist tells me that when he tried to deposit a large cheque, the teller asked if he was a drug dealer. And, because of similar experiences, another artist has a note on his bank account, explaining what he does for a living in the hopes of keeping bank officials from jumping to conclusions.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear enough. First Nations men and women regularly endure treatment and comments that are sometimes lacking in epithets but is hardly less vicious for that lack. Often, the remarks are made with a false heartiness that means that taking offense will put their recipients socially in the wrong.

I suppose that to some extent, they get used to the casual abuse, and perhaps they feel they have no choice except to endure, because they will be blamed if an argument or a fight breaks out — the law, quite clearly, is not on their side.

All the same, I wonder how they do endure such comments. I sometimes think that, in similar situations, I would show considerably less restraint. But then, as the descendant of English people, I am used to being treated more politely.

Still, I no longer wonder, as I used to, about a Metis classmate of mine who never mentions her ancestry and dyed her hair blonde. If you can escape from such situations, why wouldn’t you be tempted to try? Even pride and determination must become awfully thin defences after a while.

On some level, I am not surprised by this realization. I know all too well that there are official versions of reality created by the government and the media that have little to do with what has actually happens.

All the same, I can’t help feeling some righteousness anger over this realization. I shouldn’t be surprised or upset to discover yet again that the official version is a lie – but, all the same, I am. And I realize, too, that experience of other groups is undoubtedly as ugly as that of the First Nations. In some ways, this official story is as offensive as the racism itself.

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