I had what I feel is a very disturbing conversation with a friend today. We’ll call her Lily. This is the same friend I can no longer have political discussions with – she’s so vehemently libertarian that listening to some of things she claims and the beliefs she has make me so angry that I have to walk away so you know how this conversation was going to turn out… The conversation was based on a Buzzfeed article that appeared today regarding hateful, racist tweets directed at or pertaining to the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri (New York) who is of Indian descent. Lily found the tweets unbelievable; she has her doubts that they are real and even if they are, they only represent 0.01% of the people in North America. We had a very heated debate about whether or not racism still exists in our culture: I said definitely yes; my friend, definitely no.
Lily claimed that racism, for all intents and purposes, no longer existed and that Canada was THE most accepting nation on earth in terms of people from different cultures, backgrounds and religions (ahem… maybe she should read THIS from Quebec). She refuses to believe that there are overt racists here in the Great White North, skinhead organizations are limited to losers living in their parents’ basements, and for all intents and purposes, the Klan no longer exists. She kept pressing me for examples of racism since she couldn’t recall a single incident that she felt was racist. No one is going to come into an office for example, she explained, and start saying those kinds of things. Um… duh.
Here’s the point of my side of the argument. While previous generations can look back on big events and institutionalized racists practices that were largely accepted by the white (European descent) population, it’s not always as overt. Of course no one is going to walk into their place of employment and start spewing hate. They’d be fired. We have laws preventing this sort of behaviour. My point was that it’s the more subtle forms of racism that we see these days. Instead of ranting and railing against visible minorities, they’ll make “jokes” and “funny observations” along with what they feel is an acceptable albeit stereotypical version of a particular accent. Interestingly enough, this is the exact thing Lily did during our conversation. She didn’t feel her extremely offensive impression of drunken Native American was unacceptable. She didn’t feel it was racist at all. Her family does it together – it’s "one of their things" they do together and have for years – they all find it hilarious and have a good laugh about it. And yet she would never do it in front of someone who was Native American. When I asked her why, her answer was that they wouldn’t understand the humour and the context of the situation. Yeah, I thought, they’d find it offensive and probably punch you.
Racism is not always skinheads with Nazi flags beating up someone of colour. It’s not just burning crosses on the front lawn of an African American church. It’s the small subtle things we say and do with no one correcting us or calling us out on what we’re doing as wrong. It’s a parent muttering something under his breath about the “immigrants” in his neighbourhood just loud enough for his children to hear; it’s how we treat those who look different from us in our everyday life - the cab driver, the cashier, the teller at the bank, the person on the phone; it’s those joke that you think are so funny but wouldn’t dare repeat in front of someone about whom you’re making fun of; it’s using the anonymity of Twitter and other forms of social media to refer to the newly crowned Miss America as a terrorist, a member of al Qaeda and an “arab” (and obviously not knowing that India is not an Arabic country).
To all the Lily’s of the world, I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you but racism is alive and well, IMHO. It may not be overtly institutionalized or expressed openly as it once was but it is still there and you’re the face of the new generation.