In this fight, don't be a bystander

The following is the third installment of a series of articles on racism and Aboriginal people, and my experiences and thoughts on it.

One of my favorite TV shows ever, The Colbert Report, featured host Stephen Colbert as an ultra-right Conservative, ala Bill O’Reilly. A running gag on the show had him occasionally referencing his one “black friend” and showing a photo of them together. It’s a humorous play on the phrase, “I have black/Aboriginal friends,” which some people considered proof that they were not racist. The phrase is still used a lot. It shouldn’t be.

While it may sound like you’re saying you don’t care if someone is brown, it also sounds like you’re saying there are some “good ones” out there, that aren’t like “the others” and so they are, thus, worthy of your friendship. Just like the phrase “not all Indians are …” drunks or thieves, or whatever negative label follows, suggests that most of them are.

I used to use the expression myself, in an all-Aboriginal setting, saying “I have a lot of white friends who are good people.” Now, I just say something like, “there are assholes everywhere – including in this room,” which usually gets a laugh and a nod. I really believe that the majority of people who make racist slurs have just had bad experiences or, in the case of minorities, are venting about the inequities that white privilege has generated.

There is, of course, real hatred out there, from people who genuinely feel dark people are inferior or a threat and it is incumbent on everyone to speak against it. I bit my tongue in those two instances mentioned in the previous posts and it haunts me. I’d like to share with you a time, though, when I didn’t stay silent and, more importantly, neither did others.

It was in the Mount Royal College bar in Calgary in the mid-80s. I was out with a white friend from the journalism program and we joined a group of his friends, who were all white. We watched a hockey game on the TV and when it was over, we asked the bartender to look for some more sports. After flicking around for a bit, he found an NBA basketball game. Most of us nodded to indicate we were fine with basketball but one of the guys said, “Aw, shit, no. Who wants to watch nigger ball??”

I don’t know why I chose this moment to react, especially since I was surrounded by white people in a cowboy city, but my reaction was instantaneous and volcanic. I grabbed the guy by his collar, stood up, and exclaimed, “What the fuck did you say!?” We got into it, exchanging a couple of blows before we were broken up by the gang and the bartender, who said that we both had to go.

Then, a wonderful thing happened.

One of the women at the table nodded at me and said, “he shouldn’t have to go,” and explained that it was their friend who was “being an asshole.” The rest of the group concurred and told the bartender what their friend had said to set me off. The bartender glared at the guy and told him that, now, it was only him that had to leave. I stayed and enjoyed the rest of the night with my new friends.

That was in Calgary, over 30 years ago! And I have seen similar moments many times since, where good people stood up and did the right thing.

It’s not easy to stand up but none of this, if we’re going to achieve real change, is going to be. The atmosphere at work is going to change. Friendships will be challenged or lost. It’s going to be uncomfortable. In other words, welcome to our world.

Long-standing institutions are also going to be challenged, which we’re seeing now with the call for big changes in policing. And that is where I will venture in my next post: my experiences with the RCMP as an Aboriginal youth and what I think police reform could look like.

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