Updated: Jun 8
The following is the first of two articles on racism, this being on my personal experiences growing up with it.
With the horrific killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis and protests in the U.S. and around the world, the issue of racism, particularly white on black and other minorities is dominating the headlines. I haven’t talked much about my experiences with racism, even in my columns during my days as a reporter. I figure that now is a good time as any.
Being an Aboriginal in Canada, racism is something that I think about almost every day. It may come to me as a memory of an experience I had, or I might see or hear of someone I know experiencing it. Sometimes, it will come to mind just because of the repercussions of past atrocities, the trickle-down effects of residential schools that have rooted themselves in me.
I dreaded lice checks in school because it was always us dirty Indians that had them and some teachers took pleasure in announcing who needed to pick up a prescription for lice treatment in front of the whole class. I remember being in line at school and overhearing one of the white girls whisper to a friend to stay clear of me because “Rudy always has lice.”
I was picked on as a kid, but it wasn’t as severe for me as it was for others because I had the implied protection of tough, older brothers. And, having been toughened up by those brothers, I handled myself well enough that most bullies in my age and weight class didn’t bother me. There were times, though, when I was harassed by pairs or groups of white guys a few years older than me. Not being one to just take shit, I often talked back to them and that, occasionally, resulted in a shot to the head.
A lot of how someone experiences racism has to do with the pecking order. Certain things allowed me to gain a foothold in the white world. To start, I did well in school. I recall my first year in junior high, when a teacher would announce who had the top test or assignment results, I was always in the mix. When I got the top mark, all the non-Aboriginal Brainiac’s that had come from different elementary schools, couldn’t hide their surprise. I felt like Taylor when he first spoke in Planet of the Apes.
Before too long, as I became more outgoing and gained more white friends, they started to think of me as one of them – but that didn’t mean they weren’t racist. For some of them, I was just one of the good ones. I recall one night when I was in a car with three white friends and we were wondering what to do. One of them said, “let’s go downtown and beat up some Indians.” There was an awkward moment, and then the guy said, “not talking about you, man. You’re not like the others.” I suppose that moment was my first as an “apple.”
As I continued on through high school, I gained more white friends and some of my Aboriginal friends faded away, largely due to them dropping out of school. The trend continued with my going to college for journalism, which was so rare that I was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the Mount Royal program.
As I became more of a “professional,” I faced less racism. I am always wary of it, though, because I know it is never too far below the surface. Several years ago, I was at a conference down south. After having dinner at a local pub, I was walking along when I heard some guys in a truck going by, yell “get off the street, Indian!” A second later, a beer bottle whizzed by my face and shattered against the wall of the building beside me. They laughed as they sped away. I got off the street alright, and went straight back to my hotel.
I usually feel some unease whenever I travel on my own and I’m always a little nervous walking into an establishment where, as Eddie Murphy’s character said in the movie, 48 Hours, when he walked into a country bar, “there aren’t a lot of the brothers here.”
When I’m home, in Prince Rupert, I feel very safe. That’s partly because Rupert has a large Aboriginal population and, for the most part, there is respect for Aboriginal people and culture, and acknowledgement of the wrongs that have been committed against Aboriginal people and the reconciliation that is needed. Being well known locally and fairly well-liked also makes home feel safe.
Another reason that I am relatively safe from racism in Rupert is the same one given by that guy in that car those many years ago: you’re not like the others.
The others. I see them all the time. They’re on the streets. They’re struggling to survive. They’re being sneered at and looked down on. No one knows their stories or why they are there. Some people don’t care and would like to see them swept under a giant rug.
I may not be in the place “those people” are but I was there. And, sometimes, I am there, whenever I visit family members or friends who live in poverty or battle addictions, or who struggle to cope with the trauma and hardships that resulted from residential schools and systemic racism. To me, they are not the others; they are a part of me, and I’ll always have one foot in that world.
For those who have never seen that world, I mean really seen it, you should visit it some time. Go to where they are and pull up a chair. Listen. Stop being a stranger to them. That’s the only way that racism withers and dies in anyone; when they take a moment, to meet and, more importantly, understand and know the others.
NEXT: The police, then and now, and how can we change it?