“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you!”
At least that’s what they used to tell us when we were little, presumably to make us feel better after some schoolyard bully sent us home in tears.
I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Neither do psychologists who have produced acres of opinions attesting to the severe emotional trauma that can be caused by persistent name-calling and other forms of bullying and harassment.
A loudmouth radio announcer named Don Imus was in the news recently after he and his broadcasting sidekick made on-air comments to the effect that the members of the
Rutgers University women’s basketball team were “nappy-headed hos” and “jigaboos.”
Civilization as we know it must be coming to an end when major corporations pay seven-figure salaries to employeers exhibiting no greater talent than calling other people rude names. Sure, it’s racist. It’s also childish, ignorant, boorish, and stupid. All of those adjectives are inter-changeable.
In addition to reserving special epithets for people of various ethnic backgrounds, Imus routinely referred to political leaders as “idiots” and “morons”, but tries to excuse his behaviour by pointing to his charity
fund-raising, calling himself “a good person” who was only “trying to be funny,” and not blurting out such insulting comments “out of anger.”
The really sad thing is that there often don't seem to be serious consequences for people like this, especially if they enjoy positions of social or economic power. Imus, fortunately, was fired by his network, but only after huge pressure was brought to bear on both the network and -- most importantly -- the corporate sponsors who advertised on the New York radio show.
Not only are high-profile people more likely to be excused when they behave badly, they also can compound the problems they cause by setting examples for others to follow. Parents across North America shudder at the thoughts of their teen-aged daughters copying Britney Spears’ choice of clothes – or lack of them. And when hockey-playing cowboys like Todd Bertuzzi steer-wrestle opponents to the ice, it sends a subliminal message to ankle-biters in arenas across the land that such behaviour is acceptable – even desirable – if they hope to make it to the big leagues.
Speaking of hockey, our office has been working with a group of Nipissing First Nation parents who’d prefer that 14-year-olds playing against their sons not refer to them as “bush niggers” or “stupid f----ing Indians”, as has been the case in recent months. There is a growing number of such reported incidents, without much indication of concern by those responsible for overseeing the games or the facilities in which they are played.
The mayor of North Bay refused to meet with the parents of the boys who had been the target of the racist insults in one of his city’s arenas. He also rejected a suggestion that he issue a public statement condemning such public conduct in his city. Over a month after the latest incident, a spokesman for West Ferris Minor Hockey sent a letter of apology to the local newspaper, but said "such unfortunate incidents ....(are)....inevitable," and not examples of what he called "active racism". Presumably, he thinks calling Native kids "bush niggers" is inactive racism.
This level of denial should be considered embarrassing to all citizens who want to have pride in their community.
Teasing and taunting are part and parcel of sports -- but there are boundaries. In my hockey and softball-playing days I was the brunt of my share of sideline jeers, but never personal slights. I was luckier – and lighter-skinned – than ground-breakers like Ted Nolan who has had to endure race-specific insults for most of his illustrious hockey career.
When Nolan was coaching a Moncton junior team in a playoff game in Chicoutimi a couple of winters ago, some crowd members directed racist taunting and yelling at the Garden River First Nation citizen. Subsequent public apologies were forthcoming from both the president of
the hockey club and mayor of the Saguenay region.
Nolan is back coaching in the National Hockey League these days, his New York Islanders having edged out Toronto's Maple Leafs for a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season. He is scheduled to bring the
Islanders to North Bay to compete in a pre-season exhibition game this September against the Atlanta Thrashers.
The right to host the exhibition game, along with a $60,000 cash award, were part of North Bay’s prize for being selected as Hockeyville 2007 -- the Canadian community “that best embodies the spirit of hockey
and hometown spirit.” North Bay was also one of five municipalities cited for “fairness” in the national competition.
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Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians in North Bay, and editor of the Anishinabek News.