The United Nations has declared that March 21 be recognized as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 when 70 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters were killed by gunfire from South African police.
While some communities pay lip service to the occasion each year, the people who claim to speak for all Canadians – let’s call these political, media, and corporate types “Mouthpieces” -- try to content themselves and their constituents with the message that this country is better than others because protesters here don’t get gunned down in the streets. (Don’t try to tell that to the family of the late Dudley George.)
So they pretend that there is no racism here. I’ve never been quite sure what dictionary they are using to define the word.
Native people use a simple yardstick; they figure a racist might include anyone who steals their land, tortures their kids, and throws them in jail when they complain.
Even when someone as credible as a former lieutenant-governor of Ontario – James Bartleman – describes as “disgraceful” the current socio-economic conditions experienced by so many aboriginal people in Canada, conditions Native leaders point to as proof of systemic racism, the Mouthpieces nod their heads in polite agreement, then proceed to go back to doing what they were doing before – ignoring the lives of thousands of children growing up in homes without indoor toilets or safe drinking water. Presumably, these kids should “just get over it,” advice often heard by residential school survivors.
If issues of this magnitude are not deemed worthy of public concern, and even cause the Mouthpieces to become annoyed at those who raise them for tarnishing the national image, well just imagine the reaction when Native people have the nerve to complain about such trivial things as being called nasty names by their neighbours.
As I wrote to the Fort Frances Times a few weeks ago after a video circulated on the internet showing some inebriated high school girls poking fun at pow-wow dancing: “Those familiar with analyzing community and institutional response to charges of racism are used to seeing predictable responses from communities involved in such incidents: scoffing at the accusations as being ‘over the top’ responses to ‘childish’ or ‘immature’ pranks – the boys-will-be-boys defence; attacking those making the accusations as being ‘whiners’ or ‘complainers’ – the sticks-and-stones defence; or minimizing actual evidence of racism – the it’s-an-isolated-incident defence.”
So in deference to the one calendar day a year Canada allocates to officially thinking about racism – in other places, of course, not, Heaven forbid, here! – perhaps the best contribution Native people can make is to suggest a synonym that won’t upset the Mouthpieces so much.
Instead of complaining about “racist” language or behaviour, maybe we should use a kinder, gentler word, something like “fluffy”. Hopefully such inoffensive terminology will help us get better support when we ask our local Mouthpieces to investigate such incidents as Native teens in North Bay being called “bush niggers”, or Fort Frances high school students performing drunken pow-wow parodies.
I’ll update you on our progress on next year’s International Day for the Elimination of…… Fluffiness!
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.