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2007 07 27
This Week in Racism…..
Image of Evon Reid,'ghetto dude' courtesy of the Toronto Star.

It’s not racist, just stupid.

Unbelievably, this has been the frequent response to two markedly racist events which occurred in and around Toronto this week. And more often than not, this type of statement has been made by white individuals who, I would argue, are not in the best position to pass judgment on what is racist and what is not.

Part of being the ‘good’ person of colour (POC) is the demonstrated ability to ‘take a joke’. For example, being the type of Chinese person who, when someone says: “I’m not surprised that Chinese people do so well on those Fear Factor type shows- you Chinese will eat anything!” will laugh along with everyone else. Usually even harder, just to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that they’re not one of those ‘uptight’ POC who ‘take things too seriously.’ Because when the POC laughs, it’s ok, right? Everyone else can laugh too with a clear conscience, without all that pesky worry about political correctness.

Evon Reid was certainly not laughing earlier this week when he received an e-mail from Aileen Siu (acting team leader in cabinet office hiring) referring to him as “….the ghetto dude that I spoke to before" Although most agree that this statement is unacceptable, there are two issues which I find particularly problematic.

First, many people seem to believe that the problem was not so much that the comment was made, but that Reid was accidentally sent an e-mail with contained the comment. Why is this Toronto Star article entitled “'Ghetto dude' email sent by mistake: province” instead of “Provincial employee makes racist comment”? Apparently, once such comments never reach the ears of the POC to which they refer, it’s not that bad.

Second, many people seem to be under the misapprehension that POC are incapable of racism. This is patently untrue. POC are at high risk of internalized racism, which often manifests as self-hatred, and extremely critical attitudes towards other POC. Second generation immigrants of parents who have ‘made it’ in Canada are particularly susceptible to this, as they have likely grown up hearing their parents espouse the ‘anyone can make it here once you work hard’ mantra, and telling stories which involve POC who have ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve success. The dangerous inference is that any POC who has not ‘made it’ in Canada (especially in immigrant-friendly Toronto!) is entirely to blame for their own misfortune. This of course, totally ignores how systemic racism may have contributed to the POCs affairs.

Take Reid, for example. I do not know his personal history, but he certainly sounds like the poster child for the ‘good’ POC: a roster of relevant work and volunteer experience, and a soon to be completed U of T degree. In an interview with the CBC earlier this week he said he felt as if those two words (‘ghetto dude’) erased a lifetime of previous accomplishments in a single stroke.

Siu, of course, has been apologetic about this whole incident.The Toronto Star article notes that “She added she's of Asian descent and doesn't want anyone to think she makes racially based judgments.” Indeed.

A rather different racially charged incident occurred this week; the shut down of a Facebook group called ‘Obeeba Sightings’. This group, which was based in a region just outside the GTA (Cambridge), encouraged members to follow and photograph a black woman that had been seen around Cambridge asking for change, then post pictures and descriptions of these ‘sightings’. And no, Obeeba is not her real name. It is the name which white Cambridge-dwellers deem appropriate for a ‘black crack whore’, which she was consistently characterized as by group members. After numerous complaints about the group, Facebook shut it down. Don’t give Facebook too much credit though - they only shut it down when the media and the police became involved. They ignored previous Facebook member complaints. “Some people just can’t take a joke” you can almost hear them complaining, shaking their heads in disbelief. Interestingly, as noted on this Rabble.ca thread, the mayor of Cambridge is Canada’s first openly gay black mayor.

For those of you not ‘lucky’ enough to have seen the hateful posts by group members, rabble.ca provides some quotes from the site, as copied before the group was shut down. Here are two examples:

"fuck..she's even been in the doctors parking lot on Coronation Blvd. she asked my dad for some change, which he gave to her because he felt sorry for her. and then the bitch had the nerve to ask him for MORE money after he handed her enough to buy herself something to eat. probably like $5. all while he was sitting in his car minding his own business. now.. if this group would have existed when this happened i would have known who she was and told my father just to run that bitch over.
butttt... i don't think he would have appreciated some bitch splattered all over his nice new vehicle. LOL i'm surprised she didn't offer him sexual favours to get that $5..ew."

"i think we need to create the obeeba convention.. or do like a group wide hunt.have everyone meet at the delta in camo's, hunting gear and cameras and walkie talkies. Go out and hunt and get consistant photo's showing her face. We could always bait her with some cold nuggets and sugar cubes?"

Shockingly, the very description of the group stated that the members were definitely not racists, but claimed that the group was just for fun. Again, no need to get excited you uptight POCs, no harm done here. I do not imagine that the young woman this site targeted would share that view.

Were these just a few misguided kids? Before the shut down, the group had almost 800 members. And several young group members reported that their parents found the site so hilarious that they checked it daily. This sounds like more than just a few bad apples to me.

In light of these two incidents, a report which came to the media’s attention this week makes a lot of sense. This report concludes that POC in Toronto have a great deal of difficulty in both seeking and obtaining quality and culturally appropriate mental health services. Here are three main findings from the report which directly relate to this discussion:

“Eurocentric practice models and values exclude racialised communities from receiving quality mental health services in a timely and appropriate manner, often exacerbating the risk to their health and well-being.” (p. 4).

"Anti-racism policies and practices seem to exist on a rhetorical level as they are not always enforced or reflected in organizations’ practices on the ground." (p. 5)

"Experiences of race-based discrimination are often dismissed and discounted when the individual is a consumer survivor." (p. 4)

Thus, the very mental health system which POC are often driven to because of consistent manifestations of systemic racism is hardly a non-discriminatory refuge. And as the quote above indicates, if you are a POC who is also a psychiatric consumer/survivor, your claims of racist events will be taken even less seriously, perhaps leading to further declines in mental health.

Years of being both the victim of racist events and, perhaps more importantly, being subject to the DENIAL of racism is bound to negatively affect the mental health of POC. It’s a little too easy for Torontonians to claim, simply because we live in a city which is known world-wide for its multiculturalism, that we are not racist. I have some news which some may find shocking: we are all racist. And although I do not condone Aileen Siu’s actions, she was simply expressing the cultural norms which have become so internalized and entrenched into our consciousness, that we are not even aware of them.

Evon Reid should be applauded for his actions. It is not easy to give up this ‘good POC’ role and speak out against racist comments and actions. This is particularly the case when a job is involved. Happily, in a recent interview with Reid on the CBC, Reid noted that this week alone he has received several job offers. He also received something even more difficult to obtain: an apology from Queen’s Park.

There are no easy answers here. No quick fix. But, what we can do is acknowledge that we are ALL racist. This is no easy task. However, it is only then that we can move forward and attempt to be actively aware of how these internalized messages affect our thoughts and actions. Even more importantly, we need to get away from the defensiveness which often arises when one is accused of being racist. And let us not, as Torontonians, be lulled into the false sense of security that no conscious effort is required to avoid racism because of Toronto’s multicultural nature. If anything, it means that Torontonians must try harder than citizens of less diverse cities to improve our critical race analysis skills.

Liza Badaloo is a person of colour, a child of West Indian immigrants, and a lifelong Torontonian.
[email this story] Posted by Liza Badaloo on 07/27 at 11:13 PM

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