Why racist comments are a big deal

This week a Six Nations family was subjected to not one, but two instances of public humiliation when they overheard several racist remarks at a local dentist office.

These are the kinds of stories that go viral, and in fact this one did. Over 1000 shares in just 24 hours on Facebook. CH News covered the issue as well. Racism exposed.

But somewhere inside the hearts of every indigenous person who knows about this or other stories like this, there is a bittersweet sense of victory. Sweet because racism is being acknowledged for racism and called out as an unjust and unacceptable act in 2016; yet bitter because somewhere in a dark room far far away this story is still propagating racism.

It’s so obvious in my psyche I can almost hear it. “Another news story framing the ‘poor me’ angle the news takes with Indians.’ Or maybe even, “Well if they wouldn’t skip appointments all the time than we wouldn’t have anything racist to say.” Etc, etc, etc…

Perhaps a majority of the stories in news media these days are telling upsetting stories about the suffering of indigenous people. And it’s about time. It’s about time our voices and our experiences are shared. And social media gets the word out there fast; just one share button click away from wildfire in this case.

It’s not surprising. After all every single one of us who’ve grown up indigenous have experienced something similar from a doctor’s office, cashier, or other institution. It’s that horrible eyeball roll or passive-aggressive card snatch from your hand every time you bring out your status card. The exasperated sighs of people standing behind you in line at Wal-Mart when you’re filling out the tax exemption form. The glares you get when you are driving a car that’s a bit too nice or too expensive for an Indian to be driving. Automatically you’re associated with “the illegal tobacco trade”. We’ve all been through something.

I’ll never ever forget the first time I ever consciously realized racism would be a part of my life forever. We were all just little kids and my mom went to a local grocery store in Brantford to pick up groceries. At the cash register my mother paid with a cheque, as many others did back in those days. When she presented the cheque to the cashier she called out to the store manager to come and approve. He asked what the address was on the cheque they both noted it was a reservation address. My mother, with her groceries all rung in and several people in line behind her, was informed her money was no good at that store and that they no longer accepted cheques from “that address” anymore.

When my mom returned home that night she was crying and shouting about the story as she grappled with being refused by a business simply because of association with the rez. I don’t remember what we ate for dinner that night but I will never ever forget the look of heartbreak on my parents faces as they looked back at all us kids struggling to answer why the guy at the grocery store didn’t want us to have food.

By no fault of my own, or my parents — shame was planted in my heart that day. Shame that my address surely meant financial uncertainty or irresponsibility. Something that is not true at all.

A few months ago another viral post went around Facebook. It was the story of a black woman, much like my mothers story, of a black woman’s cheque being refused while a white woman who paid moments before paid by cheque with no problems. Only in this story, the white woman spoke up and intervened with the cashier and store manager, demanding the black woman be treated fairly and her form of payment accepted without issue.

This story had a happy ending for two reasons. First, the issue was resolved and everyone happily got their groceries and their food. But second, and perhaps more importantly, the people surrounding the act of racism stood up and spoke out — refusing to allow the situation to go unresolved.

Perhaps if we take example from that, and promise from now on to speak out when we witness racism towards indigenous people instead of staying silent, even promising to take your business elsewhere, we can plant dignity in the hearts of all our children instead of shame and truly make a society we are all proud to be a part of.

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