I was recently walking northbound through an intersection on Yonge Street, having just witnessed a motorist avoid colliding with a cyclist (who hadn’t been obeying the traffic signals) when the white cyclist (who was just in front of me, also heading northbound) turned his face in my direction – towards the honking motorist – and angrily yell out “You stupid n*gger!” before pedaling on his way. I reacted like I had been slapped in the face; I momentarily stopped in my track and blinked my eyes in an effort to reassess where I was. This is Toronto, right? It was a verbal assault – one of which I had never come across before.
I had never heard someone say the n-word, to my face, before. Ever.
I know the cyclist hadn’t called me a n*igger, but he yelled it in my face. In my presence. A white person had just yelled the n-word in the presence of a black person. In an explosion of anger, in a fit to find something insulting to say to his “offender”, the first thing he thought of was that word. This is Toronto, right?
Toronto. I love Toronto. So much so that I tend not to want to venture outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) very often. A large part of why I (and many other people) love it so much is because of its diversity: racial, cultural, religious, lingual, sexual diversity. You can be who you want to be here and we will love you for it.
My friends accuse me of living a sheltered life. A life of denial. The denial of racism in Canada. It’s not that I deny racism exists; It’s that I deny witnessing it first hand. And I admit, there are things I do or have done, to avoid the possibility of facing racism.
For instance, I did all my schooling, including post-secondary, in the GTA. This was unlike some of my racialized friends who went to schools like Waterloo or Western or Brock and had to endure ignorant comments or behaviour from the predominantly white student body.
For another, I also tend to tip higher than the typical 10-15% in an effort to “prove” that I can afford to.
I have some black girlfriends, and it seems that every time we get together, they are always sharing the latest “racist” incident they have experienced. Meanwhile I have no racism stories to share, as usual. And their stories always have me skeptical. Can you prove that your waiter was rude to you because you were black? Can you prove that the reason your supervisor feels the need to repeat their instructions to you is because your black? I want to ask them these questions, but I also don’t want to invalidate their experience, so I just nod in support. But then again, how do you discern between racism and paranoia?
Ok…that guy activated the car alarm when he got out of his car. And now as I’m walking by the car, he has chimed the car alarm again from where he is standing across the street. That’s not suspicious at all. I’m sure he double-checks his alarm all the time, it’s not because I’m black…
Some male coworkers offered me a ride home one night which I accepted. Several minutes into the ride I realized that hip hop was playing from the CD player, with songs dropping n-word after n-word. I, not a supporter of the word or any songs that use it generously, was squirming in the passenger seat. Normally I would just shut off what it was that was playing. But this wasn’t my car. I was a black woman sitting in a car, with three white men – three white men who started talking about some Kanye West song and apparently were unphased by all the n-bombs being dropped from the car speakers. I kept thinking to myself “Do I say something? Do I ask the driver to please shut it off because it is offending me? Would I be able to handle the quick apology and uncomfortable silent ride afterwards? Why am I feeling guilty for wanting to stand up for myself? Why am I feeling guilty for potentially having to deliver some white guilt?”. It was like I had to choose between being a cool black person or a political black person. It’s a struggle I have sometimes with sexism to: do I fight the fact that she just called another coworker a slut? Or do I “act cool” and not say anything political? In this instance, I said nothing, and I now regret it. Silence is complacency, and I essentially said – by not saying anything – that I am okay with that word. And I’m not.
It’s not like I haven’t experienced racism in Canada. And I wonder if that’s why I go out of my way to try to avoid potentially racist or racially charged situations, because it shakes my sense of security. It shook me then, and it shakes me now. It shakes my feelings of home, my feelings of belonging, my feelings of acceptance, my feelings of citizenship, my feelings of Toronto, my feelings of Canada. I love Canada, and I don’t anything to ruin what Canada means to me.
I was always comforted by the “fact” that this kind of blatant racism only happens in the States.
So when that man shouted “You stupid n*gger!”, all these questions and feelings came to the surface. “Is that what white people really think of us? Is it only when a white person’s tongue is loosened by anger or alcohol that you hear what they really feel? Surely not all white people think “n*gger” when they see a black person, right? Right? RIGHT? Am I so in denial of present-day racism in Canada that I am this shocked by it? Have others heard this kind of racist exchange in Toronto before? Is he from Toronto?”
It took me a while to fall asleep that night.
And it looks like I finally have a racism story to share with my black friends. Goodie.