Memo to myself: Quit being a racist


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in December 2010

It’s been said that you can’t please everybody. That is true. And as a professional columnist, I have, over the passing years, pleased many, annoyed a few, and downright pissed off a handful.

This column is about that last subsection of the population. There is a person out there named Alexander who is quite miffed with me. According to a posting he placed on my website, I am a racist. I was quite surprised to find that out, but then again, who wouldn’t be, excluding those with red necks (not red skins) and white pointed hats and gowns.

But first, some background.

Several months ago, I was on The Next Chapter, a CBC radio program about authors hosted by Shelagh Rogers. The theme of this episode was canoes in Canadian literature. I told one of my favorite stories about how, when I went white-water canoeing, I discovered the true difference between Native and non-Native people.

Picture a river, and 100-metres downstream is lots and lots of white water and sharp pointy rocks. Now place in that river two canoes, one filled with white people and the other filled with Native people. What does each canoe do? The white canoe starts paddling as fast as they can towards the sharp pointy rocks and turbulent white water. What do the Native people do? They go for pizza. Or they drive further downstream and put the canoe in the calm water, after picking up a pizza, of course.

In reality, portage is not a French word. It’s actually an Aboriginal word that means “Do you know how much I paid for this canoe?” I always considered this a simple and funny story. Alexander did not. He wrote:

“I sincerely demand an apology from you for the racist, ignorant and vile comments you have stated during that interview, directed at European settlers of America. As the definition of racism states that if one derives attributes, differences, and characteristics on the basis of race then the person in question is a racist, and thus Mr. Drew Hayden Taylor due to the fact that you have clearly associated “white people” or “People of the dominant” culture with counter-productivity, and that you have clearly stated that the difference is between white and Native (or red skin), you by definition is a racist….
Anyhow, all I demand is a satisfactory apology for your comments and acknowledgement that they are racist.”

I responded. Very politely, I might add. In reference to his apology, I told him I was sorry that my comments upset him but that was as close to an official apology as I was willing to give. As a humorist and satirist, we have a certain amount of leeway to play with social constructs and political perspectives than most people. Chris Rock and Richard Pryor have said more controversial things about white people then I have and probably ever will.

I also had problems with Alexander’s definition of racism. Admittedly, I am no expert on the subject of racism, so I consulted somebody who was. Alok Mukherjee, chairman of the Toronto Police Services Board, and former acting chief commissioner and vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He is a far smarter Indian than I am on this issue without a doubt.

“For me, racism is an ideology of superiority practiced by the group that sees itself to be superior to an Other on the basis of race. That is to say, skin color, physical features, hair, culture, social status, etc.

The key word is “practiced,” that is to say, the ability or the power to act on the belief of superiority to exclude, diminish, hold back, oppress, deny equal status, etc. to the Other who is considered to be inferior. [Emphasis mine]

Let us reverse the equation. Women sometimes make nasty remarks about men. Are they being sexist? Black people use sarcasm when talking about/to white people. Are they being racist? People with physical disabilities rail against those who see themselves as “normal.” Are they being able-ist? In each of these cases, the criticism, the sarcasm, the fulmination may be an expression of frustration, a critique, anger, helplessness, etc.

A final point. It is a characteristic of dominant group membership that the privilege that comes from such affiliation is not seen or recognized by the member, though the Other is acutely conscious of it.”

So there, Alexander. I am not in a place of privilege, power or superiority. If so, I would surely dress better. So, to quote the words of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and the American Indian Movement, I’m rubber, you’re glue etc.