Race and racism: Jan 21, 2007

Is it because he’s black?

The problem with racism is it isn’t as obvious as it once was. Segregated schools and whites-only clubs were easy targets. Trying to read between the lines of a blandly bureaucratic municipal planning report that claims putting a new landfill next door to a longstanding black community is a proper planning decision is… well, more complicated.

Likewise, it’s easy enough to name the racist act in Alabama sheriff Bull Connors’ orders back in the sixties to turn fire houses on black civil rights marchers, or even — to use a more recent, more local, perhaps more to the point example— for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to conclude Halifax police officers were acting in a racist manner when they targeted local boxer Kirk Johnson for the un-crime of “driving while black” a few years ago.

But how do you decipher the decibel level of a debate in the House of Assembly? When does the “cut and thrust” of democracy cross some invisible VU-meter line and become an unacceptable racist act? When an MLA regularly greets everyone, including a black colleague, as “boss,” is that racist? When a heckler calls NDP MLA Leonard Preyra a “dark cloud” while he’s making a point in a debate, does the heckler simply mean Preyra is being too negative, or is it a not-so-subtle — and racist — reference to Preyra’s Indo-Canadian background? When the only black MLA sits down in the members’ lounge at the legislature and everyone else chooses to cram around another table rather than eat with him, is it because he’s black? Or because they don’t share his political views? Or don’t like him personally? Or …

NDP MLA Percy Paris touched off a firestorm last week when he spoke about his experiences since being elected the MLA for Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank last June.

Calling the legislature “the loneliest place I’ve ever worked,” Paris all but accused some of his colleagues of being racist.

The problem is he didn’t identify them. Nor did he offer much more in the way of specific acts beyond the ones I noted above, all of which are easy to interpret as almost anything along the spectrum from colour-blind commonplace to insensitive to racist, depending on the circumstances and the intent.

None of that is to suggest Paris is wrong.

He wouldn’t be the first “outsider” to have been frozen out of the middle-aged-white-boys club that was/is the legislature. During the early eighties, when Alexa McDonough was the only woman and only New Democrat in the House, she was routinely ignored, shunned, or worse by some male MLAs. Many of the responses she got when she complained — you just don’t understand the way the legislature works, you’re too sensitive and blah-blah-blah — are strikingly similar to what we’re hearing today.

And yet… There is something to those arguments too.

The House of Assembly is a raucous place. All MLAs get heckled from time to time. And, like the rest of us, there are people — white, black, male, female — MLAs would rather not socialize with for reasons having nothing to do with race.

Is that racism if the person on the receiving end is black? If that person feels offended?

Those of us who are white don’t usually have to confront the question: Is it because I’m black? We know there are people who don’t like us, and people we don’t like. We don’t have to ask if it’s because of race.

If you’re black, however, the question is always there.

Which is one reason we need to talk about what Percy Paris said.

But if we are going to, in Paris’s words, “take the lid off and see what’s inside,” we need to know more about the specifics of what he vaguely describes as “the avoidance of those individuals in the House of Assembly that do not want to have contact with me.” Who? When? What were the circumstances? What did Paris do about the perceived slight? How did — and do — those accused respond?

Paris’s reference to being offended by the use of the word “boss” as a greeting may be instructive. “That’s such a derogatory term for a person of African descent of my vintage,” he told reporters. “It means you’re never going to be boss. You’re always going to be subservient.”

Though Paris didn’t name names, House Speaker Cecil Clarke quickly acknowledged he calls many people boss, and had never understood anyone might consider it offensive. But he quickly — and rightly — added: “It’s important for all members to be aware if there’s something deemed offensive to another member that they be cognizant of that and be respectful of it too.”

The best way to deal with the kind of concerns Percy Paris raises is to talk about them. But with specific, concrete facts that will allow those accused to respond — and hopefully improve everyone’s understanding of where the racism lines are.

Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel, Reparations.

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