I have a black friend who is constantly being asked the question: where are you from? Ron (not his real name) always answers Toronto, where he has lived for twenty years. The questioner will often say: Yes, but I mean, before that? At which point, Ron will say: Oh, you noticed the remnants of my accent. While they are nodding, he will say, Yeah, I grew up in Nova Scotia.
I, too, am from Nova Scotia, but nobody ever asks me where I ‘really’ came from. Well, unless I say the word ‘aunt.’ Then they know I’m from down east. Ron’s family came to Canada as United Empire Loyalists so I guess his proper answer should be: I grew up in Nova Scotia, but my family came from….<pause> …the United States. His family came to Nova Scotia only a few years after mine (from Yorkshire in England).
This is one of the more innocuous questions that people of colour are constantly asked, something I’ve observed and been told about for years. Perhaps, you might think it somewhat natural, being a country of both immigrants and migrants (there are more Maritimers living outside the Maritimes than within their boundaries), yet I seldom hear it asked of white people, no matter how heavy their accent might be. Oh, it might eventually come up – but seldom as the first or even third question they get asked.
This seemingly innocent question is the thin edge of the wedge. As the wedge widens we get all sorts of crazy questions that only non-whites are get asked. Questions about occupations, for example, not as in: what do you do? But rather: do you play sports? Are you a musician? Which would be fine if they are actually playing but when they are dressed in a suit? Really?
If that was all casual racism amounted to, I guess people might be able to tolerate it with a shrug and a smile and unspoken ‘asshole.’ But it doesn’t stop there. Cars being pulled over by cops only because black men are driving them. People being accused of crimes when videos show the criminal was someone whose only common characteristic was that they are brown. Or worse yet that show it was a white guy that did it. People being treated as if they must be in service, simply because they are the only non-white in the room.
Even casual slights damage people; hurt their self-esteem, ruin their expectations and hopes of a better life. They provide the foundation that lead to things like what happened in Baltimore or New York or Baltimore. That lead to killers getting off under stand your ground laws. That lead to the fucking laws in the first place.
So the next time you meet a black man or an Asian woman, why not ask where they went to school, what they studied, what kind of job they have or about their kids, if it is clear they have some? It won’t cure the worst of racism in the world but it might be a start. It might stop it from being casual and accepted and turn it into something obvious and wrong.
But that’s ten minutes.