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Nova Scotia Cross Burning – Why Indeed?

Two Nova Scotia men have been remanded to police custody for erecting and burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.

From the article:

The brothers are accused of erecting a two-metre-high cross, with a hanging noose, in front of the home of Michelle Lyon, their father’s cousin, and Shayne Howe and yelling racial slurs at the terrified couple and their children, who were inside at the time.

While this is understandably a horrible thing to happen to anyone, especially in Canada where we like to think of ourselves as being non-racist, the part that I found interesting was this:

Granville Rehberg, Nathan and Justin’s father, said he’s “real sick” about what happened early Sunday and equally baffled. “I don’t understand,” Rehberg told CBC News in a voice that cracked with emotion. “I got nieces that have black children. I got cousins that are black. My family is not racist. I just don’t know what to say.”

Commenters on the CBC website and the news anchor expressed similar dismay and bafflement. How could such a thing happen “in this day and age?” Aren’t we past such things? Especially in Canada where we don’t have the same history of lynch mobs and cross-burnings?

The answer is easy: Because Canada is racist, we just don’t talk about it.

If you haven’t thrown up your hands in outrage and disgust and closed the window yet, I’ll clarify what I mean. Racism is much more deep-seated than can be overcome in a few generations. What makes progress along the lines of eradication even more difficult is the fact that we’ve stopped talking about racism. We prefer, it seems, to stick our collective heads in the sand and act as though it isn’t a problem. I think of racism the same way I think of herpes: just because you ignore it doesn’t mean it goes away, and even when the symptoms subside, they can come back at any point.

What we see here in Nova Scotia is a racism outbreak. Nova Scotia is home to a surprisingly large number of black people – that is, surprising unless you know some of the history. Africville is an area in Halifax that was home to hundreds of recently-freed slaves and imports from Africa. Some black families in Nova Scotia can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. However, due to overt racism in the 1800s and early 20th century, and more subtle systemic (“polite”) racism in the latter half of the 1900s, black people in Canada have rarely been able to move into the upper middle class. Since race and class are closely related, and given the economic fortunes of the maritime provinces (largely agricultural, less industrial, economic decline in recent years due to fisheries changes), black people have commonly got the short end of the stick.

Herpes symptoms return whenever the body is immunosuppressed – the system is taxed and cannot fight off the virus. Racism similarly returns when the social system is under stress, such as economic hardship. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this happened, because all the pieces were there – economic downturn, long history of cohabitation, large and easily-identifiable scapegoat group… it’s almost formulaic.

This event is tragic. Not only were the couple’s small children inside the house, and the couple themselves terrified, but the community at large (and indeed all of Canada) has been severely damaged by this act of hate. However, as the RCMP notes in the article, this isn’t a random act, nor is it the last we’ll see. Until large, wholesale sea changes are made in the way we deal with racial issues in Canada, we’ll never be able to completely divest ourselves of the racism virus. But we can’t act shocked and bewildered when it happens – we’re just lying to ourselves if we do.

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