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Oct 11 2011

Big fight, little impact

My father, who is a retired social worker (and a phenomenal photographer) used to have this book on his bookshelf called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s All Small Stuff)“. I never read it, but you can pretty much infer the contents from the title. There are real, honest-to-spaghetti-monster problems in our lives, and it’s really easy to get bogged down by minutia. Spending our mental and emotional energy clearing the little things off our mental desktops saps our will to fight the big stuff.

Racism is a serious problem. It is a huge and seemingly-intractable problem, because of how pervasive and historically-rooted it is. In the past century, we’ve taken monumental steps to reduce the harms that it has done. While we can all take some pride in that work, what we cannot afford to be is complacent. We’ve won several battles, but the war is not over.

And sadly, we keep letting ourselves get distracted by stupid stuff like this:

Republican presidential contender Rick Perry is on the defensive after it emerged a hunting lodge used by his family had a racially offensive name. His campaign said his family had years ago painted over an entrance stone that once displayed the name, Niggerhead, at the rented West Texas camp.

Cromrades (the slang I am coining for regular readers) will know that mine is among the least passive stances when it comes to the word ‘nigger’. I have little patience for anyone who would try to spin elaborate justifications for why it’s okay to use a word with such an ugly history. My contention is that anyone who has a complete grasp on the hatred, dismissal and utter dehumanizing contempt that is contained within these two syllables will not want to use it.

That being said, I find it hard to react to this “story” with anything other than rolling eyes. Any attempt to tie the name of this hunting lodge to some kind of racist attitude from Rick Perry is nonsense. The lodge was named during a time when racism was considered to be not only acceptable, but a point of pride in certain social circles. The word “Niggerhead” has a number of denotative meanings, most commonly a form of chewing tobacco. Undoubtedly the origins of these words is derived from racist attitudes toward black people, but that’s immaterial to whether or not the name of a hunting lodge denotes racist attitudes.

The article I’ve linked to says that Herman Cain, another Republican candidate who is black, ‘heavily criticized’ Perry for waiting as long as he did to paint over the name. That’s hogwash. What Mr. Cain said, and I agree, is that failing to recognize the offense and hurt that the name would cause was insensitive to black people. It opens up psychological scars that underly the entire black experience in the United States. Perry’s failure to recognize this fact shows that he does not have the greatest grasp on black issues. I’d be surprised if he did.

But again, sometimes we make big deals out of little ones. Other times, we make small deals out of big ones:

The father of a top-flight Ottawa minor hockey player is calling for harsher penalties for racism on the ice after his son was targeted in a game Sept. 20. Nick Ngwafusi, 15, was the subject of a racial slur in a game against the Ottawa Valley Titans when another player called out to him and yelled the N-word at the young black teen. Tears started to flow in frustration as he skated off the ice. “I never bounced back fully,” said Ngwafusi, sitting near a series of medals and trophies that are showcased inside his family home.

Hockey is a quintessentially Canadian experience. It’s hard to define if you’re not from here, but it’s perhaps comparable to baseball to Americans, football to Brits, or koala jousting to Aussies. For Canadians of colour, for children of immigrants, there is no quicker path to endearing one’s self to the country they love than participation in what has become our national obsession.

There’s no quicker way to undermine and alienate these kids than to remind them that “their kind” isn’t wanted. Isn’t “really Canadian”. Doesn’t belong in the sport or the country. It’s not just a filthy name to call someone – it’s a way of nullifying their entire right to be part of Canada. When this kind of rejection intersects with something as closely-held as hockey, it takes on a dimension far more profound than the ugly stain of racism on the tapestry of Canadian history.

Perhaps the worst part of this story is that this kid is good at hockey. He’s not just some random player – he excels at his craft. He should be praised for his hard work and dedication, rather than being torn down by small-minded dickbags who don’t even understand how unbelievably hurtful their words are. Instituting a reaction that is matched to the intent of the attackers, rather than the harm experienced by the victim (not to mention the ripple effect to other young black hockey players) shows that the league has a flawed sense of justice.

Naming a hunting ranch ‘Niggerhead’ was a reflection of the open, unabashed racism that characterized the place and time of the naming. Failing to paint over that name, while insensitive, is not a reflection of anything other than the failure of a white Texas politician to identify with the black struggle. It does not qualify as a national issue – certainly not an international one.

On the other hand, the marginalization of young, patriotic kids who are trying to do what racists claim immigrants never do: integrate into ‘mainstream’ Canadian society - this is something we should be making a big deal about. It reveals the fact that no segment of our society, not even our kids, exist in a world in which racism isn’t a relevant concern, both from the point of view of the oppressor and the oppressed. We need to stop sweating the small stuff and focus on what is relevant, lest we completely lose any ability to address the problem for all our floundering around in the minutiae of the meaningless yet salacious.

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8 comments

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  1. 1
    thaismcrc

    You may find this video interesting. I think it makes the same point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_ZvtdBQusM&feature=channel_video_title

    (All of his videos are really good, actually)

  2. 2
    mck9

    When I was a kid back in the 50′s there was a brand of candy that I sometimes ate and enjoyed — little chucks of chocolate molded in the shape of babies.

    The brand name? Nigger Babies.

    Yes. Really.

    The name struck me as rather odd at the time, and more than a little tacky, but I must confess that I didn’t react to it with the kind of shock and dismay that I would muster today.

    The Google tells me that there was also another kind of candy by the same name — molded chunks of licorice, dusted with sugar, and larger than the chocolate version I recall.

    In later years these products were reportedly rebranded as Chocolate Babies and Licorice Babies. I don’t think any candy company could get away with the old names any more. Not even African-American Babies.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    The worst part about the Perry/Cain coverage is that the people doing the reporting generally aren’t the least bit interested in racial slurs and the like. What they’re actually reporting on is whether Cain has scored points by his comments or Perry lost. They’re reporting on the race. Whether there is a legitimate issue there to be discussed isn’t a consideration.

    I have nothing more intelligent to say about the hockey situation than, “Grrr.”

  4. 4
    julian

    They’re reporting on the race. Whether there is a legitimate issue there to be discussed isn’t a consideration.

    One of many reasons why I now get my news almost exclusively off BBC World online. Not the most detailed or always thought provoking reports. But they’re just that; reports. No need to listen to Wolf Blitzer mumble and occasionally pretend to be excited about this or that aspect of the “Race” or how such and such made an obvious blunder.

  5. 5
    VeritasKnight

    When I hear stories about racial slurs being tossed around on a hockey rink at kids, it makes me so angry. Far angrier than the ranch story made me. That made me shake my head at Perry – and at the news coverage surrounding it. Nobody seems to have asked the real question: is Rick Perry a racist?

    It’s all about, “How will Rick Perry recover from being painted as a racist.”

    If that doesn’t tell you what the media cares about, I don’t know what can.

  6. 6
    BJ Bjornson

    The hockey story is disturbing, though I’m forced to admit that from my memories of playing as a kid, it’s not a sport where “sensitivity” was given much thought, though most of the slurs tossed out were of the homophobic kind. Mind you, I’m forced to agree with the Ngwafusi’s in that the lack of any racial slurs was more likely due to the lack of anyone to hurl them at. Ah, the joys of growing up on the Prairies. Hopefully the Ottawa league can get this dealt with properly and quickly. You’re never going to get a whole lot of minorities playing the game if the ones who do are treated poorly, and excluding folks from our national pastime helps nobody.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can find some Australian koala jousting on YouTube, ’cause that sounds really cool!

  7. 7
    Dean Buchanan

    What about just ‘chubby babies’?

    {OT}

    Eating babies in general grosses me out. I really haven’t mastered the technique and achieved my level-10 atheist badge. Well, one day…

    /attempt@humor

  8. 8
    Dean Buchanan

    Yeah.
    It is pretty depressing to watch TV, at least here in the US, and see what passes for news ‘analysis’. The phrase ‘reporting on the horserace’ is trite but true.

    Blogs like this and others on the intertubes can provide a more sane perspective and exploration of these important and very tough issues. (Did I just claim that what happens on the wild west of the internet is better than TV? Hmm. I will have to spend some time thinking about that.)

    Anyway, I am frustrated that the solution always seems to come down to → consciousness raising, education, and freedom of speech. I and my comrades have been saying that since the late 70′s. My mother has been saying that since the late 60′s. Now she just says, ‘I’m really tired of being right and losing’. (She’s hard left by the way…good Mom).

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