On Wednesday my girlfriend and I went to a live comedy show at a place called Falconetti’s in Vancouver. The comedian was talking about babysitting his nephew (who is of Chinese descent) and hearing his wife sing to the toddler the kid’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad“, and expressing his comical shock and dismay at the idea of singing a song about railroad construction to a Chinese child in British Columbia*.
It reminded me of a summer job I had at Toronto’s Wild Water Kingdom where the inside parks (clean-up) staff was almost entirely black. We were working during the pre-season on resurfacing the stage, a job that we were nowhere near properly-trained or equipped to perform, when the park owner decided to try out some new “island” music. One of the songs that came on was “Pick a Bale of Cotton**”. I looked around and realized I was part of an all-black work gang, doing work that usually requires skilled workers, for which we were being paid minimum wage.
I made the owner throw out the CD.
I’m not the only one who’s had this experience:
While the story is funny, it does highlight the fact that racism often happens in an entirely accidental way, borne of lazy thinking and a lack of perspective. Understanding racism therefore requires the engagement of an active and informed mind, much like we hope to do in the skeptical and atheist world. We want people to be thinking about stuff rather than just patting themselves on the back for all the times they happened not to do something racist.
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*Although the joke misses the mark a bit, since “working on the railroad” actually means working as a porter. The song has racist connotations, but for black kids more so than Chinese ones (the Wikipedia article has the original lyrics – bonus points for noticing where it was originally published).
**Interestingly, I recognized this song from singing it in choir as a kid, at my nearly-all-white school. I didn’t understand what it meant then. If I heard it today, I’d throw some shit.