I’m wondering about the young man who gunned down all those Black folks in the church in South Carolina. Nobody’s mentioned much about this kid’s background. Were his murderous actions the result of a racist upbringing by family members or did he come up with this on his own? I’m betting on the former.
I’ve spent most of my career in trucking and lived in several semi-rural communities around Ontario, and let me tell you that racism is part of life among my Caucasian peers. In Keswick I played on a men’s-league softball team. After the weekend games we’d gather for a couple of beers and pizza at someone’s house and talk about the missed catches, the botched plays and the shoddy umpiring. It was in this context, on the front lawn at our captain’s house, that I heard him say, “I hate n*****s,” with his four year old son sitting next to him. Now George was a solid guy–hard working mechanic who loved his beer. And he justified this statement by telling me he had a couple of coloured friends so he’s not racist. That incident happened about 30 years ago, but to this day I think about what affect his words had on the young lad.
At its worst, racism is the lowest common denominator. If there is an upside to this attitude, I suppose it helps to define a person’s identity and the superiority that they associate with a certain group by defining what we are by what we are not. I had a professor at York U. who held that racist jokes are a kind of pressure-release valve for a group that believes itself to be under siege from “the other”. She posited that racist jokes serve a cathartic function and are thereby a positive in nature.
Over the years,“white” drivers have attempted to engage me in racist dialogue in a spirit of camaraderie. Actually our skin colour is more “pink” than white, so maybe white supremacists should be called “pink supremacists”. The racism prevalent in our industry is, in part,a result of the rapidly changing demographics of trucking. Almost overnight we’ve moved from a male-dominated industry of primarily European ancestry to a still male-dominated industry that now ha,s a significant portion of drivers of South-Asian ethnicity. You don’t hear the word “Paki” much anymore, but there remains a seething resentment to these newcomers who are portrayed as usurpers, willing to work very cheap, thus dragging the down the overall wages, and that they are inexperienced drivers to boot.
Running between Toronto and Montreal I’ve gotten used to stopping at a Tim’s that’s just off the highway in Pt. Hope, and gotten to know a few drivers who stop at the same place. One guy in particular is about my age, white-haired, and he’s always headed for Brockville or Ottawa the same time I’m running east. So we get chatting and talking about the state of business. His company has picked up work from another LTL carrier that has just closed down. But his biggest beef is about the sand n*****s that his company has hired to cover the extra work. I just wished hadn’t said it. Seems like a really good guy, cares about his job, and would go out of his way to help you if he could. But there’s just this taint of racism that manifests itself too often.
One more example if I may. I live in a small town just west of Toronto where me and my gal moved a couple of years ago. We live in a big, comfortable house and my partner’s farm is just a few kilometers away so we have the best of both worlds, town and country as it were. But it’s a pretty white bread community. Other than a few shopkeepers of third-world extraction, you could count the number of families of colour on one hand. Lately I’ve been playing harp with this blues band in town and they are pretty solid people. Our drummer is an excellent rock musician, always up for a challenge, and the youngest member of our ensemble at 35 years of age, so we call him the kid. I really like this guy, recently married with a very young son, manages an auto shop in a nearby town and saves lives as a volunteer fireman.
So we’re walking home after a practice and I ask him about life on his street. “If any black guys show up, we’ll be the first to ask them what they think they’re doing,” he tells me in a joking manner. Shades of Trevon Martin in reverse. Isn’t that what happened to the young man in Florida who was walking back from a store only to be harassed by a local vigilante who didn’t think he belonged in the neighbourhood and who, after an altercation, was shot dead?
There is a bit of xenophobia in this town (fear of outsiders). Very low crime rate and I suspect few people want Lake Ontario water because they think the new developments will foster an influx of multi-culturalism. Expansion is currently halted because of a lack of municipal water resources but that’s going to change withing a few years. So life as we know it will change as well. A new pipeline will bring new home owners and they will probably be more reflexive of the diversity of our country.
I guess the point I’m hammering at is that racism is the simplest, easiest and worst choice we can make. If you were to conduct a survey, I’d suspect, that racist attitudes are never far from the surface among most people. My facebook is often besieged from postings from some “friends” who dislike muslims and who want to ban the burka because they consider it un-Canadian. This is the full face covering that some fundamentalist muslim women wear to remain modest in public. Now I’ve only seen a few women wearing these in my life, and a good portion of my life was spent in Toronto. But the anti-burka activists want an outright ban on this practice. It reminds me of the kerfuffle around Sikh turbans being allowed in Canadian Legion halls despite the fact that many of these many men had served in the Canadian Forces. Same thing for Sikh RCMP officers, why was it so hard to accept ethnic head gear or face-coverings, who does it harm?
Lastly my mother is 91 years old and in a retirement home in Guelph. Her life lessons have taught her that certain ethnic groups act along predictable lines. Greeks are such and such, Jews and Germans are not dissimilar and untrustworthy, Russians are generally bad actors, etc. I rail against her ethnic characterizations but I know it’s a hopeless cause. She’s made up her mind long ago. I love her and although I stand up to her generalizations, this might be the one case where it might be ok to be a little bit racist. But we don’t have to bring up our kids with the same prejudices. It’s time to put a stop to racism and it starts with you.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs