I caught a Martin Luther King Jr. Day episode on Oprah today. (Yeah, I watch Oprah.) It was pretty moving to see so many different perspectives, experiments, and events that intersected around race the past 20 years, particularly in America. Racism is still alive and wears many masks. You see, race in the minds of the television viewer likes to play itself off as fiction – good programming, but not quite what happens in the “real world.” Believable, but not reality. But I’m old enough to recognize a fairy tale when I see one.
Looking at Oprah’s final season, she replayed a bunch of clips from past shows that dealt with racism which, through the magic of television, took me to events I never lived through: a sit-down broadcast in LA after the riots from the notorious Rodney King trial verdict; a once racist white man who went on to adopt two black children after his biracial grandson was born; a young white man who took life-threatening pills to change his skin pigment so he appeared Black; a social psychology experiment discriminating against blue-eyed people; the uproar after the OJ Simpson trial. I’m amazed at how far we’ve got, and how far we’ve got to go.
Racism and race are not only outside things, they are also inside things. Living with racism isn’t merely being called names based on our appearance. Racism isn’t merely defending your right to use the N word in a rap song. Racism – as a young white man who took skin pigment darkening pills said – is being white and automatically getting a certain kind of respect while being black means you fight your whole life to earn it. Racism is being beaten for being taken as a “jap” even if you are Chinese. Racism is hatred and indifference and ugliness and racism is seething, and yet racism is as cool as a coal. Racism is a joke and an antique. Racism is a Maclean’s article; it’s reading the class list of students and wondering why all the last names are Brown – where are the white names?
Racism isn’t just for white people; coloured people are racist, too. Black people are just as suspicious of Black people as White people. Native people are invisible in Vancouver. Fact is, things still need to change.
And yet, I haven’t lived through a generation before me. I haven’t worked on a railroad. I don’t know someone who had a family member lynched. But it wasn’t long ago.