Race is a complicated issue.
From a legal perspective racial discrimination is prohibited under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and provincial and territorial legislation.
These laws, public education campaigns, and institutional policies have been very effective at creating a stigma against engaging in racial discrimination and limiting the number of incidents. Nevertheless, tensions and conflict continue to exist around how we think about race, what we take offence to, and how we conduct ourselves.
The problem is never far below the surface. Racial tensions can be easily sparked, as noted by the recent controversy created by the criticism of the impersonation of the popular black comedian Boucar Diouf during the recent le Gala les Oliviers comedy awards night in Québec.
What more can we do to reduce this volatility? I think the answer lies in dealing with our own discomfort with talking about race and speaking openly about our subconscious vulnerabilities and acknowledging that as much as we would like to think we are colour blind, no matter how neutral or well meaning we imagine ourselves to be, such a condition simply does not exist.
Human beings of all colours rely on their senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell to make sense of the world around them. When we are young we are like sponges, absorbing all kinds of information about our home and family environment to begin with, then the wider world and society around us.
Not all of the information we absorb is true, and sometimes we misinterpret messages. Through growth and maturity and normal life conflicts and challenges we discover our biases. The process is rarely comfortable and is often somewhat ego bruising. We discover we aren’t quite as perfect as we thought we were.
Throughout my professional career I have often been the only person of colour in the room. I am so used to it, I don’t usually think to make a note of this to myself, but once in a while conversations will be strangely awkward and I will wonder, “Is this person reacting this way because of my race?”
I am pretty sure this is not a question most white people need to consider in Canada, but it is not an uncommon question for people of colour. Consequently, I have had many more conversations about race with people of colour than I have had with white people.
To come back to the incident of the Oliviers, I was impressed by how Senegalese-born Boucar Diouf tried to explain how he was not offended by the actions of his fellow comedian Mario Jean who dressed up like Boucar, including colouring his skin, while doing an impersonation of him during the filmed opening of the Oliviers comedy awards night on May 20.
In a newspaper article and later a very touching interview, Boucar Diouf defended his unwillingness to take sides; to be on any team that wanted to create division. He explained he grew up in Senegal and so had no knowledge of blackface. In a North American context, for many people blackface is cultural touchstone that signals the symbolic domination of black bodies and its ugly, not so distant, history.
For Diouf, his interest has always been in bringing people together. He felt the controversy negated much of what he has been trying to do, which was to show how people are so much alike. He also felt personally stung by criticism from some that he was not supporting the black community. But mostly he said he was sad.
It takes great courage to not take sides and stand up for the dignity of all instead of focusing on the rightness of one and the wrongness of the other.
Diouf may feel stung by the “slap on the face” he received, but he is in excellent company — Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela to name a famous few. More discussion is needed, and will always be needed, because the root of our discomfort with race and difference is related to the nature of our being.
The hope within this process of dialogue is a better cultural acceptance of diversity in all its forms and a softening of our reactions.