Often I find that an aid to arriving at my own understanding, as well as to the task of explaining something to others, is the drawing of an analogy. Find something familiar and which one already understands from the inside, and to that compare the unfamiliar, the novel, the exotic. It works quite well, with one noteworthy exception being racism.
Give it a try. You’ll discover there is no at-hand analogy in the Euro-Canadian cupboard for the systematic oppression and mob lynching of dark-skinned persons — nothing of which may be said, “It was like that for us, too.” For this reason, white people will never really understand the trauma of racism from the inside. Now that I have established that, let us consider what transpired this past Hallowe’en at the Campbellford Royal Canadian Legion, so that we may better separate the wheat of anti-racism from the chaff of rube blundering.
It happens that a pair of men costumed themselves as a Klansman on the way to a lynching, one of the two in blackface and both admitted to the Legion and awarded first prize. Enter Mark Andrade, literally, who, “shocked and disgusted” by what he saw, left the Legion vowing never to return.
At this time, apologies have been issued and accepted. Everyone who had conceivable cause to issue a statement, up to the town’s mayor, has done so. The Campbellford Legion President, Joy Herrington, said, “I humbly apologize to all those offended by the events that took place at our Halloween Party. The events in no way reflect the views of the Royal Canadian Legion, or its members.”
The grammar of that statement is to me curious, since I’d noticed that Mark Andrade was the only person to have expressed offense. (What is one to make, furthermore, of the “in no way reflects” disclaimer when the events that took place include the awarding of first prize?) Once he had done so, out came the inevitable podium-and-backdrop procession. Presumably however if the matter had not been brought to wider attention by a man who, we are informed, is “of Jamaican ancestry” — by which this journalist really means to say “black” —, it would have gone unremarked. So it’s a bit depressing, the thought necessarily occurring that the calling out of all things even possibly racist continues to be the responsibility of people of darker hue.
According to Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun, Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress said that “we have higher standards for the Canadian Legion.” I haven’t spent a great deal of time in Royal Canadian Legions (oddly enough, I’m scheduled to perform in one this month), and so I’ll have to take the Legion’s benchmark standards under advisement. The last time the Royal Canadian Legion was in the news, so far as I can recall, was 1994. A number of branches had generated controversy for their banning of “head coverings,” a generalized interdiction under which fell the Sikh Dastar, or turban, and on which they refused to compromise. Not a high water mark for positive race relations, but perhaps the tide has risen.
Notice that a tide is an analogy, and that it is the nature of a tide both to advance and recede. We progress on matters of substance, but over time ground is lost and must be recovered. There is serious debate and struggle, and there is also deviation into farce and irrelevance. The important long-term project of assigning racism to our species’ past is too often undermined but those of us who treat all mentions of race deemed by anyone “offensive” as first-order transgressions requiring investigation and labeling as a hate crime. In the current instance, an O.P.P. investigation has approached but I think stopped short of this trivializing standard, which in my judgment is a good thing.
The wheat to which I alluded earlier is the good will of the town, the universal desire to repair and reconcile. This ought to encourage us. One of the two costumed men said “it wasn’t meant to be anything racist. I’m not prejudiced. It was a Halloween costume, it was a joke.” I don’t doubt it. A tasteless, rube sort of joke, with no analogy, no shoe-on-the-other-foot equivalent. For this reason, the chaff persists in the forms of “white guilt,” which we do not need, or denial and ignorance, which we can not afford.