Just now, I was talking with a friend about the Oscars, and some tweets by W. Kamau Bell in particular that were trying to raise awareness about Fruitvale Station, a really incredible movie from last year about the true story of a young black man shot and killed while cuffed and detained by BART police officers in Oakland. It’s a powerful movie and I, like Bell, encourage you to see it. Bell’s point is that while another movie about the black experience in America, 12 Years a Slave, is good, it risks furthering the narrative that racism in the US is “over,” that it’s something that we’ve dealt with and can move past now. Fruitvale Station, on the other hand, is about the ways racism is still real and cuts young, vibrant lives short now. Again, go see it, because it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
But thinking about the ways that racism and other prejudices still exist but do so more insidiously, I started thinking and talking about something that happened to me this week. I was in my condo building’s elevator in the morning on my way to work, and in stepped a friendly acquaintance of mine in the building. She was on her way to a billiards tournament at the River Cree Casino, a casino on a First Nations reserve just out of town, and complaining about the early hours, so I just mentioned, offhand, “Well, at least they’re probably going to provide coffee, at least,” because I dunno, I assumed maybe they might? I don’t know how casinos operate, but sometimes conferences provide free coffee to me.
"No, nothing’s covered," she told me. "Their land, their water, so we have to pay, you know?" She spat out second sentence in a way I’ve heard a lot of times in my life, the way that non-aboriginal people do when they’re saying aboriginal people are greedy and should just let the past go, sheesh, already.
I didn’t know what to do. I froze. Should I call her on it? Should I say that’s not cool, that I’m aboriginal, that her sentence was a little hurtful? We weren’t the only two people in the elevator (!), and not only did I not want to cause a scene, I didn’t know how the other person felt. Was he silent because he didn’t want to make a scene either, or because he agreed? I’m often surprised by the kind of people who have these ideas, like my friend in Grade 10 social studies class who said aboriginal people shouldn’t get any aid or funding because they don’t have jobs and will just spend it on booze and cigarettes. I didn’t say anything then, either, because it’s hard to stand up in a room full of 29 friends and ask one of them to kindly not be racist, but I eventually talked to the teacher about it and things more or less got sorted out.
I couldn’t really complain to anyone here, though, and I’m not 16 anymore, either. I should be able to fight my own fights, right? But I still didn’t know what to say, so I just shrugged, looked away, and didn’t say anything.
I wish I’d said something. I’ve felt guilty about it all week. In the moment, it’s easy to feel alone and afraid, but now I mostly just feel a little ashamed. I should have said something, because as fucked up as it is that I hear all this stuff because I take after my dad’s colouring as a light-skinned Metis man, and not my mom’s very dark skin, it makes me wonder about how people treat her, or the kind of things they might say about her when she can’t hear. What would they tell me about her if they didn’t know I was her son? What would this person have said to me if I looked like my mom? Why don’t I think about this more often? Why don’t I think about my mom’s experience more often? Am I a bad son for not thinking about it more often? I feel like I let her, my dad, my entire family, down, in a dumb way.
I should have said something.