You don’t have to work in public relations to see we are living through a pivotal moment in modern history. The recent international protests around race and race relations have made us collectively stop and think about our own experiences with racism and discrimination. Here at PR Associates, we wanted to share our own stories.
I Grew Up a Racist
I try not to remember much about that day in the schoolyard outside the Loon Lake Central School when an older boy spit in my face and called me a dirty Indian.
He may have shoved me or hit me, I’ve blocked that part out. What I do remember was running to take my turn to ride the twirler when he tripped me, and I fell face-first into the mud puddle at the base of the spinning death machine.
Recalling this brush with racism almost half a century ago, I realized the scar from this schoolyard incident had not fully healed. But not for the reasons you might think.
I was a white kid, and in 1970 at the Central School I attended, being called a dirty Indian was the most hateful, derogatory insult anyone could spew at you.
What saddens me now is to realize I grew up a racist.
To ask what it is like to grow up a racist is almost to ask what it’s like to grow up in Northern Saskatchewan.
We learned to be racists at a young age.
All my friends were racist and I laughed along when we taunted—the Chinese kids whose family ran the local restaurant because of the shape of their eyes, or the girl who had repeated first grade a couple of times because she had a learning disability, and most of all, the kids from the reserve because we felt so superior.
I had close relatives who were racist, too. They used racist terms and often expressed derogatory views regarding Indigenous people. The rest of the family tolerated this. The other adults would shake their heads, roll their eyes and gently rebuke them, but there was an acceptance that this was just the way they were. The way we all were.
Yet, when I was on the receiving of hate that day, I never equated my feelings to my own racism, rather to what I was wearing.
Let me explain.
Weeks before school started that fall, an order-desk-clerk in a Levi warehouse in Winnipeg made a mistake and substituted a shipment of straight-legged Levi blue jeans with bell-bottom jeans. The kind flared at the knee.
I had spent the summer in the City where Sonny and Cher’s show had turned bell-bottom jeans into a fashion craze. The jeans were flying off the shelves in Edmonton like kids launched off the twirler in the schoolyard.
I loved my jeans. The fuller the flare, the better.
I used sandpaper so they would fade in all the right places. I’d hang them in the sun to dry so they’d fit tight across my backside, and ironed straight creases in the legs, so the flare was right from the knee.
That summer, I grew my hair long and felt like an urban maverick on the edge of the fashion revolution wearing those jeans in the City. Still, back home in Northern Saskatchewan, it was a different story.
Sonny and Cher’s show was not broadcast in northern Saskatchewan, so the bell-bottoms’ delivery was refused by all stores and ended up at the local Thrift Store, where most people from the Reserve shopped.
So imagine my surprise when I strode into the school that autumn wearing my faded, tight-fitting, flared jeans, thinking I was making a fashion statement, but instead was targeted by a straight-leg, Wrangler-wearing white boy for wearing what he branded Indian jeans.
That’s what it’s like to grow up racist.
To live in a world where arbitrary things like the jeans you wear matters. To live in a place where differences, gender and ethnicities matter a great deal, whether you want it to or not.
For me the solution was easy. I folded my jeans and put them in a closet. My problems disappeared and I went back to being a racist.
It wasn’t until my university years that it was pointed out to me by a wise person that I was a racist. She was much kinder in her delivery, but I heard her.
After many conversations, I started trying to understand my white privileges. It’s not easy to accept that I enjoyed the freedom and opportunities that others did not.
I mean, I was never turned down for a job because of my skin colour. I never asked retail staff not to follow me around the store as I shopped indecisively. I never asked my neighbours not to call the cops when I locked myself out of the house and had to break in through a window.
It’s important to realize we have been socialized into racist systems and it’s inevitable we will have blind spots. It’s akin to swimming with a current rather than against it.
Even today, despite living in a multiethnic relationship and feeling the rage, understanding the anger, watching and sympathizing with the Black Life Matters marches and protests, I still sometimes struggle with why I am defensive and unable to completely unlearn the impulsive racism I learned growing up.
I could never feel, or imagine how difficult it is to grow up in our society, and be targeted for being different. Now instead of asking if I’ve been shaped by my past, I need to ask myself how I’ve been shaped, which leads me to believe the best way to eliminate racism is to make sure nobody grows up a racist.
Robert Simpson is the president and CEO of PR Associates.