Lezlie Lowe, The Coast (Halifax, Nova Scotia), January 29, 2009
It’s almost impossible to see signs of racism in Halifax.
Not because they aren’t there–because they’re hidden in plain sight all around us.
Sure, we can convince ourselves everything’s just tickety-boo. We’re a cosmopolitan city with a healthy respect for Charter rights, aren’t we? Lynch mobs, last I checked, don’t roam the streets. So on the surface, it would seem, all is well.
Underneath? Not so much. And locked-up black hair products at a Dartmouth Shoppers Drug Mart might–key word: might–show that.
Maybe you heard the story last week? CBC reported the drugstore kept many of its black hair products under lock and key. A nearby salon owner spelled out in the report her take on what that implies: Black customers steal more than white customers.
The Shoppers franchise directed anyone seeking comment to its head office. CBC.ca readers, however, didn’t hold back.
There were 350 comments posted by the end of the weekend alone–the overwhelming majority decrying the mere insinuation that there was racism involved in the store’s policy. Racism? Well I never!
People were quick to draw parallels between the locking up of black hair-extension clips to car insurance rates for men. Meaning? Insurance rates are higher because men are behind more insurance pay-outs, just like black Dartmouthians must be behind more shoplifting. Other commenters made use of the logic theorem known as reductio ad absurdum–saying their local drugstores must be sexist, because they lock up men’s razor blades. In other words, if you agree that argument is absurd, it follows that the people alleging racism for locked-up do-rags are loonies, too.
What’s interesting here? Not that some people didn’t believe racism was the root of the store’s practice. I would realistically expect some people to say the act is discriminatory and others to argue that it isn’t. But what’s really interesting is the public’s automatic, overwhelming and in most cases vehement defence of the store. And not one of these people had yet heard the store’s reasoning.
That response only shows that Halifax’s ingrained racism–which may or may not have been a motivator in the store’s practice–is far from being on its way out the door.
No surprise. Africville and its destruction 40 years ago are still thick in the soup of this city. (The city’s wrongs won’t be erased quickly or easily; my personal dig is to say the bucking-up of long-promised government cash to rebuild the Seaview Baptist Church as a historic site would be a good gesture.)
Would the bulldozing of Africville happen today? Likely not. As a city and a province we’re been cured of our most obvious discriminatory missteps: from slavery and the lopsided Loyalist land grants of the 18th century to relatively more recent practices of prejudice like segregated schools, separate seating in public spaces and white-only clubs.
But generations of discrimination don’t disappear in a flash. Slavery was outlawed, segregation found itself on the losing side of our cultural norms and African-Nova Scotians began to take their rightful places in our classrooms, courtrooms and boardrooms. So where did the racism go? Into the catacombs of everyday culture.
Consider the fiancee of a friend of mine, a 32-year-old human resources manager who is black and who has more than once been denied entry to a prominent downtown bar. Something about his clothing for a night on the town just doesn’t seem to make the cut.
My friend herself? She’s walked into stores and been ignored–not even greeted–while sales associates have helped the white friend she’s been shopping with.
Another friend? Her black 14-year-old son was stopped and questioned by police last month on his way home from his aunt’s. He matched the description of someone, the officers told him, who had been reported breaking windows in the area. That’s the MO of racial profiling everywhere.
And consider the black hair products at the Tacoma Drive Shoppers Drug Mart. Consider, for that matter, the placement of black hair products in any drugstore. Just go check it out. See if there are electronic theft-detection devices on the boxes and bottles. Is it racist if there are? Perhaps no one can say for sure. And that’s the problem.
A racial slur spray-painted on a building? Any idiot can recognize and label that kind of bigotry. But when there’s just a shade of doubt–a dress code, busy salespeople, eager cops, maybe randomly locked-up merchandise–it leaves just enough room for that subtler racism to stick around and fester.
Have you experienced racist behaviour?
Tell Lezlie Lowe what happened at [email protected]