By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on October 15, 2020.
One person’s encounter with the issue in Lethbridge
On the afternoon of Oct. 5, I walked straight into the arms of an ugly beast. A beast that is ever-present in our lives but one that I had never had a first-hand encounter with before. The beast of racism. A beast that feeds on the colonial legacy of thieves that pillaged the land we now call home. The story I am about to tell is sadly not one that holds any uniqueness; it’s a story of systemic racism that persists in a country that dares to call itself progressive. Racism affects everyone in some kind of way, and I implore you to read this and begin a discussion in your lives.
I walked into a Lethbridge drug store, $8 bottle of nail polish in hand, frustrated with myself that I had bought a colour I already own. The second I stepped foot into the store and met eyes with the cosmetics cashier, I instantly knew something was wrong. The look on the cashier’s face looked as if my appearance had left a bad taste in her mouth. I tried to convey from under my mask that I was friendly as I walked to line up at the customer service till. As I waited I noticed that the cosmetics cashier was calling the other worker. As I approached the counter the cashier hung up and forcefully said that she would be unable to process my return because I had used the product. Confused as to how they could tell that without having looked at the bottle or spoken to me, I was told that cosmetics had deemed my return unfit and to take it up with them.
I received the same treatment from the cosmetics cashier until she eventually looked at the bottle and took my return, having to admit to herself it had not been used. I watched her happily greet white customers as she rudely finished my return. As I turned to go I heard her mutter under her breath, “Natives.” I called to complain about this treatment but as of Oct. 13 have still not heard back after being told this would be a priority for them.
One thing you should know about me is that I am not of First Nations ancestry. I am half white, half Chinese but in the summer my skin is apparently dark enough to attract differential treatment like someone of the Indigenous community may experience. I take this as a compliment as I think they embody strength and resilience, but others around me seem to take this as an insult to the white world they live in.
Canada was built with the blood of the people that were on this land first. Europeans set foot in this country and began to carve arbitrary borders through the homes and livelihoods, they uprooted families and stole children. Wars were fought over stolen land that left populations of people robbed of their right to be treated as an equal human. Yes, some may argue that this is our history and that we have come far but I will argue that we have not come as far as we think and not nearly far enough.
When I told my story to the people around me many of their responses used the term “casual racism.” “Oh, you know, Kathleen, just your everyday casual racism.” It was said as a joke but in my thoughts, it began to take more shape and hold more meaning. I began to think about the way this combination of words can hold real meaning.
Firstly, I need to emphasize that there is nothing casual about racism in the traditional use of the word. Casual as defined by the Oxford dictionary is “seeming not to be worried; not wanting to show that something is important to you,” these definitions of casual is not what I’m talking about when I place that word in front of racism. What I mean to convey when I use the term “casual” is the “not showing much care or thought” definition of casual. Racism is embedded in our lives whether we are comfortable with that idea or not. It is built into our systems and institutions. When I think and speak about casual racism from now on, I will think of the way it exists in the mundane aspects of our lives. The way a person is treated differently when they walk into a store because of the colour of their skin. Casual racism is the way racism operates every second of every day and we don’t even seem to notice.
A professor of mine once used the phrase “power operates best via its own erasure.” Meaning that power holds the most weight when we don’t even notice the way it affects our lives. When a white person walks into a drug store, $8 bottle of nail polish in hand, and is greeted with a friendly voice; when a white person goes missing and the police exhaust every resource to bring them home. White privilege is an institution held up by the pillars of modern-day colonialism and the colonial legacy.
I tell you this story in hopes that it will resonate somewhere inside of you. I hope to use the white privilege I am granted most of the year to try and shed light on how unequal our Canadian society is. I hope you read my words and begin to identify the daily occurrences of racism that happen around you. I hope you care about your fellow people and become a place of safety and understanding. I hope you take part in everyday acts of decolonialization, small or large, that work to remedy the sickness that has infected our country for too long. I hope you ask better not just of the people around you but yourself as well.
Kathleen Mah is a fourth-year student at the University of Lethbridge, majoring in anthropology and minoring in Women and Gender Studies.