Accidental racism is still racism, and always warrants an apology


(Keiandra Watkins / Ryersonian Staff)

I hate going to work things. You know, the “Hey, we’re going to Moxie’s for a drink,” or, “Hey, we’re all going to so-and-so’s house to hang out.” No thank you.

Well, I usually come up with something less direct and more polite, always accompanied by a smile and followed with a, “Thanks anyways, I’ll be there next time, I swear.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my co-workers at Al’s Grocery — a place filled with good looking 20-somethings who all get along a little too well.

I’ve learned one important thing since working there for over a year: pretty people and their “first world problems” amount to explosive, unfiltered, tsunami-like gossip-fests once free from the work setting. At least, that’s what my fellow employees divulge to me after their wild nights.

So, like the idiot I am, one day during the summer when Eva asked if I wanted to join them at Fionn MacCools, I responded with, “Yeah, sure.”

I was there and so was my co-worker, Mike. We were the token minorities. Oh yeah, I’m black by the way. And so is Mike.

Six of us made it out that night and, to my surprise, the evening was tolerable. We shared nachos and tasted each other’s sugary cocktails. And, yes, we spoke about our psycho boss, the cute package boys, and the bitchy girls from the produce section.

And that’s when it happened.

As the night was winding down, we asked for the bill and Eva pulled out a black CIBC debit card. I’m with the same bank and normally the cards are red. So, I asked Eva why she had a black card.

Her slightly intoxicated response started out as: “because I’m a nigg—” and, in the same breath, she changed the topic. “So, have you all seen that one movie where….”

Right then I thought to myself: should I say something? Mike didn’t. And like word vomit, I exclaimed: “Say it. Say the word. You had every intention of saying it, so say it.” And the entire table went silent.

As embarrassed as I was for losing my cool, I felt it was wrong of her to not immediately say sorry. I mean, if you’re going to be accidentally racist, at least apologize.

“No, no. I didn’t mean … wait, why is your card red?”

I snapped, “Because I am a nigger.” Once again, the whole table went silent.

Why did I feel at liberty to say the word? Because I’m not ashamed of it, of what it means and what it stands for. But that doesn’t give Eva the right to use it candidly and irresponsibly. Sweeping it under the rug with no apology was simply disrespectful.

Eventually someone changed the subject. We all acted like the semi-racist elephant in the room didn’t exist and the night ended. Eva said nothing to me, not even goodbye.

So, like the mature 21-year-old that I am, I gave her the silent treatment during our next shift together. This was about two days after the incident. To my surprise, she continued to talk to me — more so than usual. I responded with a series of eye rolls, head nods and closed-mouth smiles.

When I saw her at work the next day, I had convinced myself to let it go, that she meant nothing by it. But I realized that if I ignored it, it would mean I don’t respect myself enough to stand up for who I am. Also, I refuse to avoid confrontation over something I find so offensive.

So I mustered up the awkward strength to say to her, “by the way, what you said the other night? I was totally offended and felt extremely disrespected by you.”

Her response? “Oh really? I’m so sorry.”

How could she be surprised that using a derogatory term that applies to two of six people in a public setting is not OK? Then she added, “but I didn’t say the whole word, I stopped myself.”

The word is in her vocabulary and she obviously uses it. Only saying part of the word, is a nonsensical defence.

After another apology, we had both moved on. No grudges, no anger.

I felt it was necessary to address it because she did everything in her power to ignore it: at the bar by changing the subject, at work by not ever attempting to apologize and by not noticing my silence as anger.

The sad reality is, Eva isn’t the exception. Everyone says that word. However, in her case, if she’s inconsiderate enough to accidentally say it in the presence of black people, I don’t want to know what she says when we’re not listening. And that goes for the rest of society.

Before this incident, I thought discrimination was on the decline. Now thanks to Eva’s slip-up, I realize that we still have a long way to go.

All of this is to hammer home the fact that I will never go back to another work function. There’s already been talk of a big Christmas party and I plan on having chlamydia or West Nile virus a week or two prior to that one.

*All names of people and locations have been changed.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 17, 2014.

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