Why ‘calm and collected’ isn’t the only valid response to racist abuse

ANALYSIS: A pair of recent viral videos show racialized people reacting to abuse in very different ways — and both approaches are equally legitimate, writes Chantal Braganza
By Chantal Braganza - Published on May 10, 2018
a woman pointing her finger at someone
Screengrab from a video posted to Facebook by Monir Omerzai.

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A disturbing video of a white woman yelling racist slurs and taunts at a group of four young brown men in a Denny’s in Lethbridge, Alberta, has been circulating online over the past couple of days. “Do you pay taxes here, my friend?” she yells at one point. “Go back to your f**king country!”

Additional context has since emerged. The woman is Kelly Pocha, a British Columbia resident who was visiting Alberta in late April, when the video was taken. She heard the group in the booth behind her laughing and speaking in a language that wasn’t English. Assuming they were talking about her, she proceeded to question their citizenship, their right to be in this country, and — in one bizarre reference to “Syrian bitches” — their treatment of women.

Monir Omerzai, the 26-year-old owner of a local car dealership who moved to Canada from Afghanistan 13 years ago, took and then posted the video to Facebook on Tuesday night. “I have never seen such discrimination against me. I’ve never seen somebody hating so much for no reason,” he told the Toronto Star. “I felt horrible at the time.” The video has since gone viral and been reported on by national news outlets: Pocha’s actions have been publicly condemned by local politicians and have cost her her employment.

A similar script has played out in other viral videos from the past year: a woman aggressively heckles then-NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh at a campaign rally, accusing him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting sharia law; a woman paces about in a Mississauga walk-in clinic and demands that her son be seen by a white doctor.

Video evidence of racialized people being made to feel unwelcome in their place of birth or chosen home has become almost its own genre — and our tendency to condemn or commend the individuals involved says a lot about how we expect commentary about racism in Canada to operate.

In almost every case, such records of racist actions are lambasted online, spur op-ed discussions about intolerance in this country, and result in inevitable proclamations that such behaviour doesn’t represent the Canada we want to believe actually exists. Consider what Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman and Alberta premier Rachel Notley had to say shortly after the Denny’s video began making the rounds. Assuring people such actions aren’t acceptable is well and good, but suggesting it doesn’t exist helps no one, particularly those whose day-to-day interactions with racist behaviour haven’t been captured on video.

Then there’s the weight of expectation placed upon those on the receiving end of the abuse. “Watch these men calmly respond to a woman’s racist tirade at an Alberta Denny’s,” reads one Vice headline; many of the now thousands of comments posted to Omerzai’s Facebook post remark on the calm and collected way he and his friends responded to Pocha’s tirade. (It’s worth noting that despite their response, Omerzai and his friends were still asked by police to leave the restaurant.) There isn’t anything inherently wrong with quiet poise; what’s troubling is the lack of any viable alternative for people in such situations.

For example, consider another video that has been making the rounds this week. On Monday evening, the Waterloo Region Record reports, Kitchener Rangers forward Givani Smith gave the middle finger to Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds players during a playoff game, which earned him a two-game suspension (and a glut of online criticism). What the video of the incident did not capture: the racist slurs and threats Smith had endured for weeks leading up to the game. At one point, the Rangers hired a police escort to see Smith to and from hotels and games.   

Why should the only script for interactions like this be “Calm and Collected Person of Colour Responds to Hate with Love”? Such responses are often survival tactics, and happen precisely because the people being accosted know what’s likely to happen to them if they respond with anything resembling anger. And they know that their response will be scrutinized and generalized: as the Star’s Shree Paradkar wrote soon after Singh’s now infamous “love and courage” response to his campaign heckler, “Were a Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper in Singh’s place, their reactions, too, would be dissected, but they would not be seen as reflective of all white people.” 

I’m not suggesting that meeting hate with anger is better, but that we need to acknowledge that anger is an understandable human response to hate. Racialized people are expected to act a certain way when they’re confronted by it — and that alone can be its own type of oppression.

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