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Self-portrait of a racist Add to ...

For the past year or so, I have been keeping something I call a racism journal. This was inspired by the actor Michael Richards, whose bigoted onstage outburst in 2006 made everyone gasp "Not Kramer!" and for a week or two enjoy Seinfeld a little less. (In case you've forgotten: Mr. Richards was performing stand-up and responded unforgivably to two black hecklers. There was some bit about forks and trees, also, which I still don't understand.)

The common response to Mr. Richards was vilification. He had done something evil and was therefore evil, despite appearing via satellite on Letterman and begging for forgiveness. Mr. Richards claimed he wasn't racist and didn't know where the words had come from - but this wasn't enough. Even though Michael Richards said, "I'm not a racist," the cat was out of the bag. Michael Richards was most definitely a racist.

To those who condemned him, granted, what the guy did was appalling and beyond apology. Still, what disappoints me is that his diatribe didn't really spark any sort of discussion; people labelled him a dick or lunatic and that was pretty much it. One of the few thoughtful responses came from Michael Shermer at the Los Angeles Times, who had the guts to admit, "Consciously and publicly, Richards is probably not a racist. But unconsciously and privately, he is. So am I. So are you." Mr. Shermer references Project Implicit, a Harvard research study that tests for innate judgments on various categories, including race. The results of the study reveal startling prejudices among participants who otherwise consider themselves liberal and open-minded.

I like that the folks at Harvard are confronting purportedly progressive people with this stuff. Usually, racism isn't something we're allowed to engage with, beyond condemning it - and certainly never, ever admit to. But it's exactly this repression that makes us prone, like Michael Richards, to silently harbouring hatred and bigotry. And my own feeling was that, rather than let these thoughts fester in my subconscious, it would be best to address them, get them out, and hopefully prevent horrible, surprising things from boiling over.

Facing race

On Tuesday, Barack Obama spoke directly, with honesty, to the people of America. "Race is an issue," he said, "that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."

The same is true in Canada, although it's a difficult topic: What do we say? I don't consider myself racist - an attitude I believe I share with most conscientious Canadians. We live in a multicultural country that esteems acceptance, where children grow up learning that racism is wrong and paint murals to prove it. In Canada, calling someone "racist" is an insult based on our homegrown values of politeness and propriety: 1) Accept everyone; 2) Don't rock the boat; 3) When someone, regardless of race, holds a door for you, say, "Thank you," and when someone says, "Thank you," say, "You're welcome."

Racism in Canada isn't a problem of public opinion, nor does it commonly manifest itself in violence as it does elsewhere in the world.

Toronto, especially, enjoys an international reputation as a mosaic of ethnicities and religions, where immigrants are encouraged to speak their native languages and practice their faiths. And, to be fair, the Torontonian approach to racial multiplicity is based in tenets of which we should be proud. True equality, however, extends beyond merely allowing people into the city and then tolerating their behaviour.

While we denounce other places with institutionalized policies that discriminate against immigrants, or disallow them entirely, in idealistic Toronto a brand of racism is practiced that is much deeper and more systemic.

Admitting this is nothing earth-shattering; these days, many of us recognize that Toronto's multicultural veneer is less than flawless. A recent, useful case is the Aileen Siu-Evon Reid debacle of July of last year, which revealed that casually racist attitudes infiltrate even our supposedly egalitarian provincial government.

Like Michael Richards's tirade, Ms. Siu's moronic e-mail resulted in public denunciation of an individual; similarly, it also failed to galvanize much thoughtful dialogue. Surely, more people than we'd like to think at Queen's Park could have been the one calling Evon Reid a "ghetto dude." Instead, in typical Toronto style, Ms. Siu was lambasted in the media, but then more or less exonerated from the entire mess when she left her job days later. With Ms. Siu gone, we were to believe that the premier's office had been purged of its racist element.

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