Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.
Most often I see it at the grocery store, as I did one morning this week. I was in a hurry and grabbing a few things on my way to work. An older Chinese woman at the front of the line was attempting to return an opened, two-litre carton of buttermilk, receipt in hand. She was having a hard time communicating her request to the cashier.
I guessed the woman had mistaken the buttermilk for something else, and not noticed until she got home and opened it. The cashier did her best, but slightly exasperated, finally looked around for a Chinese-speaking colleague to help her out.
The man in front of me, expletives at the ready, sighed deeply, shifting from foot to foot, and finally asked the cashier, "What's the problem?"
"She wants to return this but I don't know why," the cashier replied.
He turned to scan the line, shaking his head, apparently looking for someone with whom he could commiserate. There were no takers. He was left to mutter curses under his breath.
Thirty seconds later a young woman arrived, listened to the older woman for 10 seconds and said to the cashier, "Just do it."
The man in front of me let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
Would the situation have been different had the older woman not been Chinese but Caucasian? I'm convinced it would have been. I've seen this sort of thing all too often to think otherwise.
But because his words weren't outright racist, because he didn't call her a derogatory name, I stayed quiet. Refusing to acknowledge his anger was my small protest.
For a city that brags about its ethnic diversity, and for a society that claims to value our differences and preaches tolerance (an unfortunate word), subtle and casual racism is all around us. We're soaking in it.
Think about the times you've been in a car with a driver who's frustrated with a slow or erratic vehicle in front of them. As they pass they take note of the offending driver. If the driver is Chinese, they might say, "Figures." I'll often ask, "What figures?" The answer is most often, "You know."
I don't, actually.
Decades ago, when I worked in the restaurant business as a server and later as a manager, I recall what would happen when I would seat a party of Chinese people in someone's section. It usually came in the form of a sarcastic "Thank you" from the server. The issue from the server's point of view? Chinese people didn't drink – or didn't drink enough, meaning a bill that was half of what it could have been. The server would often try to speed them along to be replaced with a more profitable party.
I remember once calling out a bartender for a casually racist comment about a customer and being told that I didn't need to "carry the weight of the world on my shoulders."
All of this, of course, is being written from the perspective of a middle-aged white man who has no idea what it's like to step into someone else's skin, speak in their voice or live one second of their experience. I get that.
To talk about race or racism is a minefield. Even this modest suggestion that we try not to make assumptions about people or stereotype them is to invite all sorts of abuse, so the temptation is to say nothing.
I'm generally not one for quoting song lyrics, but Sinead O'Connor hit the nail on the head when she sang, "These are dangerous days. To say what you feel is to dig your own grave."
At a time when racist attacks are on the rise, when a person can be killed for trying to defend someone from a racist assault – we need to say how we feel more than ever.
That begins with calling out the casual racists around us. The people who make assumptions, make jokes, mutter under their breath and say things like "Figures." Remaining silent is a tacit endorsement and an indication that everything is fine. It's not.