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Racism in Canada: A Night at the Roxy

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A woman of mixed Cree, Metis, Ojibwa and Scottish descent arrived at Vancouver's Roxy Nightclub one evening in March of 2009, and was denied entry.

Colleen Mitchell White, whose complaint against the club is going through the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, says she arrived bearing a golf club and was told she was not allowed to enter with it. She returned without it, and was then denied entry because she was wearing moccasins.

When she protested and said that her footwear of choice served her ancestors well for centuries of hunting, the doorman replied she should hunt outside since there were no buffalo inside the club.

The intriguingly named Ms. White protested, and claims she was then manhandled by the doorman and called a "prostitute." Spokesmen for the Roxy do not deny the buffalo comment, but claim Ms. White was intoxicated and unruly.

I find this story depressing, fascinating and all too familiar. Its symbolic power is almost more interesting than its actuality. On the surface it's a very colonial story, about gatekeepers and the power they wield. And yet on one level it's pure performance art. In fact, if this weren't an actual case brought before the Human Rights Tribunal, it would be an interesting situationist intervention, or something suitable for reframing, video looping or otherwise recreating aesthetically (think: Jeff Wall's Mimic -- his 1982 colour transparency that recreates a scene he witnessed on a Vancouver street, of a white man giving the finger to an Asian man, while making a slanty eyed gesture with another digit)

I wonder if Ms. White was aware of the statement she was making. First of all, showing up with a golf club and moccasins, sounds like a fantastic subversion of the Preppy Handbook. Dress code? Smesh code. Ms. White's attire sounds like the perfect thing for "the club." Was she consciously subverting the uber-WASP golf world, or unconsciously hoping it would earn her "permission" to enter?

And what was the doorman thinking? 'Drunk Indian woman prostitute buffalo hunter?' Was he going for the obvious stereotype as ironic commentary on our social condition? Perhaps he was just an angry art school drop out whose situationism got the best of him?

And frankly, why would anyone want to go to the Roxy -- unless of course -- they were really smashed or masochistic. Speaking personally as a mixed race 43-year-old woman who can't stay up past midnight anymore and hates loud, electronic, base-throbbing, digitized 'music,' the thrill of hitting the clubs -- and facing potential racial profiling by doormen -- angry art school dropouts or not -- was gone many moons ago.

I remember sneaking out of the apartment I shared with my mother as a teenager, circa 1983 -- dressed in a distressed vintage prom dress, fingerless gloves, and sporting short cropped spiky hair and white face makeup -- and hitchhiking downtown at midnight.

My destination was a club called Faces -- part gay disco/part performance art spectacle -- where Lady Gaga would have felt right at home -- and anyone wearing moccasins would have been welcomed in an ironic Village People kind of way.

I stopped going to clubs in Vancouver when I turned 18, and the thrill of fake ID and 'passing' ended around the same time all the interesting clubs and live music venues closed down, only to be replaced by dull, corporatized, Invasion of the Body Snatchers places, where accountants came to get high.

So I've never had the pleasure of being racially profiled by a doorman at the Roxy. But I have worked in newsrooms where casual jokes were made in my face about "terrorists" and I was nicknamed "Pocahontas." I've been ejected by guards at a Vancouver Institute-sponsored lecture on Iraq by Hans Blix, guards who had un-named "security concerns" about me (when I phoned Hans a few days later to tell him, he was rather shocked). And I've been commandeered by the head of the Vancouver Writer's Festival, who easily spotted me amongst a crowd of elderly white people, and told to sit in the back of the theatre where I belonged.

Oddly enough this was for a discussion about race, belonging and "otherness" featuring writers like Gillian Slovo and Rawi Hage. Chaired by a perky, middle-aged blonde woman, disaster struck when she began by asking Hage -- who at the time was arguably the most celebrated Canadian author of the day having just won the IMPAC prize for De Niro's Game -- whether he felt like a "real Canadian" or not. Hage let loose a dignified slow burn and replied, "That is an insulting question and I will not answer it."

After that the evening proceeded like an awkward dinner party where nobody wanted to mention the war - rather indicative of our national attitude to race and racism. It's something we'd rather not mention. Something we'd like to sweep under the mantle of our national mythology that Canada is a kinder, gentler nation where racism does not exist (unlike say, our neighbour to the South).

While I almost expect to be put through 'random screenings' at U.S. airports, what I find truly creepy is the way the middle-aged white security guard at the Safeway where I've been shopping for years in Vancouver eyes me like a criminal every time I come into the store.

It reminds me of the stories I collected from Nisga and Haida elders up north, when I was doing a documentary on my Christian Lebanese great-grandparents' journey to Prince Rupert over 100 years ago. They had excellent relations with local First Nations people I was told, partly because their grocery shop was the only one in town where native people were not harassed by 'store detectives.' Later, in the back of that same store in the 1940s, their son, my grandmother's brother, would be formally adopted by Haida Chief William Matthews. It happened clandestinely, as religious ceremonies like adoption or say the potlatch, were still illegal.

The retail realm still remains a potent one for racial -- and other kinds of profiling (think how well Jerry Seinfeld exploited this to great comedic effect). Likewise border zones (artist Mona Hatoum has used this to great effect) and public transit.

But in terms of the nightclub/doorman and the 'permission to enter -- or not' scenario, I would defer to the Saturday Night Live alumni rich film A Night at the Roxbury (which, for local sensibilities, could be changed here to A Night at the Roxy).

If you're not a fan, the lowdown is that two Arab-American 'club kids' brothers played by Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell, long to get into the Roxbury - the coolest club in town - but can't. But their dream of opening an inside/outside club -- where the outside looks like the traditional club interior and potential patrons can wait in line in comfy chairs and soft lighting -- and the inside looks like a street scene -- eventually becomes a reality and all ends well.

I know, you'll call me a dreamer... But if only I could find the right investor I could start my own Vancouver version of the 'inside/outside' club. The door would be staffed by Metis women wielding golf clubs and wearing moccasins. They would carefully question middle-aged white men with tattoos/angry art school dropouts/former bouncers about their ancestry.

"Where are you from?" they'd demand. "Did any of your ancestors work at residential schools?" But after a few minutes of situationist absurdity, they'd let all but the most dangerous and drunk ones inside, into an open space where everyone could dance together.

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