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Rachel Décoste


Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Canada's Approach to Racism

Posted: 11/18/2013 12:36 pm

Canadian media covers a string subjects with regular frequency. Hockey and weather get daily coverage. Entertainment, national and local political reports are aplenty.

Uncomfortable issues like child pornography also make the cover pages of mainstream news reports. But there is one issue that falls through the cracks in the Canadian press's editorial room: racism. Specifically when it comes to Black Canadians, the rule of Omertà reigns.

Last week, a Torontonian was published in The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, in an op-ed audaciously entitled "Why I hate being a black man." Orville Lloyd Douglas laments the projection of negativity associated with his race and gender.

Honestly, who would want to be black? Who would want people to be terrified of you and not want to sit next to you on public transportation? A lot of the time I feel like my skin color is like my personal prison, something that I have no control over, for I am judged just because of the way I look.

While Oprah used her influence to shed light on the enduring stigmas attached to skin colour among women, this is perhaps the first time the issue is explored for men. The U.K.-based The Guardian rightfully recognized this compelling uncommonness.

Why is it that the U.K.'s newspaper is willing to publish a painfully honest editorial about race in Canada but Canadian papers aren't?

Before Mr. Douglas was published in the U.K., he submitted his personal op ed to Canadian newspapers. None of them thought this perspective was fit to print. It follows the long-standing tradition in Canada: non-stereotypical narratives of African-Canadian men are not a priority.

Douglas' fresh perspective on the black male experience was picked up days later... by American blogs and TV stations. Mr. Douglas was interviewed by none other than Don Lemon of CNN. The CNN segment was elongated on the fly, so compelling was the dialogue. As for the Canadian media, it was gripped by complete and utter silence.

This week, CBC radio's DNTO aired an episode entitled "When did you come face-to-face with race?" Tis a topic they called "touchy". CBC personalities Jian Ghomeshi, Kaj Hasselriis and Sook-Yin Lee shared their Canadian experiences with prejudice here at home. Unfortunately, the CBC bunted to the U.S. for a number of their dialogues on race.

An African-American spoke eloquently on race and the lack of education around the subject of slavery in her country. It is unclear why the Canadian perspective on this historical amnesia went untold, but it is a common tactic to pass the mic to the African-Americans, as if our experiences are identical (or close enough). By burying the CanCon, DNTO missed an opportunity to edify its listening audience.

Black Canadians took notice in August when the Canadian broadcasters brought out the red carpet for coast-to-coast coverage of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington. During the rare day-long coverage centered mostly on blackness, RDI's pundit, Donald Cuccioletta, related the thoughts of African American leaders to the Quebecois, and concluded that "Americans have not yet confronted their history of slavery and continued systemic racism".

Not a hint of irony here.

An inquisitive TV host asked a Quebecois commentator "What was it like to be a black person in America at the time of MLK's speech?" Platitudes followed. Has the question ever been asked to Black Canadians?

In September, the broadcasters gave unprecedented coverage to Black Canadian figure... Ben Johnson. How many times must Johnson be tarred and feathered? Curiously, this privilege was not bestowed upon other known Canadian dopers. Our national media devoted an entire week to commemorate the infamous Olympic cheater. When have Black Canadian civil rights heroes been given this honour?

The resurgence of blackface in Quebec and the rest of Canada have barely registered a blip in the MSM. "Petty issues" like spectacular insensitivity shown by this pair of Habs fans somehow escaped the Franco-Quebec press and the NHL. They're "just f*cking minorities so who cares! Their collective silence speaks volumes.


Not discussing the issue doesn't mean it is going to go away.
~Orville Lloyd Douglas

The CBC's bold attempt to "go there" was packaged in a short, summer-only series: Intersections. Producers sacrificed quality by lobbing dozens of inter-cultural issues in 30-minute segments. The content had the depth of a kiddie pool. Canadians left looking for more substance and nuance turned the dial to NPR's Code Switch, a broad collection of stories delivered by a team of American journalists fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture in the USA. In Canada, CBC banished this can of worms to the off-season. In the U.S., it is a year-round dialogue.

It seems that Canadian broadcasters prioritize reporting on Somali drug dealers Black criminals and athletes over all other portrayals of Black citizens. It seems we only exist during 28 days in February. Condemned to media hibernation during the other 11 months of the year, Black Canadians are forced to go abroad -- to the U.S. and the U.K. -- to watch and read of the stories which remain untold.


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