It’s the start of the holiday season, and white people, you know what that means! It’s the time of year where your racist relatives say terrible things to you over the dinner table.

Image from theroot.com

To get into the holiday spirit, I decided to do some field work, and find out from white people just how racist other white people are.

I asked white people what racist things other white people have said to them when there’s only white people around, under the assumption that they’ll agree with them because after all they’re white too.

This is what white people told me other white people talk about when we’re not in the room.

Rachel:

I’ve heard this numerous times when I was working in Nunavut. People were saying that people weren’t being sentenced like they were in the rest of Canada, like they basically don’t go to jail if they commit a crime. And that’s when I tried to have a conversation with them about the Gladue principles, and saying that the Criminal Code applies to all of Canada. 

Hilary:

These are old relatives, like they’re in their 70s and 80s. So one comment was that the house next door was for sale, and they were scared a Pakistani person would move in. 

And a lot of comments about Muslims in general, and fear that Sharia law was coming to Canada. And sort of having to point out to people that we have a human rights code and it’s impossible for Sharia law to come to Canada. This goes on all the time. 

I don’t have grandchildren, but they all do, and they’re all very religious, and so when I commented that they were very racist in their feelings about Islam, the comment was, “well, you don’t have to worry about these things because you have no grandchildren. So you don’t have to worry about the future.” 

Another instance was a relative sat down his 10-year-old granddaughter to view a video clip of someone having their hand cut off, and saying, “you should know about this, because this could come to Ontario. This is what Muslims do.” 

Jenny:

There’s so many. It’s like the background noise. It happens every day. Do you want the most frequent or the most overt? I guess the most racist thing someone said to me recently in my work, we were working with Indigenous communities and raising awareness about violence and over-incarceration of Indigenous women and someone said, well it’s all Indigenous men that are doing that. How is this our problem?

Margaret:

The stuff that I’ve heard is more particularly about immigrants, and particularly Muslims. So people seem quite happy so say, “There’s too much immigration! There’s too many Muslims coming into the country. And they’re all murderers.” Like, literally. “They’re all murderers,” someone said to me. “Their religion is about murder.”

Marianne:

What haven’t I heard? “They’re all lazy.” “Black people are lazy.” This comes up at work, for example. “They’re always late, they have a different sense of urgency. It’s not the same as ours.” I’ve heard that also for Indigenous people. “Indian time.”

Dawn:

I have brothers and sisters who are Aboriginal, and I’ve had people ask me if they really drink as much as people think they do.

Image by Robert Bahou.

Marianne:

It’s cheque day. You never hear that about white people. 

Image by Robert Bahou.

Rebecca:

Just moreso a person who would make jokes with the n word in it and think that it was not a problem. It wasn’t even like she was asking me to agree with her, she would just say it. 

Delaine:

I work with a lot of volunteers who are working with immigrants, so I get a lot of fetishizing kind of comments. Particularly like white men talking about how they dated a Chinese woman once so that’s why they want to volunteer. Like they’ll go “oh, she was so beautiful, and she was the best woman I ever dated and that’s why I’m now interested in other cultures.” I get that comment often.

I’ve also had in previous jobs just expecting complicity with the angry Black woman thing. So like, “oh, she’s nice, but I just find that she’s a little bit angry.” That’s one of the more common ones that I’ve come across. 

Mary:

I used to work at a convenience store in the South End and a white man came into the store at the same time as a group of Black girls and said to my white co-worker, “Boy, are those girls in the wrong end of town.”

Lauren:

Oh shit. Like just the ongoing dialogue about why there’s so many car accidents in the city is because there’s increased Syrian and Middle Eastern people. 

I’ve heard this so often. So I was in a car accident in May, just like rear-ended. And because of this I started the process of going to physiotherapy at a clinic that deals with car insurance. So all of a sudden I found myself bi-weekly for months sitting around other individuals who had been in car accidents. None of whom had been in car accidents with anyone who wasn’t white. Like everyone was in car accidents with other white people.

But yet, you’d be sitting in a chair and random men and women would just start talking to you about how many car accidents there are in the city, and it was consistently being blamed on any non-white individuals. And I was like, “What is this? What are you even talking about?” 

Sarah:

I’m in an African history class taught by a white professor filled with all white students, which is already a great start. Last class we had was last week, and somebody asked, even though this is a topic we’ve been covering the whole time, why we were still talking about the history prior to European contact and the professor was not particularly stern about telling them otherwise, so then I had to be. 

Christine:

Just general sentiments when Indigenous people are claiming protection over land, like it being greedy, it being gaming the system to gain privilege. That’s very common. Just being like, they just want to take over everything.

Sarah:

The other thing that comes to mind is the rampant use of slurs still, but only in all-white spaces. So there’s people you never hear using that language when there’s a single person in the room that they think will call them out, and I even see it decline as I call them out with that same person, but then other people will say that when I leave, they use that word again.

Christine:

And it’s often liberal people who think they are doing it ironically who never do it in front of people of colour, but think they have enough trust in this white space that people will know they’re not racist. 

Michelle:

A lot of times I’ll hear people say, “I’m not racist, but…”

And when describing people and hesitating to say their race, like hesitating before they say, “my…Black colleague.”

Recently in my workplace, I only have white work mates, and people were saying “people are so politically correct nowadays.” 

That’s one that annoys me. It’s always white people, and usually white men, who are like, “oh, people need to stop being so radical. People need to realize everyone’s a good person and stop being so divisive.”

Claire:

Ranking races of different women by beauty. Classic. 

Me: So what’s the rank?

I shut it down before it gets that far. 

Andrea:

Or they’ll say, ‘I’m not racist, I’m just really not into insert racial group.

Well, that was fun! I realized everyone I asked were women, so I messaged men and asked them what racist stuff white people say to them. As of press time, they haven’t collated their responses, so find out next week what people say to white men when they think it’s safe.

And because Tim let me know that he expects me to write an “Ask Ellie” column to get us some of that media diversity funding, if anyone has tips on how to shut down unwelcome racist conversations with relatives, co-workers, or random people at the car insurance office, post your tips in the comments below.


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El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Would it harm anyone to include the word “some” in the title?
    As written, the title itself seems a bit so.

  2. The call out for tips made me think of this great bit, near the conclusion of El’s piece on the racist imagery at the NSCC childhood education centre… “It doesn’t have to be the case that whoever created this image did so with the intent of harming Black women or that they necessarily recognized the racial stereotypes underlying this representation. Focusing discussion on whether the person who made is “is racist” rather than why this imagery persists and its effect of Black people ignores the systemic issues Fells identifies that affect how Black people are treated in schools and in wider society.”
    When I read this at the time it stuck in my head… this is really constructive advice. I interpret it as a call to focus on empathy and understanding, and a call to focus on the larger problem and how it is able to persist, event though we all think we are basically decent people.

    Also, if we could deliver the messages that people don’t want to hear with the equivalent of cute cat pics, we would probably be making way more progress.

  3. A+ selection of cat photos.

    I used to work downtown in an office tower. Decided to walk up to Dee Dee’s for lunch one day and a cow-orker said “Ew, in the *hood*?”

    Lots of that kind of stuff.

  4. Eek, both disgusting and sadly unsurprising. Also, shutting down racist conversations can be socially tricky. The other month someone at brunch kept going on about how you should NEVER go to the North Branch Library, the North End was so dangerous and other things in this same vein. And there was something about that that really struck me as racist, so I told the person “When you talk like that, it really sounds like racism to me.” The friends at brunch have not invited me out again, and I don’t know if that’s why. And honestly it got me second-guessing myself. Was I being too sensitive? Should I have called it out? I think it’s important to not let that stuff slide, but I do wonder if I would have done it in other situations, e.g. if it was my boss saying that stuff instead of a casual acquaintance.

    Another question I can’t help but wonder…. how many cat photos does El Jones have on her hard drive???

  5. successful shut down? it depends on who they are VS who you are. what is your relative status in the group. CGT’s dad’s comment carried weight because he is (most likely) male/white/older and perhaps the host for the evening. if it had been said by a youngster, a different reaction. peer to peer admonitions work best, i think. like men censuring men who smack women around. the patrick stewart method.
    me, i am old, white, grandmother and employed, so i tell anyone i want ‘are you some kind of idiot?’
    but anyone saying anything is worth it. speak up.

  6. how to shut it down?

    My wife told me a story the other day. Her father and his brothers & sisters got together recently for the first time in a long time. One of them started going on about what to call Indigenous people and used the n-word to say that’s what she called Black people. Silence. Then her dad, who’s the quiet man who never raises his voice or causes a fuss, just said “well that’s just fucking ignorant!” That shut her up ….

  7. Okay, I’ll go for it- an entry for your ‘Ask Ellie’ soon-to-be-column. How to shut down racist conversations.
    First, although they are unwelcome, don’t run and hide. If it’s bullshit and you know it ,CALL ‘BULLSHIT’.
    Second, seek to educate by asking questions like a) How do you know this? What data, research, etc. do you have to back up what you are saying? b)When the data comes,(if it comes) examine it with care. Debunk it if you are so inclined. But, more importantly, OFFER BETTER INFORMATION.

    Take Gladue considerations for sentencing involving First Nations offenders. I hadn’t heard of it until I read Bad Medicine by Judge John Reilly. Gladue principles as applied by sentencing judges made perfect sense to me having read this book.
    Here’s the most important “tip”- EDUCATE. Tell people gathered why it is becoming more common to have public meetings start with an acknowledgement that we are on unceded Mi’kmaq land. Just making the declaration is salutory, not educational. Take a minute to give the context- not a sermon or lecture!
    Educate people about the economic impact of immigrants. Also point to the value many immigrants put on giving back. We’ve seen so many examples of that in Canada- even right here in Pictou County, the place where Viola Desmond was so harshly treated. Is there a kid in the public school system in NS who does not know and understand the Viola Desmond story? Probably not, and that is good, but the time has gone into the educating of the students and the public on this woman’s story and the injustice she suffered.
    Educate those taking Canadian history in high school that there are reasons why people in Nova Scotia have a problem with statues standing in celebration of those who would see First Nations people scalped as a means of asserting the white man’s way over all First Nations’ people.

    In a discussion,last year, with Indigenous Youth Leaders at something called the Nation to Nation National Summit, former Prime Minister Paul Martin moderated a discussion with three Indigenous youth leaders: Riley Yesno, First Nations and student at U. of Toronto; Andre Bear, First Nations Youth and Gabrielle Fayant, representing land-based Metis. Gabrielle made the point that it is important for non-Indigenous people to be aware of the actual history of Canada , and she told those present that they needed to forget what they had learned in school.

    (Perhaps a second column could be devoted to what sort of data is being kept and shared with the public on incidents of bullying in our schools. Such data could be disaggregated to determine its impact on certain groups within schools.)

  8. ‘Cheque day’ has nothing to do with skin colour. It refers to when OAS, CPP and social assistance money goes in the bank or arrives in the mail – direct to the bank is faster than the mail. I have heard many seniors refer to ‘cheque day’, the day they go shopping for deals. Our next cheque day is November 28.
    The most racist words said to my face were ‘You fucking limeys coming over here taking our fucking jobs’.
    That was after I had worked with Bulgarians,Czechs,Dutch,Danish,German, Maldivian,Indian, Hong Kong,Japanese, Sierra Leoneans,Americans,Poles,S Africans ( one of whom was Jewish but delighted in disparaging black people and calling them ‘munts’. Irony was not his strong suit)

    1. Colin, I’m sure you’ll agree that while the term cheque day can be used in a completely benign way, like so many words, it becomes racist when it is used in a derogatory way to malign or belittle or disparage or simply judge someone based on race. If a store clerk says to her coworker, “it must be cheque day” when a Black person walks in to the store, then that definitely has to do with skin colour.