Coded Racism (No, I Didn’t “Just Imagine It”)

When I was 12 years old, I was getting changed for gym class when this one kid walked into the locker room.

I’d seen him around the neighbourhood, this undernourished blond dude with big early 90s glasses and messy hair. Evidently, I wasn’t moving fast enough for him, because while my memory’s fuzzy on the context of the encounter, I never forgot what this kid said to me.

“Hurry up, we’re not running on Pakistani time here.”

I remember just looking at him with anger and fear.

See, “paki”, the Mudblood-like shorthand of “Pakistani”, was the slur that the white kids (mostly of British, Dutch, and Irish ancestry) used on anyone with brown skin, and despite the fact that I was born on the other side of the world in Trinidad and Tobago, I had become accustomed to being on the receiving end of this insult during that particular epoch of Brampton, Ontario’s history.

(Based on the demographic transition in Brampton between 1992 and 2020, all I can think to say to that racist little white kid and others like him is “who’s laughing now?”. I digress).

Anyway, when Mr. Skinny Aryan Kid said what he said, I replied back firmly, uttering what my parents had told me to say in this kind of situation, “I ain’t no paki.”

To which he replied, without missing a beat, “I never said you were.”

I didn’t know what to say. I want to add some dramatic flair here, say that the little racist shit stain grinned at me smugly or something like that, but the memory just ends there.

That was, I think, one of my first experiences of gaslighting, though I didn’t have a word for it at the time. The kid didn’t have to call me “paki” to infer all the things that the slur carried with it: a smelly, inferior, funny-talking foreign brown person who had come to Canada and brought all of their strange clothes, food, and music with them.

Though I didn’t know it then, this was also my first encounter with coded racism.

Recently, while re-watching Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious”, I was reminded of this childhood incident when Lolis Eric Elie recounted the comments made by golfer Fuzzy Zoeller about Tiger Woods shortly after his victory at Augusta.

The comments Zoeller made included references to fried chicken, collared greens, calling Mr. Woods “little boy”, and other names, but not once did he say the words “black” or “African-American” in that 18 second clip.

Elie notes that Zoeller didn’t have to use the terms, because he could code his racism inside stereotypes about black people, and thus avoid being accused of overt racism by anyone listening in.

The popular misconception about racism is that many people think it only exists when the perpetrators say or do something that’s obviously racist. That’s not how it works.

The frustrating part is that the code is only understood between sender and receiver. Unless you’ve had it done to you, or unless you’re well-practiced in doing it to someone else, the words themselves seem benign because they’re not directly mentioning race.

For someone who looks like me living where I do, explaining coded racism often means butting heads with my well-meaning white friends who typically have enjoyed the privilege of not having ever been on the receiving end of it, and thus do not see it when it’s present. In these instances, they think I’m the problem.

The Don Cherry scandal last November was a great example of the confusion and frustration that coded racism creates on a population.

In late 2019, CBC sportscaster and “Hockey Night in Canada” icon Don Cherry made the following remarks leading up to our Remembrance Day festivities, which for Canadians means wearing a poppy to show support for our veterans (this is the full text of what he said, courtesy of the National Post):

“You know, I was talking to a veteran. I said ‘I’m not going to run the poppy thing anymore because what’s the sense? I live in Mississauga, nobody wears — very few people wear a poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it! Downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy.’

He says, ‘Wait a minute, how about running it for the people that buy them?’

Now you go to the small cities, the rows on rows.

You people love — that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy. These guys paid for your way of life, the life you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price.

Anyhow, I’m going to run it again for you great people and good Canadians that bought a poppy.”

The controversy that ensued saw two things: Cherry fired from his broadcasting job and nearly half my friends on my Facebook newsfeed split on whether or not that was the right thing to do.

Not surprisingly, the ones who were more heavily in favour of his getting his job back were nearly all white and either centrist or conservative in their outlooks, Canadians of British or Irish or French ancestry who were born here.

At least one of them was someone I’d previous regarded as a reliable ally in social justice, which was deeply disappointing. After arguing with them back and forth, I decided to just “agree to disagree”, which to me felt like being complicit with Cherry’s coded racism, and probably was.

Me? I was pissed. I grew up watching Don Cherry and generally enjoyed his off the cuff rants on “Hockey Night in Canada”. This wasn’t his first time saying controversial shit, but it struck home for me in a few places because nearly everything in that message was code that played into nativist, xenophobic views of immigrants: that they — that we — come to this country to mooch off of the healthcare and the education system and the welfare, and yet have zero gratitude or willingness to contribute to the country itself.

The “you people” didn’t help: even after Cherry later expressed that he wished he’d not used that term, the damage was done. We knew what Don was saying. Don was far from the first person to say such things to us.

My mostly-white friends defending Cherry didn’t understand the furor over the remarks. Hockey fans, most of them, loyal to a particular vision of Canada and with many emotional ties to the guy, they’d never been subjected to the racial codes that Cherry had either consciously or erroneously transmitted during the broadcast, and so they couldn’t perceive it as the attack and threat that it was for us.

At least one of them posted that they thought the outrage was a “liberal smear job” on a great Canadian icon, another that it was just more political correctness run amok, still another who believed it was oversensitivity on the part of “snowflakes”. Still another thought we persons of colour were just “imagining” things.

When you’re born into a society that largely protects and exempts you from experiencing identity discrimination directly, the whole notion of coded racism becomes academic, because for you, it was never a lived experience. For those of us who don’t enjoy the privilege of having won the birthplace lottery, we know differently. We know better.

Canada’s non-indigenous visible minorities are now experiencing their second and third generations here. We continue to enjoy immigration from countries where non-white populations dominate. Identity politics and intersectional challenges abound, but for a few of us — the ones who were socialized here and who have more emotional and experiential ties to this land and its cultures than the ones our parents and ancestors came from — matters like coded racism become even more complicated.

What happens when you look like you were born somewhere else, but were raised here?

One thing that happens is that you hold back on calling out racism when it happens to you. You don’t want to be “that ethnic”, the visible minority who speaks out, because then you risk being accused of lying, ingratitude, of not being “patriotic” or loyal to the country that’s given you everything.

If a white Canadian complains about something happening in Canada, they don’t get told to “go back to their own country”, even if they indeed came here from somewhere else.

There’s also a sense of hurt and betrayal, because the inner part of you that enjoys double-double coffees and watching the Leafs lose against the Canadiens forgets that you look different from most of your friends. Racism, coded and overt, reminds you of your separation from the ones you love, and that can be agonizing at times.

That agony gives way to an unexpected consequence: you start hating being associated with the “others” and seek to distance yourself from them by becoming more “Canadian”, possibly stripping yourself of your own identity and ancestry in the process.

I had told the kid in the changeroom that I wasn’t a “paki” because after being victimized so often for being “different”, I, too, had started to believe that other brown people, especially the ones who wore saris and turbans and were redolent of curry and spices whenever you walked past their house, were undesirable.

The self-hatred of minority individuals is a subject for another time, and one that I was only recently able to defeat in my late twenties and thirties, but it was greatly shaped by that single coded conversation.

If there’s one takeaway I hope you get from this meander, it’s this: discrimination is less obvious and more insidious than you might think. The ones who would have people like me “sent back” to our “own countries” know they can’t say so openly without resistance, and so they use coded language to get their ideas out.

Even as we see more open xenophobia and hatred on the streets in the Trump era, as Conservative Party politicians and members begin to parrot the same rhetoric here at home, there are still more people willing to stand up against hate than with it, so the use of code will continue among the ones doing the hating. This is a phenomenon that always bears watching, so please remain vigilant, if not for my sake, then also for your own, and for the soul of this great country we all call “home”.

Jody Aberdeen is an author, ghostwriter, podcaster, and food enthusiast. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Enthusiast. Creative Writer. Storyteller. Ghostwriter. Coach. Food Hobbyist. Dog Person. Many More…#Hamont

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