Monday, April 30, 2007

Ralph, Ralph, Ralph...

Ralph, meet me over at the escalators.


Look, Ralph... I know, you historically have a VERY good relationship with several of Alberta's First Nations. Hell, you're an honourary Chief of one, and were officially adopted by another. You even married a woman who is part Metis. You feel as though you're a member of that community. That's fantastic. It really is. You even feel comfortable enough around them to crack the occasional joke. Good.

And also incredibly, incredibly bad.

See Ralph, you and I suffer from what's commonly referred to as "the White Man's burden". Here's how it works: Your age, plus your relative level of whiteness, is inversely proportional to how many racial jokes and slang terms you can get away with. As an example: Eminem can say the "n" word a thousand times per album, because although he's tremendously white, he's also young. Leslie Neilsen can probably say it once. MAYBE.

Or to put this in another perspective: I am similarly quite close with a particular ethnic group - we're linked historically, as I grew up among them, and some of them have even married into my family. I am as close to a full-fledged member of that community as any white person could possibly be. I can even get away with some of the jokes and terminology that they tell and use amongst themselves - in small, intimate groups of friends. But even *I* know, after 28 years among them, that I cannot get in front of a large group of people and use one of those terms, or tell one of those jokes - because, at the end of the day, I'm NOT one of them, and I CAN'T say things like that in public, to people I don't know. My friends won't be offended - but a group of strangers sure as hell would be.

This is reminiscent of the whole debate after the Michael Richards incident a few months back.... "when is that word okay? Is it okay for blacks to use it, but not for anybody else? You're white, do YOU use it around your really close friends? Do they use it on each other?".

At the end of the day, it's about being sensitive to the sensibilities of others. I can call my really close friends all sorts of awful names, with a smile on my face while passing them a beer, and it's in good fun. Were I to call people by any of those same names in a different setting - say, a board meeting or press conference - I would be labelled just about the worst guy ever.

Ralph, you've never been accused of being the most sensitive guy around. I've rarely heard you referred to as the most SENSIBLE guy around, either. But whether or not you CARE, at this stage in life, that you're offending people, you should at least PRETEND that you understand they're a little touchy about certain things, and try not to poke them with a stick over it. Or you'll be remembered as a politically incorrect bully, instead of as the maverick premier who spoke like the average joe and looked out for Henry and Martha.

Because, when the lights go down, Ralph, no matter HOW close we are to other people and other groups... we're still white. That works well for us in countless ways - but also brings a burden of sensitivity. I'm as firm a believer as you'll ever find that, in the words of men far greater than I, "There is but one race... the Human race...". But when historically oppressed groups see people who look a whole lot like their oppressors, cracking jokes at their expense, is it any WONDER they're a little put off by it?

Save the "Funny Indian Stories" for your pals, Ralph. They KNOW you, and KNOW you're not a mean-spirited guy, or a racist. The public at large doesn't know you on that intimate a level... and it's far easier NOT to say it than to appear on camera afterwards, wearing the "Michael Richards Penitent" look, and try to convince a now-hostile audience that you aren't, in fact, a racist and "I have some wonderful friends who happen to be Native...".

We're Pale-faced devil, Ol-fay, honky crackers. Let's remember that before we start telling "funny racial anecdotes" in public, all right?

That is all.

- ES

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting coincidence. Last week Calgary Herald columnist Robert Remington was discussing (sniping, really) on the Calgary Premier's Dinner. Remington implied that Ed Stelmach was boring and should be more like Ralph (i.e. "arriving late, telling some off-colour jokes, and kicking Bronco in the butt"). Of course, Remington failed to mention Stelmach arrived early, spoke about what he was doing for Calgary and the province, and he avoided mentioning the Mayor by name when negating Bronco's recent whining. He also stayed late to talk to as many people as he could.

All the more reason for me to remember why columnists' opinions should be taken as such. Hey Remington, got a few off-colour jokes about Indians to pass on?