LETTER: Hate, Silence, & the Responsibility of a Community

Here, people can’t afford to lose jobs. In the instance that someone does because of racist rhetoric, our failure to hold them accountable is compounded.

In early September, a young man from the Baie Verte Peninsula was fired from his job at Anaconda Mining, a gold mine near Baie Verte, for racist and homophobic comments he made on a Black Lives Matter Facebook post.

I am from the same town as this man. He is a year younger than me and our childhoods and adolescent lives were entangled in the particular way they are when you grow up in outport Newfoundland. My life eventually took a path much different than his: I became an ESL teacher in Asia and like so many of my childhood friends, he went to Alberta. 

Recently, he moved home and started a family. He was both skilled and fortunate enough to land in one of the best paying jobs in our community. The re-emergence of the mining industry on the peninsula has brought optimism to a place where, for a long time, there was none. Anyone from Newfoundland is familiar with the adage of our island, its economy, and employment or lack thereof. I imagine being fired from one of the most highly sought jobs in our area is devastating, to say the least. 

I watched this sequence of events from my one-bedroom apartment in Vietnam. I could not be farther removed from my hometown if I tried, but a Newfoundlander’s ties to home are not easily severed. I found myself deeply affected by what transpired, as I have in the recent months spent fighting against the racism living in the people and place I love the most. What I felt most of all was that we, as a community, failed that young man. 

It goes beyond the moment he lost his job. We failed him a long time ago when his racist vitriol started and we didn’t do enough to stop it. In every instance that one of us is silent in the presence of anti-Black, brown, Indigenous, or queer sentiment, we fail our community. 

There should be real-life consequences for racism. The people who reported his behaviour had a responsibility to do so. But in our community, where the economic fabric that holds us together is fragile at best, we have a responsibility bigger than sending off e-mails to a head office in Toronto. This is a flimsy band-aid for a serious problem. What we need are voices and conversation. We need someone to break the silence. Here, people can’t afford to lose jobs, and in the instance that someone does because of racist rhetoric, our failure to hold them accountable is compounded. 

One only has to look so far as the violence that’s broken out in Nova Scotia as a result of an Indigenous fishery, in a province so much like our own, to see how deeply rooted racism is within our communities. I should know. I once held beliefs similar to those fishermen cutting the lines of Indigenous lobster traps.

For many of us, 2020 has been a moment of reckoning. We’re witnessing an attempt to dismantle an unjust system and this means understanding and sitting with the ways we’ve lived inside it. For me, it’s meant facing the racism I internalized for so many years, and all the hurtful things I said and never faced consequences for. 

I keep returning to one day, over a decade ago, a memory I might be the most ashamed of. It was the Spring of my last year of high school and I had just gotten a letter from MUN Housing, listing the three women I would be living with come September. The letter stated their names and where they were from, and only one community stood out to me: Conne River. 

I took this to mean that the young woman was Indigenous and I took this as permission to say horrific things about her. I remember my homeroom during twelfth grade and the faces of my classmates as I said one racist thing after another, how some of them laughed and others were uncomfortable, but how the only person who stood up to me was our one Indigenous classmate and how I steam-rolled over her because I had a big mouth and all the privilege that a white woman from a middle-class family in a rural white community could have. 

I don’t remember any of the adults in my life ever having a conversation with me about the things I said or the beliefs I held. I got suspended from school for skipping class but I never got in trouble for being racist. Where were my teachers? Where were my consequences? Were my beliefs so normal, so commonly shared amongst us, that no one saw them as wrong? Or did most of the people around me yield to a collective silence, no one brave enough to speak against me in the presence of my hate? 

It’s the same silence that I was met with a decade ago that allowed this man’s hate to go unchecked, resulting in the conversation that took place on social media, and his dismissal from Anaconda. And in rural Newfoundland, where the economic survival of our communities always seems uncertain, it isn’t good enough. It’s easy to look around and condemn the racists amongst us. It’s a lot harder to look at ourselves and consider how we created and fostered an environment in which it grew. 

Like most Newfoundlanders away from home, I want to return. I do not want it to be a place where the racism we are too polite to talk about eats away at the fabric that holds us together. I want it to be a place where we as a community share the responsibility of a twenty-seven-year-old man being racist on Facebook, long before he has to lose his job; where we speak out against hate whenever we hear it; and where a seventeen-year-old girl like I once was, is taught that our words have impact and they should be used for good. 

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash.

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