Face it, Calgary: We don’t know how to talk about race

When we do, it’s cringeworthy.

The Sprawl

Having been all over Calgary throughout this election campaign, we’ve heard a lot said about a lot of things: taxes, arenas, transit, bike lanes, secondary suites and budgets. But there’s one thing we haven’t heard much talk about, until now.

Race.

It’s not something we talk about in Calgary. Well, let me clarify that: it’s not something white people in Calgary talk about. We white Calgarians generally tend to view ourselves as “colour blind” and accepting of all, and this being so, why would anyone—particularly people of colour—feel the need to bring up race at all?

Can’t we just talk about something else instead?

Let’s be honest: when white Calgarians do talk about race, it’s usually cringeworthy and defensive. Phrases like “the race card” get thrown around so we can avoid any discomfort or self-examination.

“The race card” is a term that should have been excised from our collective vocabulary long ago. And yet take a look at the headlines coming from Postmedia’s (overwhelmingly white) newsroom this week: Bill Smith accuses Nenshi of playing the race card in a bid to stir up support. Nenshi should ignore on-line haters and not play the race card.

Funny thing about the so-called “race card”: it can seemingly only be played by people of colour. White people are almost never accused of it.

This is true even when we orchestrate entire election forums that don’t have a single mention of Indigenous people, Treaty 7 or the Truth & Reconciliation Commission calls to action. Even when we keep the focus instead on topics like density, parking and keeping change out of our neighbourhoods.

This is white privilege at work, whether we acknowledge it or not.

“The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of ‘playing the race card,’ claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow in a 2015 column. “It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.”

“They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.”

Which brings us to last night’s mayoral forum.

In his closing remarks, candidate Jason Achtymichuk (Gogo) requested an apology from the mayoral incumbent, saying that Nenshi had suggested that people who oppose him do so because they are hateful and racist.

This is untrue. Nenshi never said that.

In fact what he said, in the video that started this whole brouhaha, was this: “There are forces out there in the community that are supporting my opponents that really want us to go backwards. That don’t want a city that is so inclusive of everyone. And it’s absolutely incumbent on us to hold onto the city that we’re proud of to make sure that we vote.”

“And we know that they are using a lot of technology to get people who don’t believe in diversity—to get people who might be racists or haters—out to vote. So we have to make sure we vote in even greater numbers.”

It should surprise no one that racist trolls have been crawling out from under their rocks to make themselves heard online during this election campaign. Nor should it be surprising that such people support conservative white candidates over the brown Muslim one.

So remind us again why Nenshi is not allowed to talk about this?

“For those who are saying, ‘do not talk about it, do not talk about this hateful behaviour going on’—that’s shameful,” Nenshi said last night in response to Achtymichuk. “We have to name and shame it and say, ‘Look, if this stuff is going on, it’s unacceptable in public discourse, period.’ And for people to say, ‘how dare that guy raise this’— that is in and of itself empowering this kind of behaviour.”

Amid all of this, mayoral candidate Bill Smith has claimed colour blindness. “One of the things [my wife] Mary said about me a long time ago is I’m colour blind,” he told the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell. “I don’t see any difference. I look at what the person is and who they are.”

Bizarrely, he added that Nenshi’s latest remarks are “maybe an extension of the lynch mob.”

Face it, Calgary: we don’t know how to talk about race in this city. At all. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can learn.

—Jeremy Klaszus