Q is for Questions: The violence of disbelief

Image via: City of Moose Jaw

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Saskatchewan’s annual Festival of Words. From July 13-16, Moose Jaw was the gathering place for some of Canada’s most prominent literary talent as well as audience members from across Canada. Yann Martel, Rosanna Deerchild, Harold Johnson, Marina Endicott, Waub Rice, Dawn Dumont and many more spent the past week in our “Friendly City”. The Festival made a point of inviting a wide diversity of literary talent to the stage. There were many Indigenous voices, sexually diverse authors and artists of all ages. Over and over again, both the audience and the authors praised the inclusive and diverse line-up of this year’s festival. Waub Rice called the Festival of Words “one of the best” (2017) literary festivals he has ever attended.

Image via: Waubgeshig Rice

One of the themes that became woven throughout the festival was racism. In every session I attended,  author after author described experiences with institutional and personal racism. But instead of feeling hopeless, these readings and discussions felt hopeful. The problem of racism was being named and described. Now it was time for us to deal with it. And just such an opportunity arose on Saturday afternoon. Cree author, Dawn Dumont, posted the following on Twitter at noon on Saturday:

“As I’m on stage talking about my books and racism, my mum and son were refused service in a local restaurant. /1 @FestivalofWords”,

“A man spoke up for them but my mum left. How do you eat after that? /2“,

“My mom says ‘don’t tell anyone.’ I know how she feels. Racism can make you feel guilty when all you wanted was toast & tea./3

Many Indigenous writers wrote messages of support for Dawn on Twitter including Richard Van Camp, Tracey Lindberg and Chelsea Vowel. However, a large portion of the Twitter comments regarding this incident at the restaurant were negative, with many people refusing to believe what Dawn had reported. This conversation about the restaurant was then transferred to a closed Facebook group, “Got Beef Moose Jaw Sk” where the comments turned nasty. Within half an hour, dozens of comments, mostly vitriolic, were posted before the group manager deleted the entire conversation. The next day a similar conversation popped up on another closed Facebook group, this time “MJ Talks!”.

Most commentators refused to believe that racism occurred at a restaurant in Moose Jaw. They insisted on being provided with more details. Dawn’s report of racism was met with angry question after angry question. The demand for more information was made, over and over again. When the name of the restaurant was not provided, the consensus was that Dawn was lying. One commentator even went so far as to propose that this was all a publicity stunt to increase Dawn’s book sales. However, Andray Domise suggests that this is precisely how racism works in Canada. “White folks lose it when we shatter the politeness myth by [] speaking up about our lived experiences” (July 17, 2017).

Another commentator on Twitter, Jimmy McSavage wrote to Dawn: “You need to provide an accounting of what happen [sic] before accusing…who, everyone? …. of racism. Specifics.” (July 16, 2017). Cree author Tracey Lindberg replied that in fact Dawn did not need to do any such thing. “Her experience of racism does not have to be reconstructed for others to get or believe” (July 17, 2017). Dawn Dumont is a widely respected author and columnist for both the StarPhoenix and the Leader-Post. Demanding that she provide proof of her lived experience, an endless accounting, is demeaning and unwarranted. She has given us no reason not to believe her… except for the fact that she is an Indigenous woman. Not believing Indigenous women is part of how we got to be a country with over one thousand Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. As this incident indicates, when Indigenous women report racism, they are met with skepticism and hostile denial, over and over again.

Dawn Dumont in conversation with Rosanna Deerchild

What Dawn’s tweets highlighted was the irony of being celebrated for speaking about racism at the Festival while her family was experiencing racism just a few blocks away. The painful truth is that once an Indigenous woman has overcome all the odds and achieved a successful career, a platform, a voice, she is still faced with constant criticism and the incessant need to prove herself. Still, Dawn did not trash Moose Jaw or the restaurant. A conversation with the restaurant in question has been started through the appropriate channels and the Festival of Words is working with Dawn to support her while she deals with this issue. Social media is not the place for sensitive anti-racism training. Nonetheless, the interrogation continued on-line with more and more angry questions being tweeted, even days later.

This insistence on the answering of questions is not only demeaning but also unlikely to be useful. For starters, additional details such as the name of the restaurant do not prove anything. There is no “smoking gun” to be found here.

Furthermore, if the restaurant were to be named on social media, two outcomes would be likely. First, those people who are fond of the restaurant would still refuse to believe an act of racism could have happened there. This would prompt even more angry questions: what time? what day? who were you with? what were you wearing? The questions and angry interrogation would never end.

Panel on the Future of the Arts with Jael Richardson, Rosanna Deerchild and Bruce Walsh. Moderated by Angie Abdou. Image via: @FestivalOfWords

Second, if Dawn had publicized the name of the restaurant, the business would have been trashed on social media. Many sympathetic commentators have already suggested a boycott of the restaurant. This is simply nonsensical. Punishing an entire business for the actions of one employee is not helpful. The mob mentality of vigilantism is not going to lead us to a better place.

Instead Jael Richardson, a Black author, suggested that the restaurant be given tickets to next year’s festival. “This is the very reason diverse books, festivals & discussions are so important” (July 16, 2017). Working to end racism isn’t about attacking either the victim or the aggressor, it’s about building understanding and education. It’s about building relationships.

When this restaurant incident was brought up at the Festival in a panel on Sunday, the predominantly White audience gasped. Meanwhile, the few non-White people in the room nodded their heads. The experience of racism is common for People of Colour and rarely if ever seen by White people. As long as we’re traveling in separate circles it will be difficult for us to understand the true nature of racism in Canada. Relationships matter.

It is painful to think that intolerance could happen here in Moose Jaw. Confronting the reality of racism is something many of us would rather not face. Sadly, the vociferous refusal to admit that an act of racism occurred in our “Friendly City” actually proves that the culture of racism is alive and well here. The fact that very few Moose Javians expressed support for Dawn or regret at what occurred, preferring instead to trash her credibility and question her experience, paints Moose Jaw in a very poor light indeed.

What is done cannot be undone. However, this incident has given Moose Jaw an opportunity. Both Dawn’s tweets as well as the vitriolic commentary afterwards prove that racism persists in Moose Jaw. Now it is up to Moose Jaw to figure out what to do next. We can start by hitting pause on all the angry questions and admitting that we have a problem, and that problem is racism.

Parts of this chapter were published as a joint letter to the editor in the Moose Jaw Times Herald on July 20, 2017.

References:

Domise, Andray (@AndrayDomise). “This is how racism works in Canada. White folks lose it when we shatter the politeness myth by to speaking up about our lived experiences.” 17 July 2017, 6:13 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/AndrayDomise/status/887088011892195328

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “As I’m on stage talking about my books and racism, my mum and son were refused service in a local restaurant. /1 @FestivalofWords” 15 July 2017, 12:12 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886272285253836800

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “A man spoke up for them but my mum left. How do you eat after that? /2” 15 July 2017, 12:16 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886273279110950912

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “My mom says “don’t tell anyone.” I know how she feels. Racism can make you feel guilty when all you wanted was toast & tea. /3″ 15 July 2017, 12:19 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886273911947640832

Lindberg, Tracey. (@TraceyLindberg). “And. No. She doesn’t. Her experience of racism does not have to be reconstructed for others to get or believe. She chooses venue, voice, if.” 17 July 2017, 11:18 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/TraceyLindberg/status/886983574783709184

McSavage, Jimmy. (@JimmyMcSavage). “You need to provide an accounting of what happen before accusing … who, everyone? …. of racism. Specifics.” 16 July 2017, 11:38 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/JimmyMcSavage/status/886626212927418368

Rice, Waubgeshig (@waub). “I’ve been to quite a few literary festivals over the years and @FestivalofWords was one of the best. Chi-miigwech for having me!” 16 July 2017, 10:51 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/waub/status/886614355155877888

Richardson, Jael. (@JaelRichardson). “We need to make sure they get tix to next year’s festival. This is the very reason diverse books, festivals & discussions are so important.” 16 July 2017, 10:16 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/JaelRichardson/status/886605452741443584