Is there a snake coiled within our mountain paradise? Part 1

David F. Rooney
David F. Rooney

It’s a simple question: Do racism, prejudice and discrimination exist in Revelstoke? Most of us would at first probably say not, but on reflection would have to admit it does.

It’s not as overt as it used to be. Century-old newspapers revealed its existence then in the way they talked about squaws, Chinamen and Japs. However, that’s 100 years ago. What about within our own lifetimes?

But first off, how about a definition or three? There are several definitions of racism but basically it boils down to this, racism is:

  • the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races; and
  • discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race.

Discrimination can be defined as unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice. And prejudice itself can be defined as, according to the website, “a predetermined judgment (based on faulty interpretation) made using wrong or distorted facts. This attitude, usually negative, is directed toward a person or group of people. Prejudiced thinking may result in acts of discrimination.”

I certainly didn’t attend Revelstoke Secondary School back in the 1960s or ’70s, but people I know who did have some dark memories of their days at RSS.

“I grew up here and I remember how brutal it was in high school” says Krista Stovel. “There was a lot of racism. In fact it was a frightening time.”

Stovel was one of several people who spoke out at a public forum on racism, prejudice and discrimination at Okanagan College last Thursday. She remembers how difficult a time her non-white friends had at RSS in those days and says some were virtually run out of town.

Have things changed much since then when it comes to racism, prejudice and discrimination? Perhaps. But then I’m an adult and so don’t attend high school. But I hear things. And I see things, too. I remember attending an end-of-year awards ceremony at RSS a couple of years ago when one student’s name was called. The young man in question, whom I knew, was socially awkward, had a weight problem and I’m pretty sure was regarded as different. Certainly he was of well-above-average intelligence, which can be enough to have you condemned to social Hell as some kind of Brainiac when you’re a teen unless you are also A) athletic and B) really good looking. As this kid made his way to the front to receive his well-deserved award, a few other teens jeered and taunted him, one even yelling: “Way to go, Fatso!” The boy kept his face down but you could see his burn. It was an object lesson in the kind of deliberate cruelty people are capable of. True, this kid wasn’t black, Asian or Hispanic so it wasn’t racism. But it was clearly prejudice. And the fact that the boy’s tormentors felt confident enough to shout their taunts at a public awards ceremony where parents, the media and others were present was telling. They did it because they felt they could get away with it.

And you know what? They did. Not a single person — not me, not any of the other students or adults sitting near them, not a teacher — no one went over and told them to zipper their mouths. And because of that shameful act of cowardice on the part of everyone who heard it, what should have been a bright moment of recognition for that young man’s academic achievements was forever tarnished, its memory ruined by a few thugs and the willingness of witnesses to pretend it hadn’t happened.

This is not meant to be an indictment of our school system. I’m impressed by the dedication and integrity of the overwhelming majority of teachers, staff and students I have met over the years. But there are always people who sometimes can’t resist the temptation to make someone feel bad because of who they are or where they’re from.

People can be very cruel to those they perceive as being different. Me? I don’t claim to be free of prejudices. I recognize that some do taint me and I struggle to purge them from my character. Living abroad for much of my life, I’ve seen prejudice in many cultures. As a result I’ve always thought racism, prejudice and discrimination are universal human traits. They exist because people of every kind like to pigeon-hole others. Doing that makes it easy to simplify relationships. Consequently, when someone comes along who is markedly different we don’t know how to deal with them, so we mark them as being Other. We treat them as freaks or subhumans or what have you because in our fear it makes us feel better about ourselves. That doesn’t make it right.

So did prejudice exist back then? You bet. Does it still exist in our community? I’ll say yes. It’s perhaps more covert, better camouflaged than it was back in the day. But I’ll bet it’s still here — alive and thriving under a flat rock somewhere in town.

This is the first in a series of a columns on racism, discrimination and prejudice.