I was in a Winnipeg fast-food establishment early Tuesday morning having a coffee when a man strode in through the doors and started yelling and screaming at the young clerk behind the counter. The clerk was Sikh and the angry man was liberally lacing his long and loud tirade not only with the f_____ word, which he used several times in each sentence, but also vile racist references. The customer was upset because earlier he had used the drive-through of the restaurant to pick up a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee and there had been some syrup on his cup which had gotten onto his hands. He basically accused the restaurant employees of deliberately putting the syrup on his cup.
The clerk to his credit remained calm during the man’s foul and racist diatribe and even tried to interject with an apology, offering to get the man a new cup of coffee and call his manager. This went on for several minutes. Part of me felt like I should do something, perhaps get up and defend the clerk, but the angry customer was a very large, very tall man wearing a camouflage type jacket and work boots and frankly, I would have been terrified to get in his way.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident all day. What makes someone become such an angry person? What had happened or not happened in the life of the irate man to make him so racist, so uncouth, so enraged about something so minor? If this was the way he reacted to a little syrup on his coffee cup how might he react to members of his family when they did something that irritated him? I worried he might have a partner or children who had to bear the brunt of his troubled anger.
And I thought about the young man behind the counter too. What must it be like to know you are constantly at risk of becoming a target for that kind of racist violent behaviour because of the colour of your skin and the way you choose to outwardly express your religious beliefs? I realized from my privileged position as a white person who belongs to the dominant religious group in Canada I had no way of understanding that.
In the past Winnipeg has been accused of being the most racist city in Canada. That has always upset me because I find Winnipeg to be such a friendly place to live and I love its diversity. But that incident on Tuesday exposed me to the kind of racism that does exist in Winnipeg and had me thinking seriously about what I can do about it.