Column: We should never tolerate intolerance

Every so often something happens to shock us out of our smug complacency about bigotry in our community.

Every so often something happens to shock us out of our smug complacency about bigotry in our community.

Last week it was an obnoxious rant, filled with racial slurs and caught on video in Abbotsford. Before that it was a handful of Klu Klux Klan recruitment flyers dropped on lawns in Chilliwack and Mission.

Disturbing as these incidents are, they are relatively rare.

But scratch a little deeper and something uglier seeps out.

Canadians like to think prejudice is an anomaly in our society. We look south and see our neighbour’s history of racial tension and like to believe it doesn’t happen here.

True, we are spared the burning crosses and white sheets, but that doesn’t mean bigotry does not exist.

Some of it is obvious, as evidenced by last week’s video. But often the racism is more subtle.

It might be the extra attention paid to a dark-skinned customer by a suspicious store clerk. It might be an off-hand comment or “joke” about a minority. Maybe it’s the casual exclusion of those slightly different from us (or even the overt inclusion).

None of us are free from prejudice. Stereotypes and assumptions cling like moss to our perceptions. They are nurtured by our individual histories, environments and upbringings. Our language is peppered with antiquated expressions that reflect prejudice. Popular media is rife with stereotypes stretching back so many decades they can seem laughable.

Some stereotypes are more toxic than others, especially when used to shape public opinion.

But whatever their form, they are hurtful.

Prejudice is ignorance in action. It needs to be challenged, even in its subtler forms.

One of my greatest regrets is not standing up to a group of “friends” when I sat next to the new kid in my junior high class. His family had recently immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. He was nervous, and conspicuous in our predominantly white, suburban school.

As I sat down I noticed the smirks from the group a few desks away. “How can you stand the smell?” one of them quipped. “Come sit over here,” another laughed.

I was angry and embarrassed, but worse, I was silent.

I didn’t move. But I didn’t challenge the stupidity of their statements either.

I just sat there.

And that’s how racism festers. If we allow bigotry to go unchallenged it will grow like mould in the darker recesses of our society. We may not see it, but it’s there, tainting the perceptions and attitudes of our children until it erupts into ugly episodes of hate and intolerance.

We need to be better than that.

In a country shaped through immigration, we need to appreciate the diversity of others – not fear it.

Our individuality makes us stronger, and it’s something we should be willing to defend.

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