Like most Canadians, I have been following the upcoming US election with equal parts incredulity and hopelessness. I can’t vote but I can’t stop watching the endless barrage of news, satirical commentaries, and memes about both candidates. This election seems to be more like a streetfight, where one of the candidates refuses to bar any holds. But it’s the feverish quality evident at the Trump rallies that scares me the most, and it seems that fever might be contagious. While Karry Vernon Corbett’s racist tirade was actually caught on tape, it makes you wonder what happens when the tape is not running.
A few months ago, I was in the car with my twelve-year-old son, driving along Bellevue Avenue to pick up his friend and take them to basketball camp. It was a beautiful morning, a dazzling sunshiney day that makes good moods mandatory. I have picked up and dropped off this friend about 200 times so far and have always stopped my car at the top of the driveway before it plummets toward the below grade garage. As I’ve never been comfortable reversing up that steep driveway and there’s never any street parking available, I chose to momentarily block the sidewalk as his friend enters or exits the car. Per usual, there was no traffic this morning, so there were no witnesses to what happened next.
While my son went to get his friend, I was fiddling with my car’s Bluetooth, having found an 80’s Slacker Radio station on my iPhone. I didn’t notice a middle-aged man and his bulldog go around my car but I did notice my son looking back at me from his friend’s front doorstep with an incredulous look on his face. When the boys got back to the car, my son asked, “Did you hear what that guy said?”
“No.” I responded, “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘That’s a sidewalk, you f***ing Chinaman!’ ”
My jaw dropped. “Oh wow.” My immediate response was to lash out at this stranger, but I realized these boys were watching me, and my hurt bloomed into anger as I replayed all the little slights I’d endured over my 47 years as a Korean-Canadian.
A jogger went around my car, as I pondered what to do. Sorry! I yelled, but she couldn’t hear me for her headphones. I reversed out of the driveway/sidewalk and drove towards camp. The man and his dog were just 100 feet ahead, and before I could think about what I was going to say, I slowed the car beside him, rolled down the passenger window and called out, “Excuse me, sir?”
He turned to look at me and I continued, my voice wavering slightly, “What you said back there was very….” I paused, trying to choose my next word carefully – was he racist or ignorant – but settled on, “Unkind,” as it was the truth.
His eyes widened, as if shocked I could speak English. With his leathery skin and shock of platinum blond hair, he looked like an angry Guy Fieri. Apoplectic, he shouted, “I don’t care, it’s against the law to stop on the sidewalk!” and yanked on his bulldog’s leash to stop him from pooping on the lawn they were standing in front of.
“I’m sorry, I was just there for a minute,” I stammered.
“I don’t f***ing care! You should know the bylaws of this city!” he screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
Aware of the two bi-racial tweens in the car, I simply restated, “Well, what you said was VERY unkind,” and drove off, heart pounding in my chest, wholly unsatisfied with my Flight over Fight response.
I was born in Vancouver nearly five decades ago, and I can count the number of times I’ve experienced abject racism on one hand, which is a good, but unfortunate statistic. But racism also presents itself in other, more subtle ways. An eight-year-old once asked me, “Can you see up here?” stretching her arm up to around the height of my forehead. She was referring to my almond-shaped eyes, innocently wondering if I saw the world in widescreen format. And last summer, a friend joked about posing as me to claim a prize I’d won and mimicked me by pulling up on the corners of her eyes. Honestly, most days I don’t even notice my race, I have a beautiful life filled with meaningful work and beautiful friendships that don’t notice my race either, but there are other days when unkindness can feel like another paper cut. And believe me, it guts me to know that my paper cuts are nothing compared to what others have endured in their lifetimes.
It’s shocking how one person can justify making the leap from observing an innocuous traffic violation to slurring the offender’s ethnicity, but one only has to watch a Donald Trump rally to know that kindness has ceased to matter for some. While it’s possible that I’d encountered a curmudgeon having a bad day, I wonder if there’s something larger afoot. A movement where a petulant, racist, misogynist can make a legitimate run for the White House by saying all sorts of unkind things and emboldening others to do the same.
We’ve all endured unkindness based on our gender, ethnicity, age, religious beliefs, where we live and how we look. But for every slight, we must remember that we’ve also given and received a thousand kindnesses. Smiles, held doors, Facebook likes and other courtesies are the threads that knit our diverse communities together and make them thrive.
I grew up thinking America was Canada’s big brother – bossy at times but respected and watched out for everyone’s safety. The America on the news this past year is definitely not the one I remember. Trump spewing (and then denying) hateful arguments pitting Us against Them have no place anywhere, least of all the White House.
Dear America, please vote for kindness. The world needs a Kind America, we all do.