Panelists encourage more racial inclusiveness

Teresa Wright
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Samantha Lewis of the Lennox Island First Nation speaks at a luncheon Friday recognizing the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. Looking on are fellow panelists Digafie Debalke and Brenda Picard. Guardian photo.

Have you ever asked someone of another skin colour or accent where they are from?

You may have unwittingly made them feel excluded and marginalized.

This was one of the messages delivered at luncheon event in Stratford celebrating the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination.

The event featured three panelists who each spoke about situations where accidental or unintentional discrimination can happen.

People from foreign countries in a place like Prince Edward Island are constantly asked the question, ‘Where are you from?’

This implies they do not belong here, said panelist Digafie Debalke, who works in the UPEI international relations office.

“The way we frame the questions, it opens up the communication channels, but as soon as we exclude the person from being here, the communication breaks down,” he said.

Samantha Lewis from Lennox Island said she does not believe people should have to identify whether they are ‘from away,’ as is so often done in P.E.I.

“What are we really saying?” Lewis said.

“We First Nations do not think that way.”

She lifted up a Mi’kmaq medicine wheel - a circle divided into quarters, each quarter with a different colour – red, white, black and yellow.

The colours represent many things, including the races of man.

“Each colour has an equal part of the circle, no one colour is bigger than the other. We all have each a role to play; it has to be taught, just like prejudices have been taught.”

She said she believes children should be taught from their earliest days that all skin colours and ethnic origins should be treated equally.

Brenda Picard is the executive director of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.

She said many people often make comments or use phrases that are unintentionally racist or discriminatory.

But that does make it OK.

She cited examples of commonly used expressions whose origins are discriminatory.

Being ‘sold down the river,’ refers to the North American slave trade; being ‘gypped’ is a stereotyping of traditional gypsies.

“People will often say that they didn’t mean anything by these phrases, that those meanings have been lost over the years, but they still have significant ability to belittle and offend those whose origins or race are portrayed as negative by these phrases,” Picard said.

“Discrimination isn’t how it’s meant, it’s how it is received.”

All three panelists said more open dialogue is needed to break down barriers and to welcome new people, regardless of race, gender or religion, into the community.

“Being open to learning about other peoples’ culture and experience provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the impact of our own experiences and how we can be more inclusive,” Picard said.

Established six years ago, the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination is celebrated annually on March 21 with a series of events and activities worldwide. The day aims to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences.

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Recent comments

  • just saying
    March 24, 2014 - 06:33

    As of aboriginal and european myself I had been asked this question .I didnt take offence because the person asking said you have a very striking different look .It was a tourist that asked by the way . I my self will ask people that I casually meet where are you from because I interested in their culture or homeland .In fact I go to restraunts asian grocery stores with out any prejudice mind set because I support them and welcome them and have interest in the culture .people should be proud of who they not all that ask out of racism .Ive asked many students from africa etc how they like it here there first winter experiance and also helped advise winter clothing necessities .I hope they did not see me as intrusive or racist and Ill certainally be cautious from now on . You cant control what people ask you can only control your own attitude and projection . When the tourist asked me I told him and he said that was great and he only asked because hed been all over the world and he wasnt sure of decent .I wasnt offended in the least .

  • voter
    March 23, 2014 - 07:35

    special interest groups telling people why the way they think is the only correct way to think about a topic !!!! "THOUGHT POLICE" are invading peoples privacy ---BRAINWASHING AT ITS WORST -- they think they are the word,and the light and the way -sort of like a God

  • AMAZED
    March 22, 2014 - 13:08

    If you are that thin skinned that we cant ask where you are from you are in for a long hard road .I ask everyone I meet this question just as they do I ,they might come from the same town or village as a long lost friend and pass on some mention of them . People are getting a little too carried away here take a pill .

    • intobed
      March 22, 2014 - 14:18

      Perhaps the best bet is to just talk to people you already know, and know who their family is. Ignore everyone else. No doubt there would be conferences complaining about this in the future too.

  • Just The Facts
    March 22, 2014 - 12:10

    It is the quintessential Island question: "Now who's your father?" Our collective nosiness is a character trait of the Island. It opens conversation and establishes relationships. While we might sometimes complain about this intrusiveness, when the chips are down and some family needs help, Islanders always respond in a most generous manner. Let's not beat ourselves up over having been asked "Where are you from?" Consider it just the first step on the road to a rewarding relationship.

  • No Idea
    March 22, 2014 - 10:05

    I agree with the tone of the article. Having lived in PEI for a number of years, I experienced this subtle racism all the time. Not because I was a "visible" minority but because I had an unusual sounding (to someone who considers themselves an "Islander") European name. I've travelled or lived in a significant number of places and never been told I was "from away" or had a weird name, except in PEI. Even in Newfoundland this doesn't happen, in a place where you might think was more isolated but no, PEI has this unique attitude that the immigrant settlers from 200 years ago somehow have a right to live in PEI and the rest of us are some sort of "off-island",2nd class visitor. More than once, I've received a shocking 'racial purity' rant about how the bridge has ruined PEI or "you steal jobs from us". I could go on and on to what I've witnessed or experienced and know that many 'Islanders' consider newcomers and natives as people corrupting the Island culture and don't belong there.

    • Real Islander
      March 22, 2014 - 13:46

      You should leave.

    • @ Real Islander
      March 22, 2014 - 18:02

      Your comment is possibly the most selfish/ignorant comment I've read on the internet in a long time. Hopefully, you'll soon lose your job and move west, so we'll be left with more competent immigrants and fewer bigoted locals.

  • Respectfully disagree
    March 22, 2014 - 09:52

    I'm in agreement with Earl on this one. When I ask this question it is with the intent of starting conversation, not ostracizing anyone. We are a tourism based province and it's a natural question to ask people. When I travel, I'm often asked that question and wouldn't think of being offended.

  • RealityCheck
    March 22, 2014 - 09:37

    Why aren't the people who are responsible for integrating immigrants to PEI explaining that being asked "where are you from" is not a bad thing? It is a conversation starter for one thing. I was born and raised on PEI and I am asked that question all the time. The expectation that Islanders should change their ways so that immigrants will feel less excluded is ridiculous. It is simply a matter of educating the newcomers to the intent behind the question. After all, it is their choice to come here. They should embrace our customs, not ask us to change ours.

  • Earl
    March 22, 2014 - 05:43

    Society's becoming so politically correct, it's disgusting. I'm an islander and I'll continue to ask anyone with a foreign accent or different skin color where they are from. The reason for that, is to strike up a conversation, NOT to make them feel rejected from our society. I speak German, and if I hear people speaking German, I will go out of my way to greet them in their mother tongue. Sometimes it's hard to differentiate between the dialects. ( High and low German ) Most Islanders will ask the question, " where are you from" because they want to KNOW!!! Get used to it.

    • hmmmm
      March 22, 2014 - 13:44

      The point is “Discrimination isn’t how it’s meant, it’s how it is received.” Say you're a visible minority from Charlottetown, and every week some well-intentioned person is like "OH hey, where you from?" Can you see that would be marginalizing. I don't think the speaker could honestly be asking you to never ever ever ask someone "where they're from." Just, be a little more aware that sometimes assuming some is from-away - or FOCUSING on that part of who they are - can make some people feel disconnected, marginalized, etc. No ones accusing of being bad person. No one is saying they don't like you. All they're saying is your intentions aren't as important as the impact your actions - and in some cases, seemingly harmless and well-intended actions ... might be having un-intended consequences. How is that so hard to handle? Is it really worth getting agree about?

  • same story
    March 21, 2014 - 19:40

    How is asking someone where they are from racism? If I meet someone I don't know and I ask them if they from N.S. and they are white is that some how wrong. In a few years people on P.E.I. will be wondering what ever became of there peace full Island . The answer was on T.V. tonight.