Discrimination often an issue in eye of beholder

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Islanders just trying to be friendly face accusations of being racists

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept to.” - J. R. R. Tolkien.

That sage advice was offered up early in the movie Lord of the Rings. It could be applied to well- meaning Islanders trying to strike up a simple conversation with someone who has just moved to this province.

At an event last Friday in Stratford to celebrate the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination, three panelists spoke about situations where accidental or unintentional discrimination can happen. One of the most offending questions, apparently, is “where are you from?”

Well, Islanders ask that question of everybody, whether he or she is from Tignish, Souris, Boston, Toronto or Timbuktu. It’s the starting point of many a normal chat, as casual or neutral as discussing the weather. But some panelists feel we are being racist because there is a hidden meaning to the query, that somehow they don’t belong here.

Islanders are friendly, perhaps too inquisitive and too chatty at times. Questions come because most of us actually care and are interested in our new neighbours.

For example, say several city businessmen meet at a morning Rotary breakfast. One is Chinese. What’s a safe question . . . where are you from? Well, it’s a safe bet he’s from China. But the real question is, are you from Shanghai, how was the recent world’s fair; are you from Beijing, did you see any of the Olympics; or are you from Hong Kong, what are the major changes there since the British left?

Should the Chinese man be offended? Hopefully not. And if he answers and then asks his fellow Rotarian where did he come from, it’s no big deal. The other chap is probably happy to relate that his family came here from the Netherlands after the Second World War with very little, and like most everyone else living here, worked hard, got along with most people and made a decent living. So what.

A panelist suggests that discrimination isn’t how it’s meant, it’s how it is received. Well perhaps an innocent question is just that. And the problem, if any, might be for new Islanders to be less sensitive and touchy.

So now we have to also assess “It’s not what I said, it’s how I said it.” We are all guilty of saying something stupid and ill- advised at the wrong time. But if open dialogue is needed to break down barriers and welcome new people as the panelists suggest, well then, questions are going to be asked. Some might be blunt or indelicate but we are just trying to learn more about our new neighbors. So please be patient with us.

Or should we err on the side of being rude by ignoring “someone from away” rather than risk an accusation of being a racist by something we might innocently say?

It’s an interesting conundrum.

Leave the phone alone

When a phone rings, our first reaction is to answer it. This is not a big deal at home or if we’re walking on a sidewalk with a cellphone in our pocket. But it is a very big deal if we’re driving and the iPhone rings.

A campaign is underway across the province to remind Islanders on the dangers of distracted driving and that it’s illegal to use mobile devices while behind the wheel. Government, media and the Insurance Bureau of Canada are combining to bring that message across the province.

Many Islanders have signed a pledge not to use a phone while driving. Those pledges have resulted in a significant ( 17 percent) decrease of distracted driving convictions in just one year. The campaign is one worthy of our support.

Driving while using a mobile device became illegal on P. E. I. in 2010 and the issue requires a combined education and enforcement policy.

It’s very true, no phone call is worth risking your life or someone else’s.

Organizations: Insurance Bureau of Canada, P. E.

Geographic location: Stratford, Tignish, Boston Toronto Timbuktu China Shanghai Beijing Hong Kong Netherlands

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Recent comments

  • From Away
    March 28, 2014 - 09:30

    I doubt that anyone really minds being asked where they are from but on the island that particular question is fraught with huge implications. That question is used to identify the "true islander" from those "from away". Many of us who 'are from away' attempt to shy away from the question because we have learned the hard way that not being a "true islander" means isolation and rejection. The question of "where you a from?" is often not for an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion but an identification tool. A tool with an extremely sharp blade, wielded to cleave from the pack, those who are not "true islanders". The island is an insular community and rarely opens fully to embrace those "from away". Islanders truly appreciate the economy of tourism and that fleeting period of time when the island is flooded with individuals from across the world, but as heard more than once, are grateful for the end of September when they all go back. However for those who have chosen to live in PEI "from away", there is the understanding that it is an "islander" vs "from away" mentality that keeps them from ever truly belonging.