“Black lives matter. We can’t breathe. Don’t kill us.”
These were the words that a 10-year-old girl in Salmon Arm drew in a picture after hearing about a racist comment a friend had made.
Sidney Vlieg, her father, said while overt racism comes from a minority in the community, he has heard a significant amount of denial that racism exists, particularly when his daughter, who is black, is not with him. She was adopted from Ethiopia and he is of white European descent.
“How can you (know), you’re a white person in a 90 per cent white town. It’s minimizing those that have experienced it.”
Denial is more of a passive bias, not necessarily actively racist, he said.
“But if you don’t admit there’s a problem, you can never solve anything.”
In the overt instance that led to such anxiety for his daughter, he said a friend of hers was bothered by the comment so told his daughter and her teacher when school reconvened.
“It is great it was brought forward.”
But Vlieg said he didn’t know about it until his daughter told him when he picked her up from school that day. She was terrified.
He doesn’t think it was initially taken as seriously as it should have been, but he said the school subsequently responded really well.
“You have to stop everything and address it with everybody.”
More recently, he was pleased with how an incident was dealt with which involved someone trying to get kids to say a derogatory word. A written and verbal apology provided to his daughter recognized the effect on her and her wider world.
With emotion, Vlieg expressed how much he had appreciated the children who spoke up and refused to do what was requested.
Another instance of racism was the painting of harsh graffiti on a city underpass.
Vlieg has also seen pickup trucks flying Confederate flags in town and a person wearing a Confederate T-shirt and hat. He mentioned it on a Facebook page and was “destroyed” by commenters defending it, he said. “It was sickening.”
“All of these things affect us.”
But he notes his daughter is still young and isn’t out in the world on her own yet.
“What about the 15-year-old boy, what about immigrant black families? All they’re trying to do is survive and fit in, they’re not going to say anything. And it’s not just black, it’s First Nations.”
He said it’s not uncommon for First Nations people his family knows to be followed around by store staff in Salmon Arm while shopping.
“Make no mistake, this is not an Indigenous problem, not a black problem, not a person of colour problem – it’s a white problem.”
Vlieg added that there’s nothing wrong with white people, with being white.
“We’re not blaming all the white people for what happened 300 years ago. What we can do is do something positive today, be responsible for what we do today.”
People of Asian descent in B.C. and across Canada have reported racism directed at them, particularly during the pandemic, but those interviewed in Salmon Arm said they haven’t.
Melissa Brett is one.
“I kind of thought, being a nurse at the hospital, with dark eyes, half-Japanese and slightly Asian eyes, I had thought about it. Would that be something my patients could be more concerned about?”
She said she can’t imagine how upsetting it would be to be exposed to that when risking your own life, providing care.
“Regardless of an origin of a virus, I think a lot of it stems in fear and anger, potentially trying to direct that at a source to alleviate some of the frustration people are experiencing.”
She said she feels Salmon Arm has been a very respectful place.
“Of course we’ve seen things like the mask rally…, but for the most part I feel people respect each other.”
Her family moved to the community from Steveston, where there are more Asian people.
“When I first moved here four years ago, I felt a bit like I stood out a little bit, even though I’m only half Japanese – but the dark hair. I have definitely seen a stronger presence of Asian people here in Salmon Arm more recently.”
Brett noted that during the Second World War, her father’s siblings and parents were among those placed in internment camps, and not together.
She said she appreciates it when people with different foods and cultures can come together and celebrate, as it creates a new perspective for children.
Vlieg, who moved to Salmon Arm about three years ago, said he’s sure that by far most people in the community don’t subscribe to racist thoughts.
“But it’s the responsibility of white families to tell their children about our racist past…,” he emphasized.
“Educate your kids and actually listen to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) people when they speak about their experiences. Believe them and listen to them…
“Listen to the black and Indigenous artists, what they have to say in their songs and their art.”
Asked if he was prepared for racism when he adopted, Vlieg answered somberly.
“Nothing prepares you for when you’re putting your nine- or 10-year-old to bed and she says, ‘when is this racism going to stop?’”