Many of us want to believe that we live in a “Meanwhile in Canada” meme, a multicultural mosaic that keeps the racism of our southern neighbours over on their side of the border. Not all of us get a choice, unfortunately, and this week’s viral video of a racist woman spewing xenophobic hate at a Denny’s in Lethbridge, Alberta is a stark reminder of this reality.
Kelly Pocha, a Cranbrook, B.C. resident since fired from her job at a car dealership over her behaviour, was filmed angrily berating a group of men for the crime of “talking in their own language” at the next booth, as she later explained to the Lethbridge News Now. Even worse, she said, they were laughing. Pocha, of course, assumed they “making fun of her” despite not speaking their language.
And so, of course, she said, “Go back to your own fucking country. We don’t need you here.” Then, after one the men pointed out “we’re all Canadian,” she barked, “You’re not Canadian. No, you’re not Canadian.” For good measure, she also told them, ”You’re not dealing with one of your Syrian bitches right now.”
And even as the men remained shockingly calm throughout her diatribe, Pocha’s husband kept telling them to “relax.”
But perhaps the moment of the exchange best encapsulating our current cultural moment was when Pocha said, “You know what, I have a different opinion than you, and I don’t give a fuck what you think.”
Pocha did later admit her “opinion” was racist–”Oh, of course,” she told LNN, “of course it was”–but immediately blamed to the victims, claiming she was “totally provoked.”
“What people are seeing isn’t the whole story. I was put down as well. There were comments made to me,” she claimed. But either she didn’t understand what they were saying in their own language, or she did. Both can’t be true, but rather than calling out this discrepancy, the reporter allows her to denigrate these men a second time. Similarly shameful was putting “this is not who I am” in the headline, despite video evidence that this is who she is. Alcohol does not make people racist. It just makes them louder racists. Perhaps if she’d been sober she would have simply had racist thoughts or muttered a racist aside to her husband. The booze may have made her speak up, but the thoughts behind her words cannot be blamed away.
(She later doubled-down in a letter to CTV where she made new, also conveniently unrecorded, claims: “What you did not see in the video is the racial comments and obscenities made at me by the four men involved,” even though she’d already said the precipitating event was them speaking their own language and she can be heard in the video saying: “Speak English or don’t speak at all.”)
The Toronto Star’s Shree Paradkar spoke to Monir Omerzai, the 26-year-old who posted the video on Facebook, where it’s been viewed nearly a million times, and has lived in Alberta half his life since immigrating from Afghanistan. “We were speaking in our own language. Talking about … playing video games. And some parts were funny, so we were laughing,” he explained. “She thought we were talking about her and that’s how the whole thing exploded.”
Midway through the video, one of the men asks, “Why are you being so racist?” She snarks back, “Ooh, all of a sudden I’m being racist. I am Canadian so I am racist?” Then, without a hint of irony, she says “that’s why you need to go back to where you came from.”
For good measure, she adds, “you’re the problem…and your fucking racist bullshit.” Her attempt to declare that up is down, that people who call out racism are the real racists, is a common response these days and is already being replicated online.
We are also hearing that this was an isolated incident, that it was just one drunk lady, that we shouldn’t draw any broader conclusions. But here’s the thing. Nobody’s saying all white people are racist, though that’s the strawman used to intimidate people from speaking out. But racism is an inescapable part of life in Canada for many people, and there’s a tendency by those who don’t experience it personally to either not believe it or to diminish it.
Every time I’ve written about Syrian refugees or Black Lives Matter, I’ve seen it spew across the comment sections–CBC actually had to turn their comments off when they wrote about Indigenous issues–and Twitter can be a racist cesspool. It doesn’t stay online. In recent years there have been anti-Islam and white nationalist rallies across the country. And it goes beyond extremists. A poll a couple years ago found that 68 per cent of Canadians want immigrants to “fit in more.”
What’s new about this is that it’s being recorded–the Indigenous customer at Canadian Tire being harassed by the store manager, the woman in Toronto demanding a white doctor, the Islamophobic lady who stormed NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s televised town hall.
What’s new is that we’re forced to look Canadian racism in the eye and hear it yell “I was born and raised here. Fuck you!”
The widespread outrage over the video demonstrates that most of us won’t tolerate such intolerance. Omerzai told CBC that he’s been buoyed by the response to his posting. “It’s beautiful support; it’s amazing how there are so many good people out there,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m in Canada and with people; there are still good people out there. We should be good to each other and respect all races, all nationalities. We’re all humans.”
There are indeed good people out here. But it doesn’t help if we pretend this issue is isolated. For every video like this, there are unknown numbers of incidents that do not get recorded and go viral. Canada is a beautiful country, but we must all work together to reduce this an ugly undercurrent of racism.
So don’t be like those Denny’s customers who sat quietly while Pocha berated these men. Don’t be like the waitress who allegedly apologized to Pocha but not to the men, or the management and police who asked them to leave, too.
Be like the unseen women in the second video from a nearby table who piped in: “Bitch, he belongs in Canada just as much as you, shut the fuck up.”