How To Talk To Your (Kinda Racist) Uncle* About Don Cherry

Photo: Courtesy of Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto/Getty.
*We know: Not all uncles are racist (and, in fact, many are stand-up guys). But whether it’s a family member, a colleague or a Facebook friend, chances are you’ve been hearing some pretty, well, interesting takes on the whole Don Cherry debacle. Last Saturday the longtime Hockey Night in Canada personality was fired by Sportsnet following a rant about how “you people” love “our” way of life, but can’t be bothered to put on a poppy for Remembrance Day. Since then, the entire nation has tossed its collective Timbits, turning social media, workplaces, and even daytime TV into potential minefields for politically charged smackdowns that (by the way) have nothing to do with patriotism.
But how best to deal with these awkward encounters? Here, a handy dandy guide to chatting with (whoever it is) about this only-in-Canada controversy.

Your co-worker says: “Why is everyone making this about race? Don Cherry never even mentioned race.”

If we’ve learned anything from Donald Trump it’s that there are plenty of ways to make racist remarks without explicitly talking about race. Let’s start with the facts: Cherry was talking about “you people” who come to “our” country and referenced people from Mississauga and downtown Toronto. “If you take all of those things together, we are talking about immigrants. And not white immigrants,” says Courtney Szto, a kinesiology prof at Queen’s university whose doctoral dissertation is on racism in hockey culture. Szto notes that “immigrant” itself has racial implications depending on location and era. Had Cherry’s remarks been made in 1850, his argument that he could have been talking about Irish Immigrants (which he made during an interview with Global News) might hold water. Today though, what he says is a pretty good example of the kind of “coded language that is used to hold up white supremacy all over the world,” Szto says.
Speaking of language, Cherry kind of killed his own argument during that same Global News interview, saying that he doesn’t regret anything, but (big but here) if he had to do it over, he would have replaced “you people” with the word “everyone.” Which, is kind of like Cruella de Vil saying next time she’d make the coat without killing all those puppies.

Your old-school uncle says: “PC culture has ruined my beloved game!”

Let’s start with the good news: Everything fans love about the sport is the same. (Unless what you love is its ties to a homogeneous and male Canadian identity, in which case — come on, Uncle Gary!) What’s happening is that the culture of hockey is beginning to answer a long overdue wake-up call. “For a lot of people there is a connection between hockey and the good old days,” says Szto. There’s nothing wrong with the kind of fond memories that would fit a Tim Hortons commercial (skating on frozen ponds in small towns, etc.), but, says Stzo, it’s important remember that the “good old days” were better for some Canadians than they were for others. The fact that South Asian Canadians and girls are two demographics where participation in hockey is spiking (while overall participation is tanking) says a lot about how out of touch Cherry’s version of the game has become.

Your friend’s mom says: “That lady on The Social made some racist comments about hockey players. She should be fired, too!”

That’s your opinion, and it’s obviously one that a lot of people hold judging from the outrage over Jess Allen’s Cherry-related comments, in which the co-host shared her experiences with white hockey “bullies” in university (see the full comments here). It’s okay to take umbrage with what she said. Hockey players (like people who love superhero movies) come in a lot of different flavours, and it can be annoying to be the subject of a generalization. But here’s the thing: Jocks are not a persecuted minority, and what Allen said was not racism. White hockey players don’t get passed over for jobs because they have a “sporty last name.” They don’t get stopped by the police because there was a hockey bag poking out of their trunk. Cherry’s comments are bigoted because they make a generalization about a marginalized group that faces systemic discrimination.

Your Facebook friend says: “Don Cherry was standing up for supporting our troops. What’s wrong with that?”

Absolutely nothing! One of the things that has been so frustrating about this whole situation is the way it has been distilled into a debate around supporting for Canada’s military and putting on a poppy. If you want to talk about who deserves to be offended in all this, it’s the Canadian veterans and military people and who don’t look like Cherry’s version of “us.” As for the conflation Cherry made between people who don’t wear poppies and immigrants, that’s just flat out wrong, as expressed by Toronto mayor John Tory, who tweeted, “Mr. Cherry should come to Old City Hall tomorrow where he would see thousands of Canadians of all ages, nationalities, faiths, and backgrounds honouring our veterans and demonstrating their love for Canada and our precious way of life, as they do every year.”

Your co-worker wonders: “Cherry has made a lot of questionable comments over the years. Why now?”

There’s no question the man has made a lot of hateful remarks, which have always been hurtful and offensive. What’s changed is that “those people” finally have a voice. “It doesn't surprise me that we finally got to a point where [Cherry’s] employers decided that letting him put the brand of hockey in blatant conflict with the country's diversity wasn't worth it,” says Jon Crowley, director of strategy at Sid Lee. Most brands do a bit of a cost/benefit analysis, he says, in terms of who their core audience is today, and who they want their core audience to be tomorrow. “All the research is telling us that the younger audiences really care about the values of the organizations they interact with.”

Your uncle (him again!) says: “Cherry got fired after Justin Trudeau got elected. A little hypocritical, don’t you think?”

Look, pretty much nooooooobody is saying Justin Trudeau’s numerous appearances in black and brownface weren’t shameful and racist… including Justin Trudeau. So while this is not about letting the PM off, there is a difference between when powerful people admit to and apologize for wrongdoing vs. when they double down on it. The other difference is that Trudeau was elected whereas Cherry is an employee whose actions failed to reflect the policies of his employers. So they fired him. Which, when you think about it, seems pretty fair.

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