It’s more dangerous to live with racism than to do nothing about it: advocate

Stephanie Harpe joined Jesse Lipscombe on stage as they hosted the virtual #MakeItAwkward Summit last week.

Lipscombe, an actor and activist who lives in Edmonton, began the #MakeItAwkward campaign four years ago. He was filming a public service announcement in Edmonton when he was confronted by people who rolled down their car window and hurled a racial slur at him.

Lipscombe is Black. He confronted the carload of people by asking them why they would say such a thing. They denied having said anything, but as they sped off, they said it again. It was captured on video which Lipscombe shared and the reaction was incredible.

“MakeItAwkward allows us to have a different choice in the face of discrimination than anger or silence,” said Lipscombe. “There’s the middle ground of questions. Be inquisitive. Just ask why.

“Change has never been easy, but it doesn’t have to be aggressive. It doesn’t have to be mean. It can be inclusive,” he said.

The need to make that change is also inclusive, said Harpe, a member of the Fort McKay First Nation.

“The blatant genocide, the blatant racism and the way it bleeds into our everyday, so it’s relatable to not only Indigenous and Black people, but to anyone of colour,” said Harpe.

Harpe is the survivor of a murder attempt. She is also an activist and advocate for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Her mother Ruby Anne McDonald was murdered in Edmonton in 1999. Presently she does online support work for the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women and leads her own virtual safety and wellness clinics.

“We’re seeing the dust-up of the oppression right now. So it’s really dusting up for everyone and we’re at the time we don’t need to talk anymore,” said Harpe.

By now, people know what the issues are, she said, and if they aren’t aware it’s because they don’t want to be part of the solution.

“Now we want to see action. We have to make more noise. We have to create bigger platforms,” said Harpe.

That’s what the #MakeItAwkward Summit on Dec. 10 was all about. It brought together people virtually to share their stories.

Among the Indigenous people to speak were two Amazing Race Canada contestants-Anthony Johnson and Ashley Callingbull.

Johnson and his partner Dr. James Makokis won the race in 2019, while Ashley Callingbull and her father Joel Ground finished third in the race in 2016. Dr. Lana Whiskeyjack also spoke.

Johnson spoke about an incident that occurred when he and Makokis were sitting in a mall having coffee “socially distanced, of course” because it was during the coronavirus pandemic. They were approached at two different times by Indigenous people who recognized them and asked them for monetary help. Makokis gave the two men a total of $5. Soon, the couple was approached by a security guard and asked if they were dealing drugs.

“Meanwhile, James and I, sitting there, dressed very well, minding our own business, having a cup of coffee, we’re incredibly offended because of a normal interaction, because of interacting with our own people and our own ways. Somebody from outside of us looked and said, `They’re selling drugs.’ That’s what racism looks like. It could be as simple as accusing someone of something that’s not true based on a preconceived notion,” said Johnson.

Callingbull talked about coming from a difficult and traumatic childhood to entering her first Miss Universe pageant in Toronto. The Toronto media scoffed at her talent as the pageant’s first Native woman, suggesting she would either chug Lysol or sign welfare cheques with her toes.

“Killed hearing that because it was just so disgusting thinking one of my proudest moments someone had to go say something like that…. Right away, people wanted a response, but they wanted an angry response. and I was not going to give them that,” she said.

Then in 2015, she was crowned Mrs. Universe and she used the spotlight to bring attention to the issues she cared about: murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and the fear that she might become one; the broken foster care system; the impacts of Indian residential schools; the Third World conditions First Nations were living in; and the need to protect the environment.

“It’s sad that it took a beauty queen to say it … and it was raw and controversial, but I’m so glad I did it, because it opened the doors. It opened people’s eyes to see what was really happening in our country,” said Callingbull.

Words like these, said Harpe, reached the ears of those who tuned into the summit.

“I got an amazing amount of people, strangers, white rural Alberta, telling me that they `did not know that truth. I did not know Indigenous people went through this. I did not know that Black people went through this every single day, when it comes to employment or finding an apartment or getting the simplest things, going to the store’,” said Harpe.

“We got really great positive responses from people who were stuck in their racism, people who were stuck in that ignorance and came out the other side saying, `I’m changed. I know the truth now and I would like to help. I would like you to know you changed my heart and I will change others’.”

Harpe credits Lipscombe’s philosophy that change doesn’t have to be done in an aggressive manner.

“We were touching on something that was so important, yet so ugly and delivered that in a good way. We started out with ceremony with Elder Elsie Paul in a good way,” said Harpe.

She said she believes the world has had enough and is embracing change.

“We need to keep moving forward. It’s more dangerous living in it than not doing anything about it,” said Harpe.

“I feel the good is going to really outweigh the hate. The love is really going to outweigh the hate and that’s what I’m seeing.”

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