In his 1961 book “Black Like Me” author John Howard Griffin recounted his firsthand experiences with being the target of racism in the Deep South, when he tinted his skin so he appeared African-American.
I thought of Griffin’s experiment and book when I stumbled into a much less high-minded and serious episode of appearing to be someone I’m not. For one night, everyone around me thought I was Canadian.
My daughter’s boyfriend is from Nova Scotia, living here now, and had never been to a night time major league baseball game. Checking the Detroit Tigers schedule a few weeks ago, I noticed that June 7th was “Canadian Tiger Fans Night,” and with one ticket package you received a voucher for a swell t-shirt proclaiming you a Canadian Tigers Fan. So of course, I bit on that faster than a Quebecker on a pan of poutine.
I noticed a difference even before I donned the shirt with a maple leaf and the Olde English D on the front and map of Canada on the back. It happened when we exchanged our vouchers for the shirts and the young man handing them out gave us a little smile similar to the one you might give someone who doesn’t speak English. I wanted to help him relax by saying, in English, “it’s ok, eh? we have t-shirts in Canada too.”
People kept stopping us asking if we were really from Canada and did we come all that way, which is comical, or pathetic, since Canada is just a mile away across the Detroit River. We were also asked to turn around so folks could see the backs of our shirts. One or two asked, earnestly, “What is that, a map of Canada, or Ontario, or…something?” Something. Eh?
It was after the game, though, when I honestly felt the pain of being on the receiving end of either xenophobia, or simply the effects of too many 10 dollar beers in a 75 IQ body. As we walked down the ramps toward the exits, a few morons started shouting at us in their worst Canadian accents, “Hey! You Canadian guys! You enjoy the game, EH? Sorry the Blue Jays lost, but no worries, EH? Did you know this wasn’t a hockey game, EH?” I knew they were idiots and probably drunk but for the first time I felt stung as a target of, if not something as serious and ugly as racism, but, as something I could only define as “differentiation.” I immediately recalled “Black Like Me,” as I looked down at my red Canadian Tigers Fan shirt, a scarlet tee, providing the faux skin disguising me as a citizen of the Provinces, and identifying me as a convenient target of stereotype and ignorance.
But this has a happy ending. One of the offenders, a kid from across the river in Windsor, Ontario, confided that he regretted missing the chance to get one of those t-shirts and herald the fact he’s a proud Canadian Tigers fan. Maybe next year. No worries. Eh?