September 23, 2017

Winnipeg
10° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast

Tackling the 'R' word

Art project challenges people to rethink racial stereotypes

Photographer KC Adams wanted to explore the effects of racism in Winnipeg through a series of diptychs that play on the power of a photo, combined with the power of words to hurt or to illuminate.

At the height of last fall’s debate over Winnipeg’s racism problem, a few days after the body of teenager Tina Fontaine was found in the Red River, Winnipeg artist KC Adams got serious about a project she’d long pondered.

The inspiration was, in part, a Twitter phenomenon sparked by events in another city in the midst of its own racial crisis, one also fomented by entrenched violence — Ferguson, MO, where police killed an 18-year-old unarmed high school graduate named Michael Brown.

In hundreds of news stories, the media tended to use a photo of Brown many interpreted as thuggish or gangster, instead of his high school graduation cap-and-gown photo. That prompted thousands to denounce the media stereotypes of African-Americans and to post two contrasting photos of themselves, one often a party-time selfie and one in a graduation gown, a wedding suit or military uniform. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown accompanied the photos and dominated Twitter.

Adams, whose work has appeared in the National Gallery of Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, says the same kinds of stereotypes often infect media coverage of, and public comments about, indigenous people. We tend to portray indigenous people as victims, as welfare recipients, as criminals, as militant protesters — instead of the successful, creative, and even boring, middle-class people many Métis, Inuit and First Nations people are.

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 30 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Add a payment method

To read the remaining 2096 words of this article.

Pay only 27¢ for others you wish to read.

Hope you enjoyed your trial.

Add a payment method

To read the remaining 2096 words of this article.

Pay only 27¢ for others you wish to read.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/3/2015 (918 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At the height of last fall’s debate over Winnipeg’s racism problem, a few days after the body of teenager Tina Fontaine was found in the Red River, Winnipeg artist KC Adams got serious about a project she’d long pondered.

 Becca Taylor, a subject in the photography exhibit by KC Adams, stands in front of her image projected on the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Becca Taylor, a subject in the photography exhibit by KC Adams, stands in front of her image projected on the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

The inspiration was, in part, a Twitter phenomenon sparked by events in another city in the midst of its own racial crisis, one also fomented by entrenched violence — Ferguson, MO, where police killed an 18-year-old unarmed high school graduate named Michael Brown.

In hundreds of news stories, the media tended to use a photo of Brown many interpreted as thuggish or gangster, instead of his high school graduation cap-and-gown photo. That prompted thousands to denounce the media stereotypes of African-Americans and to post two contrasting photos of themselves, one often a party-time selfie and one in a graduation gown, a wedding suit or military uniform. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown accompanied the photos and dominated Twitter.

Adams, whose work has appeared in the National Gallery of Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, says the same kinds of stereotypes often infect media coverage of, and public comments about, indigenous people. We tend to portray indigenous people as victims, as welfare recipients, as criminals, as militant protesters — instead of the successful, creative, and even boring, middle-class people many Métis, Inuit and First Nations people are.

Following Fontaine’s homicide, along with the death of homeless hero Faron Hall and the public soul-searching they prompted, Adams wanted to create an artistic response quickly, instead of waiting months for a gallery show. So, starting with local publicist and CBC Radio producer Kim Wheeler, she began shooting a series of diptychs that play on the power of a photo, combined with the power of words to hurt or to illuminate.

KC Adams stands in front of one of the images from her exhibit which is projected on the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

KC Adams stands in front of one of the images from her exhibit which is projected on the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

For the first photo, Adams asked her subjects to think of a particular word or phrase — lazy Indian, whore, tax burden — or a moment when they experienced racism. For the second photo, focusing her camera lens on her subject’s eyes, Adams asked each subject to come up with a more accurate, often funny, biography for themselves and think about it or a happy moment in their lives. That photo became the more accurate, complete representation of them.

She posted the photos on Facebook as she completed them, and they were widely shared. But that’s mostly where they stayed until a plan was hatched to turn them into one of Winnipeg’s most ambitious public art projects, one that gained new currency following a widely-debated story about Winnipeg’s indigenous community that suggested the city may be the most racist in Canada.

Since then, Adams has been interviewed on national radio and featured by national magazines and her project has been profiled locally. Now, the downtown will be plastered with blown-up versions of her photos in downtown shop windows, projected onto buildings during Winnipeg Jets games, plastered on billboards and in Winnipeg Transit buses. On Friday, it even formed the artistic background of Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman’s first State of the City speech.

The Free Press asked some of Adams’ subjects, many well-known local indigenous leaders, more about their experience.

— Mary Agnes Welch

 

Tackling the R word

James Lathlin

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

My sons, who are half-black, and some friends, who are Somali and Eritrean, and I’m full Cree — we were walking through Portage Place and the cops stopped us and asked us where we came from, where we were going. I respected it, because we were downtown where there’s a high crime rate and maybe I fit the description of somebody. But then they killed it by asking me if I was Al-Qaeda. I said, "Yeah, me and AMC." Then they muscled up and were aggressive and said, "Who’s AMC?" and I said, "The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs." They said, "Do you think this is funny?" And I said "Yes, I think this is funny. Your ignorance is funny. We’re all holding basketballs and heading to the YMCA. Why don’t you go that way and catch some real criminals?" They realized, a) I was a parent and b) I was First Nations.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the word "drug dealer" what was going through your head?

Instant anxiety, flashbacks to times where I was put in that position. I grew up on hip-hop and lived it. I grew up on Public Enemy, Tupac, KRS One. It was a lifestyle. You remember a time when you’d see it everywhere, it was the new world. But when a First Nations rocks it, why does it have to be "drug dealer"?

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers learn from this project?

That ignorance hurts and people need to learn that every culture has downfalls. There’s good and there’s bad. At the end of the day, we all bleed red.

 

Tackling the R word

April Sinclair

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

The one I can remember like it was yesterday is when I was pregnant with my daughter five years ago. I was on my way back from my apartment at the women’s hospital when I got on the bus. This man was saying something when he spit at my feet and called me a dirty Indian.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the word "hooker" what was going through your head?

I felt anger, sadness and a lot of emotion because I know people who do it for different reasons.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers learn from this project?

I hope they learn it's not OK for this to still go on, and stop before the next generation grows up to only have it happen to them.

 

Tackling the R word

Leona Star

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

As I walked towards a movie theatre in the downtown of North Battleford, Sask., a pickup truck drove past and someone called out, "F—-ing squaw, go back to the reserve!" That was my first experience with racist perceptions outside of my community. Today there is systemic racism that exists that is more subtle and embedded in systems where it is challenging to prove or have people acknowledge.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the word "victim" what was going through your head?

My thoughts were, I am not a victim that needs to saved, don’t look at me with pity because of my race or what you think I have been through. I don’t need to be saved by you, by someone who knows nothing about me or my history. Your preconceived perception does not define me or my family, you have no idea how strong we are as a people.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers learn from this project?

My hope is that people think about their own preconceived perceptions, judgments and attitudes about those around them. I hope it will make them rethink how they relate to and treat one another. My hope for Winnipeg is for people to be kind to one another. Ask yourselves before you speak, "Are my words meant to kind or hurtful?"

 

Tackling the R word

Dustin Harder

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

Being a very fair-skinned aboriginal Métis. I’ve been discriminated by the aboriginal community for not "looking the part" when applying for various programs and job opportunities. As well I have been discriminated towards the non-aboriginal community for identifying myself as aboriginal (Métis).

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the word "crook" what was going through your head?

I felt offended and hurt and it reminded me of the time when an aboriginal friend of full status commented to me that all Métis are crooks for trying to get aboriginal government entitlements.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers learn from this project?

Some citizens of Winnipeg need to realize what they are missing out if they discount a whole culture and authentic heritage. There are many places in the world where being First Nations is seen as positive and not negative.

 

Tackling the R word

Maria Morrison

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

Although I have experienced subtle instances of stereotyping over the course of my life, an incident last week left me with a very current reminder of the attitudes that still exist in Canada regarding indigenous people. I tweeted a picture and it made the news. There were many supporters but also nasty comments that made assumptions about me based on my cultural background. In the article, it stated that I had been on a vacation out of the country and one comment in particular said, "I bet welfare paid for her trip." The surprising thing to me wasn’t the comment itself, but that on the first day there were 35 likes of that comment.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the words "wagon burner" what was going through your head?

KC explained that she wanted to get an honest reaction from me and that she would say things to elicit a response. Then she started calling me names like "wagon burner," "dirty Indian," "freeloader." It was jarring at first to hear this and then she said, "Now, how would you feel if they these things were said to your daughter?" I felt pain, fear and a sense of determination to not let that happen. And that’s when she took the first photograph.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers take from this project?

I hope that by providing examples of stereotypes, that racism can be reduced by first showing the pervasiveness of this problem. If people can pause, think about their initial reaction and see all people through a lens of shared human emotion before they react, I think this would be a big step forward in creating respect and understanding.

 

Tackling the R word

Nungohs Morrison

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

I can’t think of a specific incident of racism. I enjoy seeing the reactions of people when I am on my way to powwows and wear my regalia in public. Some people look surprised or amused and it doesn’t really matter to me what they think.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the words "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome" what was going through your head?

KC asked me to show her how I would feel if I was being bullied or called names. It was talked about before this what title we wanted to use for the art. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was explained to me as an important issue and that First Nations youth are often labelled as this. I agreed that this could be used on my picture to bring awareness.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers take from this project?

I want people to see me as a unique person first and not a stereotype.

 

Tackling the R word

Becca Taylor

1. Describe an experience of racism you’ve had.

I am of Cree and European decent. I can say honestly say I have experienced racism from both groups. There have been a lot of defining moments in my experiences with racism, not only with my own personal, but with my family’s experiences as well. Those defining moments are spread out throughout my lifetime, but the small comments and gestures that people make everyday, even if it is not directed at me, have directly affected my choices in the past, in fear of being associated with the stereotype.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the words "wannabe Indian" what was going through your head?

KC asked me that question because she knew what I experienced as a child, and still do today as an adult. She was aware of my troubles as an adolescent trying to fit into both groups, but my physical look did not allow for an easy acceptance. As I grow older and more secure in myself, the less those comments torment me; but it would be a whole lot easier if I was not judged on either my fair skin and freckles, or my prominent bone structure and facial features. This is the way I look. I love my look, my beliefs and choices. People are just going to have to deal with it.

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers take from this project?

My hope for Perception, is to reach a wider audience and to bring awareness to people who may have never given racism and stereotyping a second thought. Perhaps now that it is brought to their eyes, they will think twice about what they say, their actions, and who it affects.

 

Tackling the R word

Robert Lavallee

1. Describe an experience of racism you've had.

Finding housing in Winnipeg is a challenge. Finding housing as an indigenous person is an even greater challenge. It doesn't matter if you maintained good credit, have excellent references and a stable income — what really mattered was the colour of my skin and the stereotypes that came with it.

2. When KC Adams asked you to think about the word "shoplifter" what was going through your head?

I remember the faces and the stereotyping eyes of store workers thinking I have no money and I'm there to shoplift. I'm thinking, "Why are you folding clothes and dusting everywhere I go?"

3. What do you hope Winnipeggers learn from this?

I hope that people of Winnipeg will consider that behind every stoic face is a story, a real smile. I hope that we become aware and gain a better understanding of each other as neighbours of one great city.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

 

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.