Family treated to racist tirade by St. John’s taxi driver

Willow Anderson and her family had just wrapped up a picture-perfect visit home to St. John’s for Christmas.

They had only recently moved away from the province, so it was an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.

But their trip to the airport on New Year's Day turned into a cab ride from hell.

“We were home for holidays and this was, unfortunately, our last interaction with someone from home,” she said in an interview Monday, Jan. 2.

“The fellow was at the end of his shift and said something about some violence that had happened downtown.”

The Andersons at first commiserated with him.

“Then the floodgates opened. He thought I would understand, or something, how the province is going to hell in a hand basket,” she said.

“He said, ‘I think I know who it was, and they’re never going to get them because they’re never fingerprinted.’ My husband and I just took a deep breath in then, because we knew what was coming.”

The couple had their young son in the car, which made it even more gut-wrenching as the driver continued his racial-profiling rant.

“He just went on and on and on, and we just kept pushing back,” said Anderson. “I guess there’s no sense and logic, but we felt it was our duty to push back, to model fighting racism to our son, but then also just because we wanted to let him to know that this isn’t cool to us, that we don’t agree at all.”

It was a long ride, and the Andersons finally came to the end of their tether.

"My husband and I both took a breath at the same time and said, 'Actually, can you just stop?’ And finally I said, ‘I don’t want my son to hear this. This is enough.’”

The driver then asked the boy how his Christmas was, she says, as if nothing had happened.

After they arrived at the St. John’s airport, the pair had a moment to sit and talk about the experience.

“We had just had this amazing time celebrating the people that we love, many of whom we know would be targets for this,” said Anderson.

“We wondered, what if they were in this cab? What if this was them?”

She did not want to name the company because she feels the problem is bigger than any one driver. But she’s continued to try to contact the company since the incident. Her calls have gone unanswered, but she won’t stop trying.

“This is an issue that we have as a society, that people like this exist, and even if we don’t agree with them, we’re not always speaking up against them. We just want to roll our eyes and make it go away. And it’s not going away,” she said.

“You’ve got to stick your neck out there, even though it’s not comfortable. I want to join those racialized voices to say that, yeah, I saw it. I saw it, too.

“It’s affecting all of us. Racism is ugly and it’s huge and it’s everywhere, and that includes Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Laurabel Mba says the Andersons did exactly the right thing.

Mba, a communications specialist and member of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador (ARC-NL), says too many people are willing to write off racism in the province as being rare and inconsequential.

“Newfoundland is, if you’re visiting, a very welcome place to visit. Newfoundlanders are willing to open their doors and show you all that Newfoundland has to offer, as long as there’s a sense that you’re going to leave at some point,” she said.

“When it seems like there’s a threat to the Newfoundland culture they’ve grown to love, the niceness seems to wear off.”

Mba says a couple of factors have brought racism to the foreground in recent years. One thing is the greater influx of immigrants, something a province with an aging population and low birth rate needs in order to stay afloat.

The other is the alarming emergence of extreme right-wing nationalism around the world, particularly that on display under the previous U.S. presidency.

“Racism and discrimination and xenophobia have always been things that existed, but wasn’t OK to do publicly. It was something you said privately, where only like-minded people would be there. You weren’t going to be open about it.”

As racism escalates, Mba says non-racialized people like the Andersons are faced with a choice.

“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Once you see the atrocities of racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and all that, you can’t pretend that they don’t exist,” she said.

“Then you have to make a moral decision. Are you going to combat it, or are you going to create a space for it to thrive and exist.”

Non-racialized people have to become allies in the cause, she said.

“Smiling and trying to be polite around the situation does nothing, and lets the person continue to get away with what they’re doing,” she said.

“Things like this escalate. They become more emboldened, and at a point you’re putting racialized minority people in danger.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram