Browne: Anti-Black racism

by Robin Browne

5 reasons why racist waterpark ride shows how anti-Black racism is the S-word

I recently made the local CTV news by complaining about a racist ride at a popular water park near Ottawa. However, the real story is how the existence of the ride – and the way the media covered the story – show how racism is the S-word: systemic.

The problems are:

  1. That Calypso water park created the exhibit in the first place.
  2. That it’s been there so long with so few complaints.
  3. That the media was immediately interested in the story.
  4. That the media framed the story the way they did, despite what I said.
  5. That Calypso’s reaction was to make cosmetic changes.

When originally created, Calypso water park’s Kongo Expedition had visitors floating down a “lazy river” past life-size African-looking versions of the racist lawn jockeys popularized in the American south, white Calypso staff dressed up as “natives” and under a giant, smoking cauldron – complete with recorded screams – which seems to be making reference to the racist stereotype of Africans as cannibals (pics below).

Kongo jockeys.JPG
Kongo natives.PNG
Kongo cauldron.JPG

Photo source:

Many powerful people at Calypso had to think this was a great idea for the ride to be built. This shows how systemic racism can make even the most blatantly racist things seem OK. This applies to the people at Calypso who created the ride and the thousands of people – including Black people – who floated through the Kongo for years without ever complaining about it.

The media’s immediate interest in the story is also revealing.

CTV television news called me less than an hour after I emailed them about my complaint going unanswered by Calypso and CBC TV news called not long after. Why were they so keen to cover the story? CTV’s framing of the story may provide some insights.

The story, titled “Calypso ride criticized over “racist images””, was framed as “an Ottawa man is calling for change to an attraction at a popular Eastern Ontario waterpark. He says the imagery on the ride is racist.” This was despite the fact that the email I sent Calypso was endorsed by three well known, Ottawa-based Black organizations: the 613/819 Black Hub, Federal Black Employee Caucus and the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition (the reporter didn’t ask me anything about the groups or mention them in the story). In addition to that omission, the story left out every other comment I made that reflected us having power/agency and the problem being systemic, including:

1) that Canada, and Ottawa, have an issue with systemic anti-Black racism, confirmed by the UN and the PM, and that the stuff at Calypso is the kind of thing that gets normalized as a result;

2) that I have a very large network who I have all told about this;

3) that the focus of the 613/819 Hub right now is on making change in the public sector, and we’re having great success, but will eventually turn our attention to the private sector;

4) that Calypso is doing this because they continue to make lots of money; and

5) that we’d be happy to work with Calypso to make change.

They also omitted everything I said about the issues at Calypso being a symptom of systemic racism. I would argue that’s because systemic racism doesn’t make good TV – but one angry Black guy does.

When we say discrimination and anti-Black racism is systemic we mean it permates things like the criminal justice system, schools and the media, and was put there on purpose a long time ago to facilitate – and justify – things like slavery in Canada.

Calypso never responded to my email – but they did respond to the CTV story. Their statement, released the day after the story aired, appears to back up point #4: 

“Inspired by African safari adventures, the Kongo Expedition attraction provides Calypso visitors with a fantastic journey through an imaginary jungle. The journey takes our guests on an adventure into the territory of an isolated tribe which holds the treasured recipe for a magic potion for eternal life. In 2017, Calypso undertook to alter some of the attraction’s features to eliminate any imagery which could be viewed as offensive to some of our visitors. In addition, the supernatural and magical appearances of the characters have been exaggerated to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation on the part of our visitors.”

But the big reveal was this: “Since its opening, Kongo Expedition has earned the praise of visitors and industry alike. In 2014, Ottawa Tourism awarded Calypso Theme Waterpark its Innovation of the Year Award for the Kongo Expedition attraction.” In other words, Kongo makes Calypso big bucks.

One more point should be highlighted. The story said I called for a boycott of Calypso – which I didn’t. I said the groups mentioned in my letter were asking that the problem items be removed from the Kongo expedition for the 2019 summer season. I also said I would email the hundreds of people in my network about the ride.

That there’s systemic racism in Canada and Ottawa isn’t my opinion. In the fall of 2017, the UN released a report citing systemic anti-Black racism in Canada. In January 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau became the first Prime Minister to acknowledge systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism exist in Canada. He also announced Canada’s formal acknowledgment of the U.N. Decade of People of African Descent backed up with 2018-19 federal budget money for diversity in general – and Black Canadians in particular.
The 613/819 Black Hub is currently working with federal officials to help the government fulfill the Prime Minister’s commitments.  The Ottawa-based representatives we work with will no doubt be shocked and disappointed to hear that racist imagery from the 1950s is alive and well right in their own backyard.

About the writer

Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and father of two boys. He lives in Ottawa.

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