When I grew up in Ottawa, there wasn’t an awful lot of ethnic diversity animating the city. It was a pretty white place, and in each of my classes there’d typically be one Asian kid, one black kid, one Indian and so on. Certainly, there would have been taunting and bullying, and what their experience was I can’t say, but I’m sure it was brutal and scarring in ways I’ll never be able to imagine, let alone comprehend.
What I can say is that when I was interacting with a kid who was part of a visible minority, a kind of tension presided—I was scared of making a mistake. We all knew that everybody was equal and that teasing or excluding somebody because they looked different or didn’t celebrate Halloween was wrong. Our parents, teachers and governing institutions taught us this. To express curiosity about something racially or culturally unique was seen as an insensitivity so potent that some toxic cloud of shame would be unleashed that would forever disfigure everybody present. That’s the way it felt, anyway.
And so, polite and unfriendly as only Canadians (and WASPy Canadians, at that!) can be, we tried to ignore anything different we might have noticed in a classmate. By doing this, we were essentially erasing a vital component of these kids, imposing a kind of invisibility upon them.
For instance, if asked to describe somebody I’d never mention skin color even though it was the most obvious and helpful descriptor. It was as if we simply pretended that Blake wasn’t black, oblivious that we were negating a part of him in the process. Similarly, if we were curious about Rajesh’s lunch, which always came in a thermos and was so different from the brown bag sandwiches the rest of us ate, well, we didn’t mention that either because we thought that would make Rajesh feel weird. This anxiety we had about “the rules” inhibited communication, bred ignorance and completely sidestepped the rough interchanges of natural friendships.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, I guess.
It was Chris Brown who got me to thinking about this. After his performance on the Grammy’s I wrote a satirical piece for publication in which Brown and I had been having an ongoing Twitter conversation. I’m a middle-aged white guy from Canada and I felt a little bit uneasy about appropriating the voice of a young black man from Virginia. In order to address this I embedded a bunch of actual Brown Tweets in the conversation, which I then used as a spine from which to create the voice and narrative I wanted the piece to have. However, the editors were worried that my work might be misconstrued, the publication branded as racist and that disaster would ensue.
And you know, they weren’t crazy to think that. Stuff like that happens all the time, and it happens insanely quickly.
As it wasn’t published I never found out if what I wrote would have been considered offensive to a broad audience or not. The worry about how we might make somebody feel prevented us from letting anybody feel anything, which seems the sort of thing that might help perpetuate a vicious cycle.
Regardless, it’s essential that I concede that my understanding of the unique nuances and sensitivities of race relations in the United States is limited. The omnicultural haze of America is ever present, but I don’t often experience it first-hand. I’m Canadian and my perspective is from a distance, separate from the tangible realities felt on the streets each day, so maybe it was for the best that I was graciously led away from the precipice I was standing on.
Concerning race, I have little authority (or so I feel, which in itself is problematic if you think about it) and can only speak of my experience and the filter through which I’ve interpreted it. When I was a boy living in Ottawa and there were very few minorities around, I was scared to do something offensive toward them and therefore did very little, thus contributing to a passive racism that I actually imagined benevolent. Later in my life I moved to Toronto, where I now live.
Toronto is a big city, the fifth largest in North America and one that’s always proudly crowing about being the most multicultural place on the planet. Roughly half of the residents here are born outside of the country and the city truly is a farrago of languages, customs, colors and orientations, all moving about their daily business.
When Jeremy Lin, the star Asian sensation of the New York Knicks came to town to play the Raptors, the event was celebrated with a special promotion called “Asian Heritage Night.”
Was this racist?
It didn’t cause a ripple of controversy in Toronto, but I’ve been assured that something analogous could never have taken place in the US where it would have be seen as an insult. Here, where the Asian population is large, self-assured and well established, people were only too happy to come out and celebrate Lin, who is simultaneously the personification and erasure of many Asian stereotypes. He contains multitudes, as do you and I, the communities we come from and all the people that came out to cheer him on that night. It was ironic and sincere at the same time, and I’d like to believe that the truth was that people were simply being themselves, comfortably indifferent to how outside eyes might frame them.
I have a wide swath of friends and acquaintances in Toronto who are from all over the goddamn place. They talk about their heritage, the things that they love about it and the things that they hate about it, as if they were talking about members of their own family. (This, in fact is the source material of Toronto comedian Russell Peters, a mainstream success story who seems to find fans wherever cultures mingle.)
Hearing everyone talk this way was immensely liberating for me as I grew up thinking that race was a sacred precinct to which only one group belonged and that trespassing, regardless of your intentions, was strictly forbidden.
I never think of people here as Indian, Queer, Middle Eastern or whatever, but simply at Torontonians. It probably sounds pretentious, that, but the city itself is the tribe, and each group that helps constitute this tribe takes a sincere comfort and pride in the other. We eat one another’s cuisine, go to each other’s festivals, ride the streetcar and work together. When Lin and the Knicks came to Toronto it wasn’t just the Asians in the crowd who were cheering for him (and against the “hometown” Raptors), it was everybody. Lin was a Torontonian on that night. Watching him play, being almost defiantly himself, it was if everyone felt something hum within and stood up, only instead of saying “I am Spartacus,” proclaimed, “I am Jeremy Lin.”
When people feel safe rather than isolated and misunderstood by virtue of their skin color, accent or sexuality, then they really don’t seem to care what strangers think. They are who they are, and whether that adheres to a stereotype or not doesn’t make a whit of difference to them. That’s obvious, I guess, but what I think is important is that censoring ourselves is counterproductive to producing this climate. If everybody’s going to get along, then everybody is going to have to be themselves, limited only by their imagination and ambition and careful to presume the best of intentions in people, rather than the worst.
It might get a little messy sometimes, but that’s the nature of having a relationship instead of ignoring one.