When I was younger and more naïve and shielded by my parents, Canadian multiculturalism felt real and true. I grew up in Brampton, Ont., a restlessly expanding suburb of Toronto that teems with immigrants. In 1992, the city – or, at least, my grade two classroom – was a case study in the celebratory, preservation-minded policy of Trudeau’s multiculturalism: My pale blonde friend Zeyn was from Turkey and Afia and all her cousins were Pakistani. Ebony and Roxanne had parents from Jamaica, Seth The Pervert was a Newfie, and Natasha, whose surprise birthday party I ruined because I cannot keep those kinds of secrets, constantly had relatives visiting from Guyana.
There was never a need to question where I fit in, and that same school year when some sniveling, store brand whiteboy called me a ‘Paki’ I went home and told my parents and cried because I knew from TV that that was what I was supposed to do. In reality, while I still remember exactly how the light filled the air in that bustling elementary school hallway, I was left largely unfazed by first contact with overt racism. Even my eight-year-old mind could grasp that dude was either scared, stupid or, at the very least, outnumbered. In that multiethnic microcosm his bad attitude was undesirable, and I was the normal one. He had nothing to take. There might not be a better place to grow up brown or black than Brampton.
Then, I enrolled in a performing arts high school north of the city only to transfer after two years because it was too white. Race as it actually functions, as a tool of human insidiousness and despotism, became real beyond my imagined utopia. As a millennial citizen of the Western world I move with an according sense of privilege: whatever you got, I’ma have that too. It’s my birthright, regardless of the colour of my skin or where my grandparents are from. Until it’s not. In hindsight my problem with that school was an inability to articulate feeling exposed and significantly different and, for the first time in my life, outnumbered. I’d taken diversity for granted; my normal was not so much.
I’ve never broached that publicly until now. But it seems important. Everyone seems to talk about race and cultural/religious pluralism and diversity and immigration and gentrification. When it comes to making tactile changes though? That’s when things get really difficult and no one wants to budge.
Two recent high profile pieces by Canadian writers are willfully naïve about the psychic reality of this country’s demographics. In the Globe & Mail, columnist Doug Saunders presents a static, “post-immigrant” Canada where multiculturalism is irrelevant. Much of his argument positions multiculturalism as an anal retentive policy of categorization that silos ethnic groups, from outside and within. Saunders acknowledges that people who look like me feel pretty okay about our identities, but skips over acknowledging the incredibly powerful role that people who look like him – “a sixth-generation Anglo-Canadian” – play in perpetuating and preserving the labels he says it’s time to ditch.
“For the first generation, multiculturalism was a way to feel part of the national whole; for the second, it often feels like a barrier to such inclusion,” he writes. This totally absolves white folks – the power brokers, if we’re going to be real about inclusivity – from participation. The policy was always PR, duh. But it was just as much (if not more) about placating white Canadians than letting immigrants live a little less in fear of eating the food and wearing the clothes we were going to eat and wear anyway.
Fear is kind of the subtext for “Mixie Me,” a personal essay about being mixed race by Nick Hune-Brown in Toronto Life, with the attendant claim that the city is set to be the world’s first post-racial metropolis. Mixed race people are a more common sight on the streets of Toronto now, more than ever, and there’s comfort to be taken in that kind of visibility, he writes. Anxieties about interracial unions have given way to curiosity. Sexy, ethnically ambiguous mixies are what makes Toronto desirable next to taco restaurants and condos and a trap music party every night of the week. The beige and the beautiful will blur the lines that constitute xenophobia, or at least confuse us into submission.
Glib eugenics aside, there is a lot of merit to visibility. It’s why I was able to easily dismiss that second grade bully. But I’m skeptical that birthing a Yoruba-Guinea-Indian child, though a political act, will dissolve the structures that preserve xenophobia unless, maybe, that hot multiracial baby grows up to marry a Weston.
“Diversity (and we’re talking race, class, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, religion, all of it) is about putting multiple points of view into a conversation,” writes Roxane Gay at The Rumpus. “It’s about ensuring that no one is operating in the kind of cultural vacuum where they don’t stop to consider context.” We’re past the easy part of multiculturalism – integration, assimilation, tolerance, eating roti. Now time for the hard part: practicing equality with consequence and straight up not being a dick.
We can’t dismiss multiculturalism when Islamophobia fuels pop culture. Or when our native population continues to be oppressed and ridiculed in plain sight. We can’t talk about securing a post-racial paradise divorced from the reality of the existing power structures and individuals that benefit from preserving the status quo.
Racism is still a real problem, and these kind of neat solutions only perpetuate myth-values that avoid personal accountability. A demographic shift will force the context to change, but even then there’s no guarantee that racism will end. That won’t happen until white people change how they see the world. But why should they, right? And that’s what, so far, seems insurmountable. Follow Anupa on Twitter: @_anupa
More Canadian thinking: Devil's Advocate: The Pathos, Ethos, and Logos of Tom Flanagan