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Can This Dreadlocked Woman Be Toronto's Next Rob Ford?

Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson is only polling at around 4 percent, but she's recently garnered a lot of attention for a series of peculiar campaign strategies, including a music video parody of a Pitbull song featuring some guy who goes by...

by Muna Mire
May 1 2014, 11:00am

Mayoral candidate and Kanye West fan, Sarah Thomson. Photo via Facebook.

Sarah Thomson is making a lot of people uncomfortable. She’s running for mayor right now, and while she remains a fringe candidate—polling at around 4 percent—she’s been in the public spotlight with a number of bizarre campaign strategies that seem designed to grab attention more than anything else.

As the Liberal candidate on the mayoral slate, Thomson is a political amateur without much experience—apart from her failed mayoral bid in 2010. Thomson made a name for herself in the last election when, in part due to an odd slate of candidates, she finished in the top five, quitting early to throw her support behind George Smitherman. Aside from this attempt, she says her business experience (she’s the publisher and CEO of Women’s Post) has also prepared her for a go at municipal politics.

Thomson has never held city office or been substantively involved in a campaign apart from her own. Despite this, Thomson believes her business acumen will translate to effective mayoral leadership because, in her words, business owners “understand what it means to be fiscally responsible.” She believes that the city’s councillors simply “haven’t had a strong leader who can unite them in a solid strategy.”

There’s probably more to it than that.  

Funnily enough, this is definitely Thomson’s most effective and least controversial campaign strategy to date (this is the same woman who showed up to City Hall on a horse-drawn carriage to announce her 2014 candidacy). Trying to sell us on your fiscal smarts is definitely a better plan than, as the Torontoist put it, "keep[ing] it real all the way to the mayor’s chair." And while I didn’t intend for this article to veer into listicle territory, I think it’s probably the best way to catalog Thomson’s increasingly bizarre campaign, which has been defined by a series of disparate and confusingly off maneuvers.

To start:

Her Dreadlocks Are a Bit Much

Photo via Facebook.

The first weird thing about Sarah Thomson is that between her 2010 bid for mayor, when she looked like this, and now, she has undergone a drastic change in her appearance. Yup, she has a head full of dreadlocks that she’s really proud of. I could go into the practicalities of why that's a terrible idea, but I think that’s clear. What’s worse, dreadlocks are sacred to some people of color’s culture. Rastafarianism is a spiritual practice after all. It’s important to note that black people whom I know still can’t go to work with their hair in that style, so when it’s appropriated by people who have no real cultural link to the practice, it’s sort of offensive. That, and like I said, the fact that white hair naturally does not want to dread up makes it a lose-lose situation. Aesthetically and politically, it’s a no-go. Why, Sarah?

Her Campaign Logo Is Ridiculous

Photo via Facebook.

Despite it being a lose-lose situation, the second weird thing about Sarah Thomson is that she incorporated a silhouette of her dreadlocked head into her campaign logo. The dreadlocks are central to her image. Not a good look, though, Sarah. Did no one tell you that? You should probably fire your staff because you hired a bunch of yes-men who have absolutely no idea what a good haircut or logo looks like.

She Had Her Child Interview Her on Camera

The third weird thing about Sarah Thomson offers some semblance of an explanation as to why Thomson is wearing her hair in dreadlocks. In her own words, it’s about “keeping it real,” as evidenced by an inexplicable video interview conducted by her grade-school-age son (the video now appears to have been expunged from the internet). In the uncomfortable video clip, Thomson alternately answers substantive questions about why she’s running, and staged jokey questions from her kid. On whether she prefers dogs or cats for example, she offers: “If a cat were big enough it would eat you.” Very insightful, Sarah. Thanks. 

She Thought It Was a Good Idea to Record a Parody Video of "Timber"

Finally, Thomson’s campaign recently released a "Timber" parody video of her performing a cover version of Pitbull’s song with someone her press release calls “White Kanye.” The song is about improving transit, of course. This is in keeping with poetry published on her Tumblr to coincide with the video’s release:

Stop and go. Stop and go

I want a city with transit below  

I want a city with underground trains,  

Light rail or subway, they’re almost the same.  

I want a city that is filled with a passion  

to dream of a future not cramped by inaction.  

I tried to bite my tongue on this one, but Thomson continues to cultivate an image that belies some sort of cultural authenticity when nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t “keep it real” by affecting blackness—via your hair, or through odd, parodic hip-hop videos.

Thomson’s cultural performance may be bolstered by the desire to achieve something close to what Rob Ford has: a certain cachet with racialized voters. There is definitely an effect achieved when, for whatever reason, the cultural signifiers of blackness are attached to your political person when you’re not black yourself. The most famous instance of this was when Toni Morrison made the rhetorical argument for Bill Clinton as the country’s first black president. Clinton was poor, raised by a single mother, ate McDonald’s, and loved jazz. Some black people identified with that.

Arguably, Rob Ford has somehow achieved a similar effect with a subset of black voters in the city. I didn’t believe this was true myself, until the concierge in my building—a black male voter—explained it to me. When this effect of perceived proximity to blackness or black culture is coupled with policies that black voters like him may favor or perceive as favorable to them—e.g., keeping taxes low—it can make for a pretty powerful political attraction. For my concierge, it was enough to overlook the growing allegations of criminal activity surrounding the Ford family and Robbie’s administration. Not me, though.

Anyway, maybe Sarah Thomson is attempting to gain clout with voters of color by wearing dreadlocks and doing rap videos with a so-called White Kanye; but to keep it all the way real, as a black woman, I’m not buying her bizarre cultural routine. And I imagine most everyone else is just weirded out.

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