One of the most fascinating case studies to consider when trying to underline the point that race is socially constructed (rather than an emergent property of biology) is the gradually-shifting definition of ‘whiteness’. ‘White’ was a label that has seen many redefinitions over the years in North America, as people who were previously forcibly excluded (e.g., Italians, Irish, Jews) were gradually and begrudgingly included under that privileged umbrella. It is an open question as to what extent political expediency versus demographics versus socioeconomic power played in this reclassification, but one cannot ignore the fact that it happened.
Canada is not immune from this reclassification pattern either. While the original political power in the nation of Canada was divided between those of English and French descent, the threat of American expansion and the promise of abundant resources forced the government of Canada to open its doors to large numbers of immigrants. As that (mostly and intentionally white) immigration happened, the definition of ‘white’ faced some serious pressures, both political and economical, prompting a shift that matches the one happening in the USA.
It is this history that makes the following story worth a brief comment:
A Conservative MP says Manitoba’s Tory leader should not have to apologize for racist comments that his party’s former youth wing president posted on Facebook last week. St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover says aboriginal leaders are wrong to politicize Braydon Mazurkiewich’s remarks, which sparked a public uproar after he called aboriginal people “freeloading Indians.”
Mazurkiewich resigned as the PC Party’s youth wing president hours after he posted the comments on his Facebook page on Friday. However, he remains a party member. Some First Nations leaders, including Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, have since been calling on Pallister to denounce Mazurkiewich’s comments and apologize publicly to First Nations citizens.
Now there’s really not much worth abstracting from the story itself. High-ranking volunteer says something racist on a social media network, resigns in disgrace. I’m not sure how much I share the desire for an apology from an MP who is from a different political organization (The Progressive Conservatives and the Conervative Party of Canada are not the same organization, though they share much of the same ideology). I have little interest in pointing out the fact that it’s a conservative volunteer who made this racist comment, since I’m sure you could find one or two examples somewhere of a liberal person saying something racist too, and such cheap point-scoring is, as far as I’m concerned, a waste of time and energy.
The thing that does make this story worth commenting on, however briefly, is the fact of the young man’s last name. Mazurkiewich is not an English or a French name – my suspicion is that it is perhaps Polish or Ukranian (most likely Polish, judging by my pidgin etymological knowledge), based on the fact that there is a long history of Polish and Ukranian settlement in Manitoba. The fact is that immigrants from eastern Europe played a major role in establishing Canadian settlements in western Canada, and have made many contributions to Canada’s modern history as well. As a case example, one of the most Canadian names of all time – Gretzky – is a Polish name (psychological pioneer Albert Bandura was Ukranian-Canadian).
This place in Canada’s history did not, however, safeguard Ukranian and Polish migrants from the lash of institutional racism. When a general strike paralyzed Winnipeg in the throes of the Great Depression, the strike was demonized by the city’s moneyed elites along anti-immigrant lines, the owners wagering (correctly) that an attempt to ‘other’ the strikers was an effective tactic in turning public support against them. Prior to that, many Ukranians were rounded up and placed in internment camps as part of Canada’s complete surrender to
WWII hysteria (a commenter helpfully points out that this was World War ONE, not Two).
It would be more than a little naive to imagine that this kind of anti-immigrant racism has completely disappeared between then and now, which makes the comments by Mazurkiewich all the more strange (or typical, if you consider System Justification Theory). He is adopting the argot of the majority, sliding seamlessly into the role of the “hardworking Canadian” standing up against the “freeloaders” who are ruining “his” city.
There’s no real point to be drawn from this case, other than to note that in a rational species that was aware of its history, Mr. Mazurkiewich would probably have a great deal more racial sensitivity than he displayed on Facebook. Then again, a rational species wouldn’t have invented racial categorization to begin with, so maybe I’m asking for too much.
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P.S. For a fascinating look on how this process of racial reassignment is happening to African migrants to the United States, read this piece by freelance writer and Liberian-American Wayétu Moore: How the Africans Became Black