John Legend gets it EXACTLY right

I’ve said this before, it’s REALLY nice to hear my ideas coming out of the mouths of other people:

John Legend says its okay to see race (sorry, embed code was refusing to work and I don’t know enough HTML to troubleshoot it).

John Legend is a singer/songwriter who has collaborated often with the likes of Common, Mos Def and Kanye West. He’s also a really smart guy, apparently.

“…I’m black and I love being black, and I don’t want somebody to love me despite the fact that I’m black or be blind to the fact that I’m black and love me; I just want them to love me for whoever I am individually. But it’s okay that you see me as a black guy too.”

He’s absolutely right, incidentally, about how to get racist ideologies out of the public narrative: tear down the stereotypes. Not simply by saying the stereotypes are wrong, but by surrounding people with examples of how they’re wrong.

Racism: a definition

I recently got into a friendly debate with a friend of mine over my use of the word ‘racism’. She objected to my broad definition, and my labeling of rather innocuous and neutral events as ‘racist’, preferring to reserve that label for more overt, “classic” racism. I thought I’d use this platform to discuss my definition, and why I think mine is better and more applicable to a contemporary context (Jen, feel free to refute my position in the comments).

I use a definition that I refined from a social/psychological definition of group prejudice:

Racism: the attribution of personal traits to an individual, or group of individuals, based on ethnic background.

So when a police officer “randomly” pulls me over to check my driver’s license and to make sure I own the car I’m driving, or when by buddy Atif gets “randomly selected” for airport security checks, that’s racist. Similarly, when an old guy says to by buddy Howie An (who has Chinese parents) “you’re fit because you eat a lot of rice”, that’s also racist. Sure, the second one is a kind of “aw, shucks” racism that isn’t inherently negative, but it’s still racism.

There’s an article, somewhat dated now, but still correct, in Slate. The basic thrust of the piece is as follows:

Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they’d ever met would do such a thing. But most racism—indeed, the worst racism—is quaint and banal. There’s nothing sensationalistic about redlining (segregating investment areas for banks and supermarkets based on the racial makeup of the region) or job discrimination.

My definition goes a bit further than Slate‘s, because under mine an act or phrase doesn’t necessarily have to be negative to be racist. Certainly nobody would make the claim that the old guy Howie encountered was saying anything bad about either Howie or people of Chinese descent. My point is that it doesn’t matter, it’s still racist. The guy was assuming, either accurately or incorrectly, that Howie eats a lot of rice because he’s Chinese. It’s a race-based individual judgment.

I will share a story of my own. Recently, I was out for drinks with a friend and some of his crew. One of the girls with the group, I’ll call her “Sally” for the purpose of this post, and I were talking at one point in the evening. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but Sally asked me what my background was (I think she said something like “where are you from?”) I told her I was from Canada, and then (predictably) the conversation went something like this:

Sally: No, but where are you from really?

Me: Vancouver

Sally: Fine, what’s like, your background

Me: I’m black

Sally: Okay, but where are your parents from?

Me: They can’t be from Canada?

Sally: Why are you making this so difficult? I’m not being racist or anything, I’m being complimentary! I love black people!

Me: You love all black people?

Sally: Yeah totally! You guys have good taste in music, and you’re so laid-back!

This is conversation I’ve had more times than I care to recall. First of all, there’s a lot of things that I do that don’t fall into the “black people” stereotype: I am an accomplished classical violist; I have two university degrees in science; I grew up in a small mountain town in rural BC. You’re not going to see a guy like me on BET or TBS, unless it’s as a completely tokenist character (“wow, this black guy is so different from the other ones on the show! We’re diverse!”) The only black people I’ve ever seen who even remotely resemble me are Alvin from The Cosby Show and Lem from Better off Ted, and even then they were socially awkward turbo-nerds. I’ve long made peace with the fact that I’m not archetypal, it doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is the implication that my entire identity can be boiled down to the colour of my skin, or more specifically the colour of my father’s skin. While my racial identity does inform my outlook on life, so does my scientific training and my musical background. It doesn’t matter that Sally wasn’t saying anything negative about me, the fact is that she was attributing to me the characteristics of people who may or may not be like me in any way, simply because we have similar skin colour. I was at a different bar talking to a different girl who told me that I was probably good at scaring people because I’m black, and that “(us) guys” are good in a fight. Again, not necessarily negative, but definitely not true (most of the time I’m about as threatening in a fight as an asthmatic koala bear).

This perhaps wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t go any farther than conversations at bars with drunk girls. The reality is, however that we form impressions of other people based on race, whether we acknowledge it or not:

The roots of racial prejudice lie deep within the brain, research has suggested. A study found that when we watch someone from our own race do something our brain simulates the action mentally as a form of empathy, known as ‘mirroring’.

The study has a lot of flaws, the biggest being that it only observed white participants, but the principle is likely sound – we are primed to view people who look the same as we do differently than those who are dissimilar. Sally chose to share her positive impressions of black people. I wondered immediately what other impressions she might have based on my race, considering how black people are portrayed in media.

Race, whether we like it or not, is still a part of our decision-making apparatus. Racism, for the most part, has taken on a much more subtle and innocuous form (unless of course you live in Nova Scotia). The way that we identify it and deal with it needs to change to reflect this. The Slate article talks about Dogg the Bounty Hunter and Michael Richards’ use of the word “nigger”, and how the reaction from both of these men was “I’m not racist.” Of course you’re racist. You live in a racist system. You can’t just decide to be non-racist by sheer force of will.

I’ll drop a bombshell on all you readers right now: you’re racist.

Here’s another one: I’m racist too.

We are products of the system that raised us, and the system has deep racist roots. Pretending as though it doesn’t exist, or that racism is only when you’re actively campaigning for the supremacy of a single racial group (that’s how it’s defined in the dictionary, albeit with my definition tacked on as #2) is ignoring the real and present influence that racism has in our day-today lives.

My friend (the one with whom I had the semantics debate) wanted the word ‘racism’ to shock and appall people, such that if your actions were labeled ‘racist’, you’d immediately stop doing them because of the emotional impact of the word. The fact is that the kind of “classic”, white-hooded lynch-mob ‘racism’ has all but completely faded from day-to-day reality in Canada (and for the most part in the US, although there are still a few holdouts). In my mind, restricting the word to only those kinds of actions would only serve to make the problem worse, since people would be incredibly unwilling to admit to having any race-based prejudice for fear of being associated with violent hate groups. The status quo would be maintained in perpetuity, and no progress could be made. The way to remove racism completely is to expose and discuss it dispassionately, not condemn people for the attitudes instilled in them by society while the rest of us smugly say “well at least we’re not racist.”

Another common colloquial use of the word is to refer to any group bigotry. I recently got yelled at on an online forum for suggesting that Richard Dawkins wasn’t being ‘racist’ when he made disparaging comments about Muslim people. The comments were targeted at people of the Muslim faith, suggesting that this particular religious tradition was more repressive of women than others. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but it’s certainly the case today. However, my point was that Dawkins was referring to Muslim people, not Arab or Persian people. The fact that those nationalities are disproportionately represented among British Muslims is irrelevant; the comments were about Islam. People on the forum were not having it. Apparently, in their minds, ‘racism’ simply means bigotry against any group. Sexism is racism, homophobia is racism, nationalism is racism. This argument is patently ridiculous, under any definition. Race bigotry is a specific phenomenon with specific hallmarks. Race bigotry might often parallel nationalistic bigotry, but they are not the same thing. I can decry the stupidity of Christianity and the way it infiltrates politics without hating white Americans, I can bemoan the corruption in African countries without hating black Africans, and I can detest the actions of the Chinese government without having any particular animosity towards Chinese people. The fact that there are large overlaps is completely separate from the label of ‘racism’, the defining characteristic is the method of grouping people. If it’s by race, it’s racism; if it’s not, then it’s something else.

This has been a mammoth of a post, and I thank you for sticking through all of it. The take-home message of this piece is simply this: our definition of racism cannot be simply relegated to vicious acts of brutal, overt repression; nor can it be thinly spread over all types of prejudice. Racism is a real phenomenon with real effects. Claiming “I’m not being racist” is a fallacy; we are all products of a system in which racism is endemic. Nobody, not even yours truly, is immune from its effects. I offer my definition – attributing race-group stereotypes to an individual – as a useful and value-neutral meaning for the word. It encapsulates “classic” racism, but allows us to intelligently discuss issues of race prejudice happening in society without risking censure or being labeled as ‘a racist’.

Movie Friday: Hurray for Cartoons!

I love cartoons. I always have. Even now that I am more grown up, I still get a thrill from watching shows like South Park, Clone High, The Simpsons, and others. Animation is a way of portraying the world without being fettered by reality.

Then again, sometimes cartoons are so racist you wish they would stick a bit closer to reality. This week’s Movie Friday is about the history of race portrayal in cartoons. In light of my previous post about the Tintin book, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine our history in North America. This post is a two-fer, but overlap a bit. made  a great deal of hay about the contents of this specific video, and the article is worth checking out.

The second video has had embedding disabled, so you’ll just have to follow this link if you want to watch it. It’s more of the same though. Racial differences are exaggerated and lampooned for sport. It is tempting to castigate the creators of these cartoons for their racism, but I see it as being simply a reflection of the ethos of the day. There are lots of examples of racist attitudes prevailing in today’s television. As one example, there are no non-white characters on Friends, Seinfeld, or How I Met Your Mother, despite the fact that they all take place in New York City with a huge non-white population. We haven’t rid ourselves of racism; it’s simply been transformed into something less obvious.

Writer/director Spike Lee, with whom I do not always agree, created an excellent film about this phenomenon called Bamboozled. While he, of course, focused on black people in the United States, the lessons can be extracted to portrayals of any ethnic minority groups. I can’t recommend enough that everyone watch this movie. It is an eye-opening and perspective-changing view of race in media, and the phenomenon of subverted systemic racism in North America. Seriously, watch this movie.

So the next time you’re watching your favourite show, spend a segment looking at race portrayal with a critical eye and see if you can’t detect some race bias. It’s often subtle, but it’s definitely there.

Racial mixing on the rise

From time to time, the media turns a statistical finding into “news”. This article is one of those times.

More than 340,000 children in Canada are growing up in mixed-race families, a new report from Statistics Canada reveals, and the number of mixed unions is growing much more quickly than that of other partnerships.

I am heartened by the findings, of course. As the product of a mixed union myself (two, technically, after my dad re-married) I am obviously a supporter of marrying whoever you want to. As different groups begin to live together, go to school together, and work together, people become more exposed to other cultures and ethnic groups. As time goes by, they start wanting a bit more exposure (of the boobies kind) with other cultures and ethnic groups. Of course, this has a particular application to Canada.

Of course because I’m a damn addict, I looked at the comments at the bottom of the story. There’s a lot of very vocally (at least behind the anonymity of the internet) racist people who say that the reason people are getting married is because black guys come in and get white women pregnant. I suppose they’re free to think that, but there’s actually something much more interesting (and supported by evidence) at play here.

What’s interesting is that the increase in inter-racial marriages isn’t an issue of simple familiarity (seeing different kinds of people in your day-to-day life), nor is it people becoming particularly philosophically enlightened. There is a phenomenon in social psychology called ‘in-group bias‘. Basically, you are more likely to favour members of your own group to the exclusion of those in other groups. This was tested at a summer camp with boys who were randomly assigned to two different groups. Of course, the groups were made to compete against each other in various activities, which fostered resentment and a strong polarizing of the two camps. Once animosity between the two groups of young boys had been fostered (ah, the 50s… a more innocent time), the researchers went to work trying to tear down the barriers. Simple sports and team activities didn’t seem to work.

“It is predicted that contact in itself will not produce marked decrease in the existing state of tension between [p. 159] groups.”

The only thing that got the kids to work together was when they had to pull for a common goal: unblocking the water cistern, and getting to a movie. Once they were working together to achieve something they both wanted, the bias against the other group diminished almost immediately.

“When groups in a state of friction are brought into contact under conditions embodying superordinate goals, the attainment of which is compelling but which cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone, they will tend to cooperate toward the common goal.”

By the end of the camp, the two groups that used to hate each other were playing, eating, and doing regular kid stuff together. This is a pretty powerful phenomenon, and illustrates an important fact: simple co-existence does not foster co-operation. There needs to be a next step – working toward a common goal. What occurs at that point is that the “group” identity dissolves and is replaced by another identity (in this case, the one of the “camp”). Instead of seeing one’s self as being a member in opposition to another group, you see all the people as members of the same group. This is a very powerful effect.

In the same way, we’re going to see more racial mixing as a result of people of different backgrounds not simply sharing the same geographic space, but sharing education, workplaces, etc. This process won’t happen by simple diffusion; if we want to see increase co-operation between groups, the concepts of “us” and “them” need to change. Racial identity shouldn’t be abolished, but the weight with which we use race to identify both ourselves and each other ought to be reduced in favour of something more useful. This already happens with team affiliations (think of Remember the Titans), and will continue to happen in professional groups and educational facilities.

Re-defining our in-groups is the way forward. Taking some of the mystery and sting out of racial issues will help accomplish that.

Colour blindness – not a virtue

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term “colour blindness” in a racial context. Basically, the philosophy is that it is virtuous to not see a person’s race, and to behave as though race plays no role in the formation of your opinions or actions. On the surface, this seems like an admirable idea – treat all people as though they are one group of human people, regardless of their background.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:

In a study that examined the associations between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology, Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois, discovered that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes.

The study looked at how students responded to obviously-offensive racist stereotypes depicted by their peers. The first was photos from a “gangsta theme” party in (non-)celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a US holiday – we don’t tolerate that kind of foolishness here in the great white north). The second was two students dressed as Hispanic people wearing t-shirts that said “Spic” and “Span” (for those of you who don’t know, “Spic” is a derogatory term for a Hispanic person). The participants were asked to write a comment on the photo as though they were commenting on a friend’s wall. Students were also administered a racial attitudes survey specifically designed to measure “colour blindness”.

The response was as I would have suspected, and that the proponents of the “colour blind” philosophy would find disheartening. Students who tested high on the “colour blindness” scale were more likely to see nothing wrong with overtly racist depictions of different ethnic groups. There was a direct linear relationship between “colour blindness” and reaction – students who were “colour blind” were less likely to see anything wrong with the pictures.  Black students were far more likely to be upset and react negatively to the pictures than white students were (~60% vs. ~20% respectively). Black students were also much less likely to be “colour blind” according to the scale.

As I said, none of this surprises me in the least. Racism can’t be overcome by pretending it doesn’t exist, and race will continue to divide people until we start talking openly about it without fear of reprisal or social ostricization. Colour blindness only works if everyone is equally blind, including those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of racism (a.k.a. visible minorities, a.k.a. non-white people). It’s all well and good to say “I don’t see race”, but to not see it means to ignore the effect that is still has to this day. It’s akin to saying “we should treat all people the same, so we shouldn’t have welfare programs.” Canceling welfare is certainly one way of demonstrating that you consider poor people to be the same as the fabulously wealthy, but it doesn’t do anything to help those who are impoverished, nor does it help identify and remedy the underlying causes of poverty.

Please note that I don’t think people who say they wish to be “colour blind” (some of whom are close friends) are secret racists or anything of the sort. I think they genuinely believe that ignoring race is a solution to the problem of racial injustice. I used to feel the same way. However, the idea of “colour blindness” is basically the same as sticking your fingers in your ears and screweing your eyes shut until race goes away. In fact, as the above study would suggest, this attitude might actually preserve racist attitudes by blinding people to all aspects of race and race discrimination.

I am reminded of an evening I spent with one of my closest friends. She is an immigrant from a country with a strong racial majority and (at the time she moved to Canada) very little black/white racism in its history – today is quite a different story, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. She was telling me that she was excited to meet her (black) boyfriend’s family at a trip that was to take place that summer (I am just going to call him “Tom” and her “Jane” for the sake of clarity). I asked whether they (Tom and Jane) had talked about the inter-racial issue, considering that while he might be as accepting as all-get-out of her race, his family may not be so tolerant. She looked at me like I had grown a second head and said “Ian, race doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in love.” “Doesn’t matter to whom?” I asked.

In the Caribbean (where Tom is from), race matters a great deal. Most of the countries (if not all) were colonized by white Europeans. It’s only been a handful of decades since the colonial powers granted independence to the countries, most of whom are in a very sorry state. There is a deep economic and social divide between white Caribbeans and black Caribbeans. It doesn’t help at all that there is a stereotype (however true or untrue) that white women come in and “poach” the more successful black men as trophies (or vice versa, that successful black men date white women to gain status). Is this fair? Is this ideal? Certainly not! It would be best to recognize the truth – that these two people are dating each other because they are very much compatible and in love; however, the reality of the situation is that their racial makeup will loom large in the eyes of families on both sides. I asked her to imagine what would happen if she went back to her country of origin and introduced her all-white family to her black boyfriend – she wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.

The other flaw in the philosophy of “colour blindness” is that it ignores the other side of race – racial differences can be a positive thing. There are experiences and insights that a Vietnamese or Pakistani or Congolese person can bring to the table that a European person may not have access to (and, of course, vice versa). If we pretend as though everyone is exactly the same, we miss the opportunity to bring the richness and context of cultural heritage to bear on any number of life’s problems. I’m proud of my racial heritage and I certainly don’t want it to be ignored to serve a patronizing view that all racial differences are inherently bad.

People in the “colour blind” camp and I have the same ultimate goal – to see a world in which a person’s race is no more influential in how they are treated than their height or hair colour or weight (which might not be so great if you ask a fat ginger dwarf). However, we approach that goal from very different sides. The “colour blind” philosophy wants to jump right to the end, where through sheer force of will, hundreds of years of racial socialization can be instantly undone. Mine is, I think, a bit more realistic – I want us to acknowledge and discuss the ways in which race affects us both as individuals and as a society. I want to see us take a hard, uncomfortable look at our behaviours and practices and see where race, despite our best intentions, manages to creep in to the way we do things.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say, ignoring racism does not make the problem go away. The answer is to own up to our mistakes and speak openly about race. Only after we can talk about it in the full light of day will its spectral  influence finally fade into history.

Movie Friday: Dave Chappelle – Native Americans

Dave Chappelle is one of the most insightful comedians in the US. It’s sad that most people are forever going to know him only for his Rick James impression. Here’s a bit of his standup:

I see a lot of parallels between the black struggle for economic and political power in Canada and that of the First Nations. Obviously there are real differences – Native people have been here for generations and were supplanted by European settlers; black people were forcibly kidnapped and taken to North America as slave labour. There are real historical differences, but many of the after-effects are similar. Racialicious has many authors speaking from the Native perspective, and I am learning a lot. If the topic interests you at all, you should check them out.

Belgian bid to ban book is bad… uh… bdecision

My alliteration has seen better days, it seems.

It’s tough sometimes to see how the disparate interests on this blog (religion, free speech, race and critical thinking) fit together into an overall picture. Religion and free speech are often at odds, so that’s an easy fit I suppose. Religion stands opposed to critical thinking, so again it’s not a major stretch to tie those two individual elements together. But where does race fit in? I often find myself scratching my head asking myself the same question: are my discussions on race simply an outlier to an otherwise pro-secularist blog? Does my ‘skeptic hat’ clash with my ‘black man waistcoat’?

Thankfully, sometimes I see things in the news that help tie the whole ball of wax together:

A Congolese man is trying to get a controversial Tintin book banned in the cartoon star’s home country of Belgium. A court is to rule on whether the book can be sold in Belgium and, if so, whether it should carry a warning.

The Tintin book in question concerns an incredibly-offensive depiction of African people as stupid and primitive, as the (white) main character does them a good turn by teaching them important things about the world. Of course, it’s the world from the point of view of the European colonizers, which brings up a whole host of auxiliary issues. This man, Bienvenu Mbutu, is seeking to have the book banned on grounds that it portrays an appallingly racist view of black Africans.

I was initially torn over this issue. As a victim of the negative portrayal of black people in popular media, I applaud any decision to ameliorate the damage done by such propaganda. However, while I am a black man, I am first and foremost a Canadian. One of the things that comes with the territory of living in an Enlightened democracy like Canada is defense of the right of free speech. Banning books is the infringement of free speech, which is wrong. It didn’t sit right with me, and the cognitive dissonance bothered me.

After giving it some serious thought, I arrived at a realization. Far from being a negative portrayal of black Africans (although it is that, too), this book is a shocking revelation about the history of white Europeans (I guess, in this case, Belgians). This is a real piece of history that shows how intellectually and morally bankrupt the paternalistic society of European colonial powers was. These types of images, which rightly shock and appall us today, were seen as either harmless entertainment (for children, no less) or as accurate depictions of reality. The colonial powers thought nothing of taking land from people who they saw as little more than human-like animals. The aftershocks of this perverse racist attitude are still felt today in Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and South America (to say nothing of the United States and Canada).

Banning this book would only serve to attempt to mask history. These types of publication are emblematic of a time in our world where everyone believed the lie of white supremacy. Now that we are trying to extricate ourselves (and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, white people included) from the deep entrenchment of this false ideology, we need to examine our own past to see how it affects our present. Sweeping the nasty parts of our history under the rug of contrived ignorance will only serve to prolong the issues of race and racism. Furthermore, we will lose the opportunity to use artifacts from our (recent) history to learn from our mistakes.

I think the book should be allowed to be sold, but with an introduction that highlights the context in which the book was written. Talk about the predominant attitudes of the day, admit that work still needs to be done, but while you’re at it, make mention of the amount of progress that has been made in a relatively short time. It’s only by acknowledging our past and incorporating it into our present that we can reach the long-sought future of racial integration.

Canada: the great race experiment

I’ve said previously that Canada is a unique place. However, in that post I only touched on that idea to make specific reference to a news item I found interesting. I want to expand on that statement a bit.

While some people whose opinions I deeply respect disagree with my assessment on this matter, I see Canada as a place that lacks a strong national identity (at least at home). Americans have an identity that is built on principles of liberty in opposition to tyranny, and a history of being the leaders of the world. The English have an ex-empire, but also a history of monarchy and feudal identity that stretches back to the time of the Anglos and Saxons (as do many other European countries). China has a national identity built around its ancient history and, more recently, that has turned into a more totalitarian China-versus-the-world cultural ethos. Australians are rugged and fun-loving, Jamaicans are strong-willed and have reggae and Rastafari as part of their make-up, South Africans (for better or worse) have their history of racial divisiveness and the challenge of building a society from that. All this is to say absolutely nothing about the countries all over the world whose identities are closely allied with their religion (Iran, Israel, Indonesia… and that’s just the Is).

So where does that leave Canada? Our history doesn’t stand in opposition to tyranny; we didn’t fight off colonial British rule, we asked politely. We don’t see ourselves as the living incarnations of our ancient aboriginal ancestors like the British; we in fact don’t seem to like our aboriginal past very much at all. Our government/communitarian identification is namby-pamby compared to that of China; in fact, a big part of the country is trying to split off. We don’t have the outback, we haven’t invented a musical genre, we don’t have a history of racial subjugation, and have no national religion.

Watching the Olympic closing games, there was a brief moment where Canada seemed to exhibit a scintilla of national identity, which went only so far as to draw attention to the fact that the people of the world don’t really know what Canada is really all about, except that we’re funny and self-effacing, and we have beavers, mounties, and maple leaves. Is that our fate? Are we forever the middle child of the world – still part of the family but not as able as Big Brother or as attention-getting as Little Sister?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s something about Canada that is uniquely Canadian that we missed a huge opportunity to exploit. Canada is, like no other place on the planet, a country where all people are welcome. I realize there are a great many countries with immigration policies, some even more liberal than ours, but the very fact that Canada does not have an over-arching Canadian-ness sets it apart from other places. Immigrants to the USA, for example, are exhorted to become “American”. Much of American immigration is inseparable from the phrase “melting pot” which means that one you’re in the States, forces act on you that compel you to become like everyone else. I would argue that any country with a strong national identity will have the same effect. Those countries with a large, politically-dominant native racial group will do this even more so.

But for the same reasons that I outlined above, this is largely impossible in Canada. Oh sure, there’s the occasional right-winger who says that all the towel-heads need to go back to Iraquistan and get out of the white man’s country, but (thankfully) those voices are rare. As you travel west to east across the country, you are beset by Brits, Germans, Chinese, Indians (both dot and feather), Spanish, Ukranians, Russians, Polish, Métis, Scots, Irish, Ethiopians, Somalians, Nigerians, Greeks, Portugese, more Chinese, more Indians, Caribbeans, Cubans, Pakistanis, Persians, Italians, French (both tri-colour and fleur-de-lis), Dutch… the list goes on and on. Many of these groups (and to my knowledge, all of the ones I have described above) have built large communities within the overall mosaic of Canada.

So who are the real Canadians? The question of longevity is a moot one. In the prairies, for example, there are large Ukranian and Polish communities that have been there for generations. Oakville and Halifax have supported large communities of former African slaves since Abolition in the mid-19th century (before, in fact, Canada was its own country). Chinese communities built the railroads in the western parts of the province. The French have been here as long as the British. Even the “Native First Nations” people immigrated from another continent, if archaeology and evolution are to be believed. No one cultural or racial group can call themselves “the real Canadian people”.

The question must be asked again: who are the real Canadians. If the answer is “no one”, then the answer is also, conversely, “everyone”. Everyone who lives here and loves this country is a Canadian. As a matter of legality, I’ll acquiesce to the federal government and say that you have either have been born here or formally been granted citizenship to become a “real Canadian”, but that’s all it takes. All of these “real Canadians” then have a hand in building our national identity. This is what makes Canada uniquely Canadian.

Certainly this reality comes with a whole host of challenges, but we have to take the bad with the good. One of the fascinating things that a place like Canada allows is the free inter-mixing of cultural groups that, up until now, had never interacted in all of human history. If you look at a place like Nepal or Burma, which are sandwiched between India and China, you will observe a culture that shares many of the characteristics of both. That’s what happens when two cultures are allowed to mix – a new culture emerges that is a “child” of both “parents”. However, places like Kenya and Spain have never had an opportunity to share cultural characteristics, as they are separated by geographical distance.

What happens though, when a strapping lad with Kenyan parents meets a pretty young thing from Spain on the streets of Vancouver (and please believe I’ve seen it)? Or when a hot Russian babe links up with a finance-savvy Jamaican (again, seeeeen iiit!)? Or a Polish Jew falls for a Kuwaiti hipster Christian (haven’t seen it yet, but only because I haven’t introduced Alanna to Stuart – everyone falls for that guy; he’s so dreamy). All of these combi-nations (see what I did there?) and more are possible only in a place like Canada. People keep their own cultural identity, but are thrown in the mix with people from backgrounds their parents (all the way back to their ancestors) would never have had access to.

What kind of culture will come out of a place like this? Just like the Nepalese, a culture will grow that shares characteristics of all the separate cultures that influence it. A race of people will arise that, like no other in history, cannot point to a place on the globe and say “my people come from there”. Their people will come from everywhere. And it can only happen here.

Among other things that are easily-identified as Canadian: hockey, maple syrup, public health care, Tim Horton’s; I am proud that Canada is a place that can be, unlike any other, home to the whole world.

Dorothy Height, civil rights leader, dies at 93

Dorothy Height, a prominent civil rights leader for both racial and gender equality has died at the age of 93 of natural causes.

I thought it was appropriate to counterpoint this story with my post earlier today. There are a great many parallels between women’s struggle for civil rights and the black struggle. Both of the women mentioned here had feet in both camps. It seems inconceivable to us today that women and non-white racial groups should not be allowed to have a say in how their country is run, or even be considered full citizens of that country. It’s important to remember how recently it was inconceivable that they would be allowed these human rights.

Let us never lose our zeal for fighting injustice and prejudice in all its forms.

“Nova Scotia’s Rosa Parks” gets apology

This is a neat story.

Nova Scotia has apologized and granted a pardon to Viola Desmond, a black woman who was convicted for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. Premier Darrell Dexter apologized to Desmond’s family and to all black Nova Scotians for the institutional racism of the past.

I have to confess I’d never heard of Viola Desmond before this story. It’s an important part of my heritage, both as a black man and as a Canadian. I think sometimes we forget that racism was alive and well in Canada, and continues to this day. Obviously, the maritime provinces have been reminded of that fact recently. This apology is more than simply acknowledging the culpability of the government and people of Nova Scotia (although that’s an important and positive step); it is also bringing an important story to the surface. It serves to remind us that segregation and officially-sponsored racism isn’t a problem of hundreds of years ago, or something that only happened in the South. 1946 is in the living memory of many people.

Of course if you flip through the comments (which I do, because I am a goddamn addict) you’ll see the usual knee-jerk response of “why live in the past? We have to move on and let things go.” It’s a nice fantasy to think that we can just ‘get over it’, but denying history is not the path to progress. The apology should not serve (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t) to make white people feel guilty for being born white. As Canadians, we should all be aware of both our strengths as a country and, in this case, our weaknesses and mistakes.