Thursday, November 11, 2010


I normally don't think about race too much. Honestly, it's not something I really notice. I grew up in east end Toronto and most of the kids I went to school with were either Chinese or South Asian (primarily Indian). In all honesty, we did self-segregate a fair bit but I think that says more about culture than it does about race. It's easier to connect personally with someone who speaks the same language, eats the same foods and has the same cultural expectations. I certainly never felt that people whose skin was a different colour than mine had different social status to mine (mind you, I'm a redhead and when I was a kid, we faced A LOT of teasing and nasty comments about the orange hair and freckles, so maybe I think I could identify, just the tiniest bit).

This week, three news stories have led me to ponder racism a bit. For those of you who don't live in Canada or who don't pay attention to the news, the three stories are:

1. the legion branch in Campbellford, ON who awarded a prize at a costume party to a pair who were dressed as a person in blackface with a noose tied about his neck being led around by someone dressed as a KKK member -

2. a cross burning trial in Nova Scotia -

3. the Macleans University rankings discussion of some universities as being "too Asian" -

They are very different stories but it makes me see that this whole race issue just won't go away.

I heard about the legion incident when I was driving and I almost drove off the road. How anyone could think that was acceptable boggles the mind. I have been reading "The Help" by Katherine Stockett (a great book, totally worth reading) and so the fear that the KKK invoked is fresh in my mind. My parents marched in demonstrations connected with Martin Luther King Jr. back in the late 60's so I have heard a bit about how scary that kind of racism is (and they only participated in the northern U.S., where it was much less terrifying). I had a good friend try and tell me this week and these two were just reacting to the "political correctness that has gone overboard" - I think the top of my head almost blew off. My argument to my friend was this incident is just proof of why we need political correctness, since people are obviously so incapable of sound judgement and seeing where we should draw the line.

I guess that one thing that these first two stories made clear to me is that my perception that extreme racism is gone is misinformed. As a white woman living in a largely white area, it's easy to think everything is fine. Once in a while, we do have a situation in the school that shocks us (last year, it was a situation with a grade 7 student who made repeated comments about a dark skinned boy needing to go home and eat fried chicken and watermelon - not a typical thing to come out of the mouth of a 12 year old and, I suspect, a reflection of what is being said at home). On the other hand, we do our cute assemblies, read our books with characters from other cultures and try to reflect the realities of our students in our discussions of food and culture and think we have done our jobs. These stories make it very evident that our work in not done in confronting racism in all of its forms and that it does lie just beneath the surface.

The Macleans story is much more complex and goes to what I think is at the base of most incidents in Canada (our history is very different that in the southern U.S. and while we are not perfect, we don't have the same legacy of slavery and segregation to overcome). I don't think that those situations are about race at all but about culture. My first teaching job was in a school with a highly diverse student population. We had a "multicultural potluck" every year that almost always turned into a major incident. It wasn't race that was at the base of it, though, it was culture. There was a particular contingent of families who really antagonized everyone else - they were pushy, ate too much, didn't contribute and their table manners were offensive to the rest of us. There were others with their skin colour who did not alienate others at all. It was a cultural thing - these people came from a country with different expectations of what behaviour is acceptable in a public dining situation. I don't think that they were deliberately rude, they were just lacking the social understanding of what people would expect in that context in Canada. I think that goes to most incidents of "racism" in Canada - it's often cultural bias rather than racism (e.g., like the area in which my husband teaches, in which our car has been hit three times when stationary his school parking lot - it isn't that the particular race can't drive, it's that the cultural expectations of how one behaves on the road is different, although people often make comments about the race as drivers).

In terms of the Macleans situation, I think it is most certainly a cultural thing. I will be honest, one of the options I had for high school was a school that was mostly "Asian". I chose not to go to that school even though it was the closest to my house with an academic focus. It wasn't that I didn't want to be with Asians, it was that I wasn't especially interested in science and math, the programmes that were strongest in that school (and which tend to appeal to Asians from a cultural standpoint - I think that humanities tend to be more of a Western European thing and again, culturally, the values are different). In all honesty, I probably wouldn't want to attend a university that was primarily Asian, not because I didn't like Asians but because 1. I am not interested in science or math 2. I don't like an environment that is so competitive and 3. I do believe in a well-rounded educational experience and for me, that means a community with extra-curricular activities that go beyond study groups (and, for the record, I don't meaning the alcoholism rampant in university culture). Does that make me racist? I don't think so.

I think that we still have a lot to talk about and much work to do to cross the cultural divides. All of the tension with Muslim Canadians and the quickness with which we non-Muslims judge all Muslims as being terrorists clearly demonstrates that we have a long way to go to really call ourselves a tolerant society. I hadn't really thought about it but then, I heard an interesting discussion on CBC about the lunatic pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Quran. The subject of the discussion was whether the media had essentially created that story - the man was a fringe lunatic and really of no significance at all until the media ran with the story. I agreed with the interviewee who was criticizing the amount of coverage the pastor received and then, the other discussion panel member raised an interesting point - how was this any different than the coverage that some of the extremist Muslim clerics from deepest Pakistan receive?

I don't have the answers but the news this week has just proven to me that we need to be aware of our own biases and to move out into the world with sensitivity and openness to others. There are so many wonderful people and experiences that we might miss if we don't.

1 comment:

  1. The KKK costume things nearly made me choke. Seriously - not only a case of bad judgment on the part of the pair who cooked up the costume, but the fact that they WON A PRIZE for it?! Unbelievable.

    As to universities, I don't know. Yes, it's true that asian families tend to prize hard work and serious, book-cracking study habits, and that creates fierce competition. Is it always bad? In some areas, I'd think no, but in others, I think there needs to be more rounding. Have you read Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures? It addresses that somewhat, in terms of medical school. I guess it depends on what you're looking for in your school, as you say, but I wonder if there was not some better way to express what they meant if it was indeed about competitive climate.