This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2010

“I think I might be a little bit racist. And I’d like to change.”

Lisan Jutras

When one writer found herself sinking into a mire of prejudice and resentment, she set out to find a cure. But maybe 12 steps aren’t enough.

Everyone's a little bit racist?

The first step to getting help, they say, is admitting you have a problem. That part took me years of halting, painful introspection and self-doubt.

Later, I told friends—just a handful at first. They weren’t surprised; some of them even admitted to the same problem.

Finally, I decided it was time to get serious, and that I needed to call in the professionals.

Nervous, faintly humiliated, I dialed the number to the National Anti-Racism Council of Canada and explained myself. I think I might be a little bit racist, I said. And I’d like to change.

If this story were scripted in Hollywood, it would end with a scene of me dancing at a great big crazy ethnic wedding—my own. If there’s adversity at the beginning, you know how it’s going to end.

But the truth is, this story will always be unfinished. I can’t prove that I’ve kicked the habit, and any transgressions will never be known outside the privacy of my own brain. I’m not sure whether this is comforting or alarming, but I know I’m not alone in my feelings. In a 2007 poll on racial tolerance, almost half of Canadians were honest enough to admit to being at least “slightly racist.” Tempting as it is to despair about this number, I felt that it was, in a way, also hopeful. An admission of prejudice is not necessarily a proud admission. In my case, it sure as shit wasn’t—it was a problem in need of a solution. If the next question in the poll had been “Would you like to be less racist?” I would have answered with an unqualified “yes!” and, again, I would not be alone.

Canada talks a good game on acceptance and diversity: our official bilingualism, our policy of multiculturalism, the crazy-quilt ethnic jumble of our big cities, the throat-singers and tango-dancers and tabla-players who share the stage at Parliament Hill each Canada Day. But I came to feel a strange disconnect between this image of a national rainbow-coloured paradise and my daily reality, which featured a grim mixture of resentment, misunderstanding, and petty grievance. I liked the idea of the paradise, but I couldn’t live up to it. I began to wonder if the failing was mine or theirs.

Now, it wasn’t anything nutso. I was never proud of my feelings. I didn’t believe that I was right in any absolute sense. I was a liberal, tolerant person by and large, and I loved living in a city where so many different ethnic groups rubbed elbows. But, ironically enough, it was moving into one such community that started me off on my path to intolerance.

* This is, it should be clear, a made-up nationality. I’m not being coy but rather trying avoid targeted fallout. Also, it will allow each reader, I hope, to cast the role according to his or her own biases and prejudices. Identifying features have been altered in some cases.

I had been warned. A friend of mine moved to the neighbourhood several years earlier. He was quite vocal about his dislike of his neighbours, who I’ll call the Quiddinese*. He described them as “rude” and “insular.” His friends were shocked at his blunt appraisal, and I secretly judged him for it. Hmm, I thought. Xenophobic. It must be because he’s Québécois.

A few years later, the turn was mine.

Oh, the Quiddinese. Time and again, these people refused, it seemed to me, to give me a reason to like them. They were grouchy when I visited their shops—grouchier, I thought, with me than with each other. The men appeared to spend all their days smoking and kibitzing. The women looked to me hunched and joyless from years of hard work. Their children seemed to specialize in noisemaking: blatting, thumping cars, shouted conversations. I tried to make nice at first, but was soon defeated by their surliness and gave up. My dislike metastasized: I began to project it onto the peculiarities of Quiddinese home decor: Ugly people, I thought. Ugly dwellings. I dismissed the entire culture.

For years I lived like this, grumpy in a grumpy land. I narrowed my eyes when I passed their houses. I resigned myself to the most perfunctory transactions with them riding on the bus, passing on the sidewalk, in the local stores. A sense of home and belonging should not stop once you’ve left the house, yet I felt rejected in my own city, in my own neighbourhood. I tried to get used to living in a cloud of vague hostility, like background radiation. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t submit to it. It wasn’t just that I was mad at my Quiddinese neighbours; I was mad at myself. I had failed. I had surrendered to intolerance.

Pullquote 1

And so my quest began to unbias myself. In doing this, I knew I would be putting Canada to the test as well as myself. We all know the rhetoric: as Ayman Al-Yassini of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation told me, “As a country we are committed to multiculturalism.” Well, okay, I thought. But how committed? Enough to help out the almost 50 per cent who admitted to being racist?

The CRRF was, Al-Yassini said, in the business of dealing with “situations of racism and discrimination, or how to deal with it if you are the one having these thoughts or tendencies … and how to work on addressing it.” Perfect, I thought: maybe there’ll be a support group I can join, Racists Anonymous or something. Bring on the 12 steps.

That’s not quite how it works, as it turns out. The CRRF has a few different initiatives, mostly bureaucratic in nature, but “we don’t deal with individuals,” Al-Yassini told me.

I began scouring the web for someone else who might be able to help. Eventually I found a local woman whose website described her as being “trained in the areas of diversity leadership, equity, education, and workplace issues.” I decided to give her a call.

As soon as I explained myself (“Hi, I’m just wondering what kind of resources you might have for someone who believes themselves to be racist. I think I might be a little bit racist”) she was, it seemed to me, sternly vigilant. She wanted the full spelling of my name, where I worked, my phone number. (In my paranoid fantasies, she was preparing to file a police report.) She said she didn’t like to use the word “racism,” because people recoiled from it; instead, she preferred to talk about “anti-racism.” This sounded like crazy talk, but I was too cowed to argue. She said she would consider the project and call me back. She never did.

I supposed a moral climate checkered with both judgment and sympathy was all anyone in the process of reforming could expect. But it was humiliating, and not for the faint of heart. I took a perverse kind of solace in the thought that plenty of people might harbour dark feelings, but I was actually woman enough to dredge them up and examine them. “I think the numbers are probably higher than 50 percent of Canadians who are racist,” said Tina Lopes, a Toronto-based race-relations educator. “I would be surprised if it was not closer to 80 percent of people who learn to be racist and sexist and homophobic.”

Nor would I. But what, then, were we supposed to do about it? Anorexics, alcoholics, people with anger management problems, sex addicts—all of them can find treatment in any mid-size city. The prejudiced? That’s another story. No wonder we tamp our feelings down, will them not to exist, and hope for the best.

Denial might work in the short term—it always does—but as any dime-store psychologist will tell you, trying to ignore something pretty much guarantees it will surface later. If we don’t admit to “owning” our own prejudice, as the shrinks say, we are certain to express it in oblique ways, ignorant to any harm we may be causing.

When Suaad Hagi Mohamud—a black woman whose identity was questioned by the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi—was detained there for three months, no one involved in the incident dared to suggest that cultural bias played into it, when how could it not? She was a) dark-skinned, b) a woman, and c) veiled: three traits that, whether or not they should, carry a certain baggage. Yet no one in a position of authority was willing to say, “Yes, we were wrong, because we were ignorant and prejudiced.” That would belie our national mythos.

Probably because the United States’s identity is so tied up with a history of stunningly obvious racial inequity that has forced blacks and whites into contact—and conflict—with each other, Americans seem more fluent in race relations—and more inclined to wear their biases on their sleeve. But racism in Canada, as author Pasha Malla wrote in an insightful Globe and Mail article in 2008, is the province exclusively of others. When it manifests in unseemly outbursts, we’re quick to judge, and seldom ask ourselves if we might harbour similar feelings.

As a muslim in the post 9-11 world, Nouman Ashraf is better qualified than many to talk about the discrepancy between what values Canadians say they hold and what they actually do. “Preferences and biases always exist,” he told me. We were chatting in a café on the campus of the University of Toronto, where he was head of the department of anti-racism and cultural diversity. “The question isn’t to illegalize them. The question is to ask people about how this affects our behaviour as individuals, as organizations, and broadly as a nation.”

A big man with a salt-and-pepper beard, he’s fast-talking and approachable, verging on cuddly. As we spoke, he scribbled organizational charts—reflecting his background in management studies—on paper napkins.

There are, he said, espoused theories—“the theory to which you give allegiance in your mind, and sincerely believe,” he explained—and theories-in-action, which are reflected in what we actually do.

“Our espoused theory,” said Ashraf, “is one of a multicultural nation.” Our theories-in-action, individually and collectively, are another story. Established Canadians may think they are generous, but newcomers arouse their baser instincts, according to Ashraf. All of us are reduced, by perceived threats to shared resources—such as jobs or spots in university—to the level of wildebeests locking tusks over a watering hole.

Professionally, Ashraf dealt with these conflicts by holding panel discussions at the university “on everything from religion and sexuality to race and culture.

“I think that we are a microcosm of the most diverse city on the planet.” He gestured at the lineup at the café counter, where students of all stripes stood gabbing as they waited to be served. “And one of my core beliefs is, if we don’t allow opportunities for our students to engage with this difference … we will have failed them.”

Yes! I thought. I wanted to high-five him. Engagement: that’s what I, in my clumsy way, was striving for. Someone who could talk to me on the level, who could challenge me without tipping into defensiveness. What I needed to do, suggested Ashraf, was seek out young Quiddinese who were, in his words, my “peeps.” The obvious retort was that they weren’t my peeps and that was the problem. Then I remembered Avery.

Avery (not his real name) was a former co-worker of mine, a Quiddinese guy who was so witty and sharp that I didn’t trust myself not to try to impress him, so I just stayed out of his way. What better way to impress someone than to tell them that you hated their ethnic heritage? I sent off an email explaining my project and hoped for the best.

Pullquote 2

Like al-Yassini, Estella Muyinda ran an organization—the National Anti-Racism Council of Canada—that was committed to fighting racism. And, like him, when I spoke to her on the phone, she had no resources for me. “If you’re talking about programs, we’re not hands-on, give-you-thisprogram-to-do, because no government organization is funding anything of that nature,” she told me. What NARCC does, she said, is support grassroots organizations that act on a local scale, by providing them with

educational materials. Although it was not within her purview, professionally, she did try to take on my problem. “What triggered it? Where is this coming from? These are the questions that you have to answer first because there’s no panacea to this,” she told me. “If you don’t get to the root of your bias,” she said, “you’ll have a lot of problems accepting any solutions that are out there.”

Well, I knew what triggered it: feeling like I was constantly being treated poorly in my own neighbourhood was one part of it. The other part was daily coming up against what I saw as conflicting values. Muyinda told me I should stop thinking of the difference in our values as a barrier. I knew I was being difficult, but really: wasn’t that advice a kind of a panacea? What if I really was getting secondary treatment from my Quiddinese neighbours because I was different from them? Was I supposed to continue trying to be friendly or patronizing their shops anyway, even though they might be discriminating against me just as much as the reverse?

And then there were deeper issues than social niceties: one of the problems I had with Quiddinese culture was that homosexuality was not accepted, but littering apparently was. What was I supposed to do, try to reframe these behaviours as merely “colourful” even though I found them untenable?

It didn’t help that the more I talked to people about my project, the more grumblings I heard from every direction.

“It isn’t the [Quiddinese], is it?” said Pasha Malla. “A friend of mine…called this morning and was like, ‘Ah, fuck, these [Quiddinese] people are driving me crazy!’”

My friends—who I had thought a pretty tolerant and broadminded group of people—began to tell me their stories. One had dated a Quiddinese guy. “His family didn’t like me one bit,” she said. “They would have rather he married his second cousin.”

Another had fallen off his bike on an icy street, in front of a group of five or so Quiddinese men. “They didn’t say anything,” he said. “They didn’t ask if I was alright or help me up. They just stared at me.”

“This sums up the [Quiddinese] community for me,” said Peter. He had been watching a sports game on TV but he missed the end. So, later, passing by a Quiddinese bar, he stopped to ask a small group of men how the game ended. “They looked at me,” said Peter, his voice hushed with remembered shock, “like I’d just asked them for money. They had these … dark looks, and they were like”—Peter made his voice gruff—“‘Two to one.’ And I was like, ‘Oh really, who scored?’… and I thought to myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?!’ Anybody else would have been like, ‘Yeah! Right on! We won! Okay!’… They had this look of complete distrust and I walked away, and I was disappointed and furious.” Doubly disappointed and furious, perhaps, because Peter himself is Quiddinese-Canadian. “The people certainly aren’t friendly,” he said.

Having this company was sort of comforting—but only in the way that being part of a mob is comforting.

The problem with this scenario, of course, was that it relieved me of any responsibility. In this version of events, I was an innocent who had stumbled into a snakepit of malice. There had to be more to it than that. For one thing, I was wildly generalizing. As Pasha Malla said to his incensed friend, “It’s not all the [Quiddinese] people in the world that are driving you crazy.”

Ascribing a bunch of traits to a people in the name of culture was a crude but tempting tool that robbed people of their individuality. Yet it wasn’t baseless, exactly—the quality of the exchanges I had in Japan, for example, were different from exchanges I had elsewhere. It was like a pointillist painting: up close, each person retained his or her particular qualities, but when you stepped back, the sum total made a distinct picture.

Yet ascribing certain qualities to any group of people—cheerful, spontaneous, family-oriented, devout, say—opens the door for others to call them childlike, chaotic, lazy, superstitious. Straightforward becomes rude, politeness seems remote or chilly. Still, we apparently need the idea of a shared culture and shared values: this is what makes us a nation, instead of just a bunch of random people on a big patch of land. That shared culture is what causes us to root for our countrymen and -women at the Olympics, or to stitch the flag on our backpacks when we travel.

So, yes, I was allowing for the fact that this was a group of individuals I was dealing with, but that they also existed within a cultural matrix. And some of those broad cultural traits aligned with my neuroses like a key in a lock.

After all, while there are, as Ashraf pointed out, some general conditions that can lead to discrimination, our targets are not arbitrary. If I was to take on the full responsibility for my problem, I was going to have to look into the murky depths of my own psyche.

Some schools of analysis suggest that we revile in others traits that are unrealized aspects of ourselves. According to Sylvia Brinton Perera, a Jungian psychoanalyst I spoke to who wrote a book on the topic of scapegoating, the revulsion I felt for the Quiddinese swagger and machismo (among other qualities) was, according to this theory, a result of having been taught not to externalize emotions, not to indulge in noisy selfglorification, not to be exhibitionistic.

This felt truer to me than anything I’d yet heard. At the same time, nothing in me particularly wanted to nurture those qualities in myself. The resistance went deep, and for good reason: “You probably internalized [your family’s values] before you were five,” she said. Overcoming deeply learned things was a life’s work. I needed something a little more immediate.

“How many individuals do you know?” Perera asked me. “Because as long as it’s collective it’s harder to manage.”

Which brought me back to Avery. Incredibly, he had responded to my email. “I’m not sure I’ll be much help,” he wrote back. “We may end up drawing up the blueprints for the internment camp together.”

Needless to say, Avery had a complicated relationship to his heritage. Both his parents were Quiddinese but he grew up immersed in mainstream Canadian culture. Rather than thinking of himself as having a foot in both camps, he thought of himself as having a foot in neither. “I always think of this James Branch Cabell thing,” he said, “where he’s like, ‘Patriotism is the religion of hell’—because it is.” What most irked him, it seemed, was the obsession many Quiddinese had with defining themselves by their patrimony, to the exclusion of other cultures and influences.

To some extent, Avery felt Canada’s ethos of multiculturalism was to blame. “You tell people to celebrate diversity. So … what you eventually build is a street lined with [Quiddinese] flags, a street of people speaking their own language.”

It wasn’t just the Quiddinese though. He disliked any cultural hegemony.

After I moaned about the Quiddinese being so loud, he asked me this: “What if you were living in the Gay Village?” he said. “That’s pretty loud. You walked into a bakery and you were holding hands with your boyfriend, you might not get the nicest service … Do you think after a year you’d be like, ‘Those fucking gays,’ or anything like that?”

“I might be,” I said. “It’s possible. But I’m not such an idiot that I would cluster all gays together.” I was, apparently, idiot enough to cluster all Quiddinese together. But it was a question of exposure, as well. I’d grown up isolated from the Quiddinese. They stayed among their kind and I with mine. “The celebration of diversity,” Avery said, “is also really a cause of ghettoization.” Although our conversation was full of such textbook phrases and lofty ideas, it also acted as a kind of confessional. No matter how stupid or offensive my questions, Avery was gracious and forgiving. I came away feeling kind of … melty inside. If, as Joni Mitchell says, “Love is touching souls,” so is this kind of open, unafraid dialogue.

Later, riding my bike home, I passed a few older Quiddinese men shooting the breeze on the street corner, and I had this thought: Hey, one of those guys could be Avery’s father. It was ludicrous in its simplicity, not to mention deeply corny, but it was also refreshingly effective. For the first time since beginning my project, I had softened.

Of course, all that sympathy evaporated the next time I passed a group of Quiddinese men who stared at me as they threw their cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Or the next time I was given the cold shoulder at a shop where they clearly knew me.

Given all the conversations I’d had, I felt safe in saying that it wasn’t my imagination or some cultural misunderstanding: I really was getting a frosty reception. In that case, all I could do was hope to understand why.

“I personally think the distrust comes from a lack of confidence,” said Peter, who had recently moved into the neighbourhood and found himself troubled by the same questions I was. “Like, ‘Why do you care about us? Why do you want to know about us?’”

Like Avery, he implicated multiculturalism. “In a community like Toronto’s, where it’s big enough that you can be selfsufficient, it becomes ignorant and mistrustful.

“What I would love to come to an end,” he said, “is, when you arrive in Canada, the sense that you keep doing whatever you’re doing.”

But was integration that easy? In addition to being cut off from their own culture when they moved, said Avery, the community is “also refused access to being Canadian.”

And this, according to Tina Lopes, was at the heart of the matter.

The Quiddinese were and are underdogs, both in the city and on a global scale. They come from a region of the world that gets little respect, and when they moved here, their status didn’t change—except now they’re out of their element, too. So they created a safe haven, a defensive perimeter.

“The unfortunate thing,” said Lopes, “is that I sometimes see that when someone who’s part of the dominant society … comes into their neighbourhood, there’s a bit of ‘We’re going to give you a taste of what I get.’”

What they got? In all the service jobs I ever worked, I was patient with people who struggled with English. I even got selfcongratulatory goosebumps from successful transactions.

But then I remembered Avery telling me how, after high school, he had changed his name. He was brilliant and articulate, but his Quiddinese name alone was enough to discourage employers. In school fights, he said, it was always the Quiddinese kids who took the blame. And at work, his boss once suggested he was absent because he’d been napping in the stock room; it was half-joking—but half-not.

The whole thing was much bigger than me. Each of us was, in the eyes of the other, accountable for transactions involving the worst of our ilk. Mutual mistrust flavoured every meeting, with the result that both parties ended up acting edgy and unfriendly. “I don’t think it’s a good human response,” said Lopes, “but I have some compassion for what is behind it.”

It was weird, but I didn’t want to hear what Lopes was saying. “How much out of your 24 hours do you experience that ‘you’re not welcome’ vibe?” she asked me. “And then think about if you were in their shoes and you were experiencing that eight hours—more!—how much it would eat away at you.”

Basically, I didn’t want to hear about anything that pointed up my own privilege. The slightly insane reality was that I worried it threatened to delegitimize my unhappiness. I wanted the occasional right to wallow in self-pity without having to think, “But then, in absolute terms, my life doesn’t suck as much as my Quiddinese neighbour’s.” But the fact remained: I moved through society more easily than they did, enjoying successes—professional, social—that weren’t available to them. Which was another troubling matter for me. Was my success at the cost of theirs, somehow? If they were oppressed, was I therefore the oppressor? I (somewhat guiltily) doubted it: humanity has an unmerited love affair with absolutes. Most of us are made up of more complex matter. After all, as Peter told me, the Quiddinese can be racist themselves. No one has a monopoly on tolerance.

While it would be tempting to conclude that, at the end of this process, I’ve “crossed over to the other side”—racist no more!—the pat answer is not the honest one. It may not even be fair for us to ask such radical transformations of ourselves—do we really need the burden of another expectation we can’t live up to? Aside from a commitment to a complete psychic overhaul, the best we can do is exercise an honest awareness of our own shortcomings.

I’m still petty sometimes, still cursing Quiddinese choices in home decor, still mad that some of the men seem to spend their days loafing while the women do the work. But I also look at each person and try to imagine a world of alienation, of being second class wherever I go.

As for me and Avery? Well, maybe I’ll get that big ethnic wedding yet.

Show Comments