Just some musings.
This Friday past, as I was wandering up and down some of the side roads that surround our house, I passed a house that was being renovated in, unfortunately, a way that seems to be the vogue for such things these days: build a frame over the old structure and then stucco till you can’t stucco anymore.1
I paused to take this in and noticed that though the door had been left open, there was no one around. I thought that this was strange. And then I noticed something else – the wall, next to the front door, had been decorated with some graffiti:
“GET OUT YOU PAKI. WE DON’T WANT ANY BROWN SHIT HERE.”
(My apologies for the strong language.)
I have to say that I found this to be pretty troublesome. I’ve certainly heard of such things happening in Toronto, but I’ve never actually witnessed anything of the sort before. It left me embarrassed, and trying to think of a way to excuse it.
“Perhaps it was just some kids, pulling a prank, trying to be funny,” I thought. I couldn’t think of anything else that might make it seem less than what it was. And really, any thoughts of that ilk seemed silly in comparison to the large black letters, contrasted quite sharply against the ochre of the wall.
A few weeks ago, there was a piece on the radio that involved a woman of Asian decent interviewing some gentlemen who had immigrated to the Toronto area from the Caribbean. She was hoping to elicit some response from them as to the what they thought about the particular flavour of ‘multiculturalism’ that’s practised here.2
As they spoke, one of them referred to her has “Chinese”. She was incensed. “I’m Korean,” She retorted. To which she was replied, “Chinese people are squinty-eyed. You’re squinty-eyed. You’re all the same. You’re all Chinese to me.”
At this point, the audio transitioned to another segment of the interview. The Korean lady was speaking again. And during the course of what was said, she referred to the gentleman in the room as ‘black’. And with that, all hell broke loose.
“Now, wait a moment,” One of the men said. “Do I look black to you?”
“Here, look at my arm. What colour is it?”
“Really? Here, look at my arm again. What colour is it?”
“See this chair? This chair is black. I’m not black, I’m brown.”
“Yeah, but we say you’re black.”
“Then how can you say I’m being racist when I call you ‘Chinese’, but you have no problem calling me ‘black’?”
Whenever someone starts to describe a person they’ve met, I invariably ask, “Where are they from?” It’s the question here in Canada, since almost everyone is from somewhere else. There are times when, after the first question, I receive a reply of ‘Toronto’ or something similar, at which point I face a dilemma: Do I leave it at that, or I can ask – with a tinge of guilt in the back of my mind – “Yeah, but what is he?”
Identifying people, and segregating them, especially by skin colour, is something we (or at least I) seem to do without hesitation. It’s part of the process of description enacted each time we meet someone for the first time.
But why do we do it that way? Why is it important for us to have a mental image of someone who is ‘black’ or ‘white’ or something in between?
Part of it, I think, comes from our need to identify ourselves. If someone is labelled as ‘white’, my impression of myself also becomes stronger – I can say, “I’m not white. I’m not one of them. He’s not with me.” Or, conversely, “He’s one of us. I belong here.” Race and ethnicity is still very much an important part of who we are, and we align ourselves accordingly without even realising it.
I suppose this is unavoidable. And I’m certainly not saying that we need to deny or avoid our roots and ancestry. But I can’t help but think it would be nice to be able to take people in as the persons they are, without having to resort to labelling them as something first.
- 1I’m fond of telling people that I live on the Toronto side of both the Toronto-Scarborough border and the Toronto-East York border: if I cross the major intersection to the north of my house, I’m in East York and if I do the same to the east, I’m in Scarborough. This is a wonderful thing, because it lets me keep saying I’ve lived in Toronto all my life.
Anyway, this happened on a side road in East York.
As if that makes it any better.
- 2If I remember correctly, she actually walked into a roti store.
My congratulations if you made it this far. This whole bit has been me rambling, really. I’ll have to see if I can make it a little more coherent.