Most readers that know me personally know that a long-time topic of interest for me is national identity and multiculturalism. One of the main reasons, I suppose, is my own mixed cultural heritage. When people ask me where I'm from, they seem dissatisfied when I tell them I'm Canadian, as if that can't be true because I'm not white. There is no other reason I can think of for their dissatisfaction. And the fact is that I'm partly white (as if that's an ethnicity), so doesn't that count for something? So I press on, I'm really from Canada. I was born here. In some countries where I've lived or travelled, I've even been told that I don't look Canadian, as if there is a typical face of a Canadian. I ask them what a Canadian looks like that I'm not it, and they often tell me they expect to see someone with blonder hair and blue eyes. Hmm...maybe in Sweden? I tell people that if anyone is qualified to be Canadian, I'm the poster child. We may not know who we are as a national identity, but we do know that Canada is characterised by multiculturalism, and since I'm genetically multicultural, no one can be a better representation than me! (Colonialism aside, but I'm not here to debate that right now.)
The reality is that we're all genetically multicultural. If National Geographic's The Genographic Project is to be believed, there pretty much isn't a pure "race" left on earth, however you define race. The Project has found so far that black Africans living in Africa have the lowest mix of genes on the planet and would be considered, by genetic terms, to be the "purest". Another interesting finding is that, of all the people whose DNA has been tested, it's estimated that approximately 50% of the entire world's population have the genes of Ashkenazi Jews.
That's why it continues to disturb me when I see all the work that still needs to be done to combat ignorance and xenophobia. It's not enough that we live in the Information Age. Unless you're being exposed to some sort of messaging, whether overt or covert, that provides correct information about the origins of the human race through advertisement or some other direct format, it's still up to you to seek out and access this information. Even with advertising, it's still a passive method of communicating a message; the receiver may walk away, mute a television, or somehow disengage from any type of advertising that could teach them what we all need to be aware of when it comes to not only culture, but also immigration.
Go back to your home country
I decided to write this blog post as the best way I knew of to try to help at least one person out there, whether it's to give tools to someone who's trying to learn more about multiculturalism, national identity, or racism and related topics, or if anyone even learns a tidbit that challenges his or her thinking, it would be a great accomplishment for me. And what better place to talk about it but on my travel blog, which allows me to share all my thoughts and learning with you about countries I travel to and their cultures. But why these particular subjects came to the forefront of my thoughts just now was a couple of related events in my province. The first is the post below from the Facebook page of one of our news programs. The comments beneath it just pained me--and people, couldn't you see that you were posting after a non-white person did so? I guess my profile pic right now is too small to see properly, but I suppose it's just as well; quite honestly, I'd rather the blatant ignorant remarks than people pretending they don't have them. You can't try to fix what you don't know is broken.
|I've added this photo since the original Facebook post and photo seems to be a broken link as of 2016|
The colours were amazing indeed, as you can see. The particular comment that angered me the most was the person commenting that the people should go back to their own country. As a mixed person of both European and Asian descent, I've often wondered where exactly I should go to if someone ever told this to me. Should I go back to Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia, or India? According to the family tree that was researched about the Mennonite side of my family, some of my ancestors may have even come from Prussia, a location that no longer has defined political boundaries, so how exactly would I go there? Would Poland or Ukraine claim me? Do I pick the majority gene pool? And even so, it's already known that Punjabis share their gene pool with the Aryans, who originated in the Hindu Kush and who probably looked Persian. During the time of Alexander the Great, Alexander called the Hindu Kush Caucasus Indicus, and that same Wiki link indicates that it was to distinguish them from the Iberian Caucasus range that appears in modern day Georgia. Again, this is another region where people probably appear Persian or Turkic in physical features. So should I return to the mountains now in Pakistan?
It is noteworthy that there is one other Caucasus range, the one that separates Europe from the Middle East, and that is, I suppose, where the idea that Caucasians are white comes from. But being a border mountain range, one has to wonder if these mountains also had Turkic-looking people living there, and this is why I really dislike referring to white people as Caucasians because it seems like a misnomer to me. In fact, being that there is more than one mountain range using the word Caucasus, my linguistic proclivities led me to believe that perhaps there was a connection and that the word Caucasus might originally mean "mountain." My online etymology source confirms this to be the case! (On a grammatical note, that means when we say "Caucasus mountains," it's just redundant!)
So this is my ethnic history in a nutshell. And I am Canadian. Even if you are of European descent alone, your own history could be as complex as this. White people are certainly not all of one race or ethnicity or culture. In fact, of Canada's founding nations (excluding First Nations for the sake of argument), the only thing that they did share was the same fair skin tone, but they certainly differed in language, religions, histories, and all kinds of other cultural associations. Moreover, Jewish people are often white but are generally considered to not be white, despite the fact that their appearance doesn't differ from non-Jewish white people. Maybe experts could identify certain physical features, but to the general population they'd look all the same, except when we find out they're Jewish, and suddenly we wouldn't consider them to be white anymore. The fact that British-style government and religion became dominant has much to do with how our country has developed, but it by no means can even be prescriptive of how our country should continue to be. The Centre for Race and Culture often uses a definition of culture by saying it's "how we do things around here," and I think it can easily be argued that how we did things around here in the founding year of our country, 1867, is not how we would like things to be done today. Even something as simple as a daily pledging of allegiance to the current monarch of Britain and/or the singing of God Save the Queen/King would be eschewed by many Canadians of all origins today. The fact that we became, for the most part, independent of British rule in 1967 and got our own flag was surely a happy day for many people living in Canada. By that time, the ethnic population of Canada was already somewhat diverse, and while perhaps the most reported ethnicities were still mostly European origin, there were already populations of at least Lebanese, Indian, and Chinese descent, and regardless of what their origin was, I'll bet that most of them were happy to no longer be British subjects. At that time, I wonder if being Canadian had nothing to do with being white but everything to do with not being British subjects any longer (and again, I'll need to leave out First Nations and the French, for the sake of argument). In this case, Canadian national identity was more closely associated with nationalities that were themselves affiliated with political boundaries in Europe (nation-states), unlike today, where Canadian national identity is often appears to be associated with ethnicity (and a multicultural one at that), whether for better or worse. At least this is my impression on an observational level, which is very subjective.
So for those people that become offended by today's multicultural practices, exactly what are they hoping to return to? Can they neatly define Canadian identity in order to create a set of policy actions around it? What was our national language? What were our national foods? Our national dance(s)? Religion? Political preferences? Many of these things had a binary characteristic anyway due to our French and British colonisers. Are we blaming immigrants for removing these things from us? Are defenders of the nebulous Canadian identity suggesting that we go back to a British colonial model of life in Canada? And even if the answer to the latter question were yes, how do these people propose to achieve this? It seems to me that any policy change such as, this is a new rule about how we do things around here, and if you don't like it, go back to your home country, would probably violate some United Nations human rights law or something, and then we'd start having messy legal trials pitting national sovereignty against universal human rights. That's not a set of events I'd ever like to see. And of course, we'd still have to assume that First Nations people had no say in this, and now things become even messier.
Don't cater to every culture out there
The second incident relates to the following news story that appeared on CTV news.
Again, the comments to me are just astounding, more so in the article itself than the Facebook comments. I agree with the commenter saying that we'd expect someone to do the same, to remove their hat if they came into a church, so Ms. Smith was probably just doing the same. Was it necessary in open air? Well, that's debatable, since it's usually only in the temple that this is required, but perhaps Ms. Smith thought it would be respectful. It's also a matter of someone taking the time to explain it to her properly, too. Maybe no one did that. I remember going to a henna party for a South Asian friend of mine; this is a traditional party that happens before women get married not just in the Indian subcontinent, but also in a lot of the Arab world, as far as I know. Anyway, my friend was marrying a Canadian white guy, and no one had realised they needed to inform the groom's family that any type of wedding-related party that occurs with lots of people is a time you really dress up, so his mom and other female family members came very under-dressed, and I assume they felt a little out of place. I felt really bad for them as I can only imagine how uncomfortable that must have been. No one at the party cared, of course, but it's always an awkward feeling for the people who aren't dressed according to the norm.
One thing we can see by all of these comments, though, is that anyone can be racist. There are comments from people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities. The comments in question that were apparently not removed from the Wildrose Party's Facebook page in time (according to critics) were made by people assuming that Ms. Smith was trying to pretend to be one of them or to identify with them, and they were offended. Is it a problem with Ms. Smith herself that they have, or are they trying to say that they don't want any white people involved in their culture or religion? There's no way to make any conclusions here; there simply isn't enough information for that.
I hope readers will also understand that I'm not trying to comment on the Wildrose Party itself or Ms. Smith's or the party's actions or anything like that. I'm simply trying to tease out the implications of how people are responding to that event and ask questions that no one seems to be asking.
We were here first
I think what bothers me the most, though, is that there seems to be this mentality that "we were here first," so we have the right to determine how we do things around here. This is the subtle implication of people saying that immigrants should go back to their own country, or even to some extent, when people say "we don't need you to represent us" because you feel that you are somehow a better representative of your own culture than someone not from there. The assumption of the latter belief is that somehow culture is static and there is a set of learned behaviours, beliefs, and practices that you could learn that would make you the ideal representative of that culture. The basic characteristic of culture is that it's dynamic; it's always changing. Consequently, those prescribed behaviours or beliefs couldn't possibly remain the same. In addition, it doesn't account for individual differences and doesn't allow for someone to change his or her mind or question the culture at all.
Similarly, culture's dynamism is exactly why "we were here first" also makes no sense. You would need to try to preserve your culture in a bottle and then conk people on the head with it until they could somehow agree to squeeze inside it. There are several other problems with this idea. For those that use the common argument for those that tell others to go back to their own country, there's very likely another group that could say that to you. That's where we we can easily argue that First Nations people could tell that to anyone in the country because they were the first to settle in the region, so for that reason alone, the "go back to your country" argument really doesn't work. Moreover, even First Nations people are thought to have originated in Asia and populated the Americas in up to three waves of migration across the Bering Strait. Should we then admonish them for settling in the Americas? Should we tell them to get back to Inner Mongolia or Siberia? While they could indeed claim "we were here first", if this the sole argument about who gets to determine how we do things around here, we would have to then try to search through the history of humanity to separate people and put them back in their proper regions where they originated. And then what do we do with people that were stolen as slaves? Do we make them go back to where they came from? Can you imagine what would happen if we took an African-American kid that grew up in the US, born to other African-Americans that have been in the US for generations, and then just dropped that kid off in Ghana and said, "good luck to you!"? Somehow that just doesn't seem like it would work so well. Likewise, what would we do with refugees? Send them back to be killed? Or is that okay because we're not related to them? Obviously, I'm not suggesting that any of these are good solutions, but I'm trying to demonstrate the consequences of what is implied when people say we were here first or that people should go back to their home countries. Countries, nations, and societies get colonised or conquered, as a general rule, whether we like it or not. We can oppose it and try to stop it from happening, but once it has happened, it's kind of difficult to reverse the effect. That experience, even if we remove the colonisers, changes that society's cultural reality. It's usually not the case that you can just go back to old times and have everything be exactly the same, I don't think. I'd have to research it more, but I haven't heard of it so far.
Canada's immigration trends
Bringing it back to the Canadian context, if we remove First Nations out of the context again, it's also rather interesting to see who was actually here first. Aside from British and French colonies, there were some Dutch, German, and Scandinavian people that came via the US as some of the Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, but there are also some populations of people from Asia and the Middle East that have been here for a really long time, as I mentioned earlier. Lebanese, Indian (mostly Punjabi), and Chinese people have been here since before 1900, and Lebanese and Chinese people as early as the 1850s! They were here before the major migration of people from many other parts of Europe. So while Canada may have been a Euro-centric country based almost exclusively on British and French culture and politics, Asians were already beginning to populate Canada before we even became a nation! With Punjabis in particular, many had been British subjects at the time because India was still under British colonial rule, so in a way, they were British people coming to Canada, anyway!
So what do we do with multiculturalism?
I can't answer this question. I don't know if I want to. I do know that my views about multiculturalism have changed over the course of my life, and I expect they will change again. I used to really love the idea of multiculturalism, that many cultures could co-exist peacefully, celebrating their heritage like a medley of tasty flavours in a fruit punch or something like that. While I almost never experienced any racism directed at me, I definitely was aware it existed and realised in time that Canadians are just darn good at hiding it because, as much as we often hold strong views about things, few of us like to rock the boat and would rather just keep the peace (as Canada's motto Peace, order, and good government has somehow created that sentiment in our minds) and not speak up. And not speaking up means we can't have conversations, and without conversations, we can't learn much.
In time, I began to migrate toward the camp of critics of multiculturalism. I'd read some of the writings of Will Kymlicka, who made me rethink my ideas about individual and collective rights. I still hold to the conviction that there has to be a compromise in claiming our rights. There are basic human rights that don't seem to infringe on others' rights, such as a right to education, food, etc. Nevertheless, there exists a problem in what I would call created versus actual scarcity. I remember when I was first learning basic economics in grade 8, we learned the concept of scarcity: you can't have everything. That's literally how our textbook defined it. In this case, I would say this is actual scarcity, because the way we learned it, the reason you couldn't have everything is that many resources are limited, so there will always be competition for those finite resources. But I think that where there is an abundance of resources, (even if they are finite, they may also be sustainable, such as the ability to produce crops of wheat year after year), there end up being some people that want to hoard those resources, creating the scarcity and consequently, unnecessary competition for them. So having a basic right to certain things can be challenged by corruption, as we are probably all aware. But as for other rights that we wish to claim, how far can we go? In the case of multiculturalism, at least in Canada, part of our understanding of accepting other cultures is their right to self-determination, the idea that we cannot dictate what parts about their culture are welcome here and which parts are not because all cultures are valid. This is a notion that creates a lot of hostility and backfire because we can all agree that there are good and bad parts to every culture, so how can we, as Canadians, accept the bad parts of other people's cultures, especially when those parts infringe on our individual rights and freedoms?
I also read another well-known critic of multiculturalism, Neil Bissoondath. There are a myriad articles about him or by him that are easy to find on the Internet if you don't have access to libraries, but I had also agreed with the idea that multiculturalism focused on our cultural differences rather than trying to promote how we're the same and trying to unite us.
These thoughts have been lingering around my brain for years, ever since I did my own research on multicultural policies and how they've affected K-12 students and teachers/pre-service teachers experiences of ethnically diverse classrooms, called Multicultural education, power, and ideology: A critical analysis of teacher training textbooks and education policy in Alberta. I concluded that despite the rhetoric claim of education being the great equaliser, the fact that school and workplaces are inherently competitive (for grades, awards, accolades, promotions, etc.), our system entails one of winners of losers. Winners are those that have all the tools they need, be it understanding the culture and/or the language, society expectations, and so forth. Those that don't win find barriers to understanding of those things just mentioned, and as a result, they are not able to get ahead or figure out "the system." Consequently, it's hard to achieve equality when some of us are better able to avail of resources and opportunities than others, and there's no guarantee whether or not you'll learn how to do this.
Despite this inequality, there persists the perception that immigrants are getting ahead and ousting Canadian-born persons from opportunities they feel they deserve. In Canada, and I imagine in other countries that are large, immigrant-receiving countries, we sometimes hear people say that immigrants are taking away our jobs. Now, I'm not that well-read in economics, but I guess that the concept of scarcity can apply to things other than food or minerals or fresh water supply. In this case, there's a perception that there is a scarcity of employment opportunities for people in the Canada, so it creates animosity toward the newcomers. In this case, there may not even be a real scarcity at all, but the perception of one is causing a big problem! Notwithstanding the recent controversy surrounding our immigration policies and companies' use of temporary foreign workers, my understanding is that the best qualified people are usually hired for jobs. Often they are Canadian-born because they have Canadian work experience, which makes them more desirable employees. In fact, some people, whether they are foreign- or Canadian-born, have had difficulties even getting interviews when they have names that might seem too difficult to pronounce. Most of us know all too well about the high number of foreign-trained professionals whose credentials aren't recognised here, and then some of them end up driving taxis or working as janitors if they can't afford to go back to school or comply with other prerequisites that will allow them to work in their original professions. And while the scandal with some of these temporary foreign workers occurred in companies offering higher-level jobs, I rarely heard a Canadian-born 15-year old kid complain they couldn't get a job at Tim Horton's or McDonald's, or a 25-year-old say they couldn't find custodial work because there were too many immigrants taking those jobs. In fact, many of the newcomers I've met have struggled quite a lot here, personally, professionally, and economically. Every one of them works very hard, and I'm happy to say that some that I know that came here as international students worked their way up so much that they now make tons more money than I do, and I feel they deserve all of it because they did work so much. I'm not suggesting Canadian-born people don't work hard, but just that a few of my friends stepped it up that much more.
Much of the literature on multiculturalism that I have encountered also fails to take into consideration the implications of migration in general. I was volunteering for a few weeks during the summer of 2006 in Barcelona, helping to teach Spanish to Arab immigrant women. There is a lot of animosity in France and Spain against African immigrants in general. Some of the reasons are historical, but some of the critiques are not unfamiliar to sentiments heard around Canada. One of the ladies, who happened to be from Morocco, that I met told me how she came to Barcelona to try to give her son a better life because the economy there was so poor that youth unemployment was extremely high. She thought opportunities were better in Spain. What she didn't know is that, having moved when her son was 17, he'd never be able to get into university because, even though he was proficient in Spanish, you needed to speak Catalan to get into university, and you certainly needed to know it to get a job. It was a bit late for him to learn the language with enough proficiency to avail himself of whatever opportunities Spain had at the time, and he ended up becoming an apprentice mechanic to another Moroccan immigrant living in an Arab-majority suburb of Barcelona. Some ladies told me that immigrants end up committing petty crimes just to get enough money for food for their families because life didn't bring what they hoped for in Spain, and conditions were no better in their home countries! It's no wonder Spanish people would complain about immigrants increasing crime in the country. It was, in fact, true, but there was no understanding of the reasons for this. People just assumed criminals were coming into the country. Aljazeera news presented another recent example of this in Sweden.
Closer to home, I ended up becoming friends with someone originally from Peru that I had met at the hotel where I was staying in Montreal as he was the front desk person there. He told me the Quebec government had wooed him with promises of good employment, and he hadn't expected it would be a job at the front desk of a hotel. He was told there were lots of professional opportunities in the tourism industry, and this appealed to him as he liked to travel and live in new countries, he was multilingual, and he had several years of work experience in more professional roles in the tourism industry. When he arrived in Canada, he learned that this was not actually the case, and most of the jobs were similar to the one that he ended up finding. These are just some of the stories, let alone the stories of refugees and other types of newcomers to Canada. It gives one the impression, whether or not this is actually what is happening, that the Canadian government is advertising more grandiosely, but it's all false, and then when people arrive, they find out it's not what they were led to believe.
Solutions for the above?
I also don't know the answer to this question, but one book that is currently enlightening my views on multiculturalism is called Multicultiphobia, and I find it to be one of the most insightful reviews of Canadian multiculturalism out there. I haven't finished it yet, but it's definitely changing the way I view multiculturalism. Ryan demonstrates by using text from Canada's multicultural policy documents that the Canadian government has always intended to integrate immigrants without them having to give up who they are or entirely give up their culture. And despite our belief in the right to self-determination, that relativistic notion that tells us that every culture is valid, the government has ruled against things like female circumcision, which is also known as female genital mutilation and female genital cutting. This practice is illegal in Canada. It doesn't matter what culture you are from; that cultural practice infringes on our individual rights that all Canadians should enjoy, and the federal government has made it illegal. As a result of points the book makes like this, I am re-thinking my ideas about multiculturalism, and it's jogging my memory of things I used to think about the topic, which is that old saying we all associate with the word multiculturalism: tolerance, respect, and understanding. I've always felt that we've done well on the first two but dreadful on the last, mainly because the way we receive information about other cultures is through superficial means by which we observe dance, song, dress, and eat food, but we rarely are given information about their histories and philosophies and the deeper things that influence their dances and songs and whatever other behaviours they may have. Even if we still disagree with aspects of another culture, we would all benefit by having a more profound understanding of that culture.
It's definitely complex. The solutions aren't easy, and I don't think there's any one solution. Regardless, there are always going to be critics, but you can't please everyone!
Negotiating cultural identities - who am I?
One thing that I would add as a final note that I think is an emerging area for discussion is the notion of how we view ourselves as cultural beings. Canadian identity may be difficult to define, but I do feel like there is a sense of "Canadian-ness", even if we can't exactly put our finger on it. And whether we choose to hyphenate our identities or not, most people still seem like they've got a good grip on who they are, culturally speaking. I am Chinese-Canadian. I am French Canadian. I am Canadian. But as Canada's ethnically diverse population grows, there will likely be an increase of people like me, products of miscegenation that may be influenced by more than one dominant culture (I distinguish this from people that would have multiple and sometimes erased-from-historical-memory European backgrounds). With what culture does someone like me identify? I feel like I should have the option to choose what culture I want to identify with, if any. After all, if we recognise gender identity as a social construction, then isn't cultural identity even more so? Personally, I most strongly identify with Latin American culture. There are some similarities to Punjabi culture as well as to some aspects of European culture (those things that are common to many or most European countries). But what would happen if I said, I am Latin American-Canadian? I'm just as happy to say I'm a Canadian that's a "latina wannabe," but I do think about negotiating cultural identities a lot and wonder whether or not we might one day reach a point that we might say, I'm an Argentinian trapped in a Senegalese body or something of that sort! It kind of makes me giggle, but at the same time, it could happen, right?
So I don't know who will read this as it has become much, much longer than I had intended when I first started responding to those news articles. I guess I don't really care if no one does, as the exercise was more for my own catharsis and being able to sort out my thoughts on the topic, and I hadn't realised I had so much to say. I also just wanted to show that information is readily available on the internet about these topics that people could become informed, but most of us choose not to or don't even know that we need to. Despite all the resources we have, we still have a long way to go. I'm still trying to learn more and read more and understand more about what it means to be Canadian. Sometimes I feel privileged in my perspective because I've got the immigrant side, being that my dad immigrated here as did my mom's dad from Scotland. I've got a religious minority side, being that my grandmother on my mom's side is Mennonite, and they've been persecuted for centuries for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is for being pacifist. I've got the farmer side, since that's what my mom's parents did. I've got the military side, because my mom's dad fought in WW2 for Canada. I'm missing two biggies, though, and that's no familial or genetic connection to French Canada or First Nations that I know of, but I have learned a lot just from within my own family, and I'm blessed because both sides of my family accept me for who I am. I know that doesn't happen for everyone. And I hope that if anyone has actually read this and you have made it to the end of this post, somehow, I first congratulate you on your perseverance, and I hope my post has been a positive experience for you and that I've welcomed you to the inner conflicting conversations I have with myself!