Happy Birthday to Us!

The Ethnic Aisle turns one this month! We’re having a party to celebrate, and would love for you to join us. And now, some reflections on the first year by Nav Alang and Denise Balkissoon

Denise: So, let’s see, why did we start the Ethnic Aisle? I remember going for coffee and both of us being irritated/bored with the whole Downtown vs. Suburbs conversation that came up during the last municipal election, when Rob Ford became mayor. We both felt that the dialogue was demographically simplistic: downtowners are smart and ride bikes, suburbanites are dumb and drive cars. Both of us and many of our non-white friends grew up in the ‘burbs before moving downtown, and we were both sort of insulted at this conversation, and felt it ignored the fact that the GTA’s suburbs are more ethnically diverse than downtown. Is that right?

Also I, personally, felt frustrated with the way many (if not all) of the Toronto publications I’ve worked for profess a desire to reflect “multicultural Toronto,” but do so far less often in practice than theory.

Then we roped in some other people and came up with the name. I can’t remember who thought of the name. I think it was maybe Jef Catapang.

Nav:Yeah, it was Jef who came up with the name! We should buy him a big fat ethnic gift. I actually felt a bit meh about the name at first, but it grew on me over time a lot – mostly because I hope “ethnic aisles” will one day be obsolete. Weird or not, that’s sorta’ what I want for the blog, too: that one day it won’t feel necessary.

But yeah, it was definitely the “downtown-suburban” divide that started this. And for me,  it’s because it’s an issue that so clearly captured the issue of cultural difference. In Toronto especially, we often talk about difference in terms of safe, innocuous things like food (“you eat rice and I eat roti!”), or these black-and-white ideas that usually somehow wind their way back to 9/11. There are two options: we’re either all roughly the same underneath; or the people on the other side of the divide are crazy, out-there extremists. I think the really difficult thing about cultural difference, though, is that it’s actually about these small, day-to-day disparities in how we experience the world for ourselves. Those differences aren’t insurmountable or necessarily a source of conflict. But unless we acknowledge that, say, people have different ideas about the individual or family or propriety or faith or whatever, it’s really hard to feel like you’re really (like really really) part of the social fabric. Instead, it’s assumed you’re always on this journey toward being more westernized, except with brightly coloured clothes and cooking that smells different.

Denise: Yep: the idea that the “end goal” is to all become the same, and the same is Western – or, in Canada, American. So not true, especially in 2012.

Ok, sooooo highlights: the Downtown vs. Suburbs issue for sure. The posts, being invited to be on Metro Morning, and then having our amazing talk at the 519 where complete strangers – not just our friends! – showed up to talk about ethnicity and the burbs and downtown, and ways to appreciate different ways of living. That was awesome. Also I like the Teachable Moments, because basically that’s an opportunity for Anupa Mistry and I to be complete jackasses (while teaching important ethnic lessons).

It’s crazy that for a whole year we’ve got all these smart, funny, thoughtful people to donate their work for free to this project – extra kisses to all the contributors. And then other people read it. It’s very gratifying, and it also reinforces the idea that these are things that Toronto wants to talk about, whether that’s interracial relationships, white rappers, queer Muslims, our hairy arms, faces and chests or of course, food. I love doing the #ethnichats, because it’s always amazing how many people participate, and how many people read the blog and want to share different angles to the conversations dominating the news, angles that yeah, are kind of ethnic, and kind of ignored, maybe because they’re kind of ethnic.

What I want is to make it even more GTA. I wish we could respond faster to events and controversies. Maybe we should do a Kickstarter and then we could be ethnic media moguls.

Nav: See, I was thinking that if we ever got funded somehow, we’d simply take an old Impala and trick it out with new paint and hydraulics. We’d call it the Ethnimobile, and just ride it around the city with the top down and the carefully selected multicultural music turned way up. Just me?

But highlights of our year-long blogtastic adventure? Beyond all the stuff you’ve already mentioned (‘coz, samesies!), it’s cool how we can have fun with things like body hair or Christmas or whatever, but then still talk about homophobia or eurocentrism or things of a much more serious nature. It’s like the tone of our get-togethers has made it through onto the site, and that makes me pretty happy. I hope our readers like that mix, too.

This reminds me: that hipster racism piece by Lindy West that everyone passed around? I could see why people dug it. But it also felt like white people yelling at other white people about how not to be racist. I mean, that’s great! More of that, please. But it also sidestepped the fact that almost every ethnic minority I know ironically uses stuff that *sounds* like racism all the time. And it just isn’t the same. What words come out which body matters, as my frequent “immigrants ruin everything!” jokes are (I hope) testament to. I think “ironic racism” is one of the ways we deal with how insane and messy race still is. So I hope we can keep doing that: pointing out the uniqueness of our experiences and perspectives that seem so absent from the media we ourselves read and are a part of. As for where we go? I hope we can find a way to tackle stories that need time and research–and if not, that we can at least continue to provoke. As long as we keep the Ethnimobile as our final goal, I think we’ll be just fine.

Denise: Agreed! But don’t say samesies!

Nav: I don’t know what came over me.

Our one-year anniversary party is Wednesday, May 23, at No One Writes to the Colonel, 8 p.m. Music by Anupa. Be there!
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3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to Us!

  1. Pingback: The Ethnic Aisle’s One-Year Anniversary — renée sylvestre-williams

  2. I love your site and the conversations you’ve started. Came to the party but misunderstood that it wasn’t going to be a venue for discussion, just conversations among friends. Might you plan a different type of event sometime where ideas can be discussed by everyone? I’d certainly attend.

    • Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Brian! But we are percolating our next event, which will definitely be focused upon discussion. It won’t happen for a little while yet, but when it does, we’ll announce it here on the blog and on our Twitter/FB accounts. -Nav

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