Innocent Bystanders

by Navneet Alang

The nightmare that has been Toronto’s political news scene for the past three years seems to have finally reached its awful zenith. With allegations that Mayor Rob Ford may have smoked crack and made homophobic, racist remarks on video, there is no end to the ill effects of this latest head-shaking fiasco: the continued reduction of our municipal political sphere to a never-ending circus; the serious harm done to Toronto’s international image by a man who claims to be raising its business profile; and the simple fact that a city that was finally starting to hit its stride has been seriously set back by its woefully inadequate mayor.

But one more unexpected, negative, and completely unnecessary effect of this mess has been the circulation of a profoundly xenophobic tone about the people who have the video in question. Though the original Gawker piece made precisely no mention of the ethnicity of the video owners, the Toronto Star article mentions the word “Somali” six times, and uses ethnicity as shorthand for easily identifying who ‘these people’ are. This is a problem.

The most obvious issue with the use of the term Somali is one of simple accuracy. If the people in question live here, they are Somali-Canadians, Canadians of Somali descent, or, ya’ know, Torontonians. It’s simply bad form and more than a bit odd that Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, the writers of the article, would choose to mark these men out as “foreigners” rather than residents of the city.

Of course, it raises the question of why an ethnic descriptor was necessary at all. Some, like Now Magazine’s John Semley and the Star’s Andew Livingstone, have advanced the argument that including ethnicity helps to not only contextualize the story, but lends it credibility. The Somali-Canadian community at Kipling and Dixon in Etobicoke is in some ways like many other ghettoized, low-income communities across the country: drugs and drug trafficking are an undeniable problem. But the idea that ethnicity is a good predictor of behaviour—which after all is essentially the argument Semley and Livingstone are making—is exactly the problem with racial profiling. As a methodology, it’s simply a bad way to talk about individuals, because even if a practice is common amongst a group, there’s no guarantee specific members of that group will repeat the practice—or even identify as part of that group. Saying these men are Somali to link them to drugs is about as useful as pointing out the colour of their clothes.

But perhaps most galling of all is just how frequently it was repeated in the original Star piece, which had the effect of scattering a basic factual and ethical error across local media and the globe, often in unexpected ways. The notion that Ford’s acquaintances are “Somali men” has now ricocheted around the world—showing up on sites like Buzzfeed—and has now circled its way back to Canadian media, like in this troubling column from Christie Blatchford. It’s like a study in stereotypes in miniature: you invoke an inaccurate description, link something seedy to a certain ethnic group, and then watch the associations you made with that group get repeated over and over.

To put it more plainly, when of all people a Gawker writer calls you out on the pernicious effects of your rhetoric, you fucked up. Doolittle and Donovan basically repeated an old-age practice of marking certain people out as weird, threatening ‘others’, using subtle foreignness as a kind of shorthand for that not-so-subtle  Canadian xenophobia. It’s irresponsible, it’s stupid, and they should do what they can to fix their mistake.

What makes this whole mess even more depressing is the circular nature of the prejudice at work. Ford’s voter base from the 2010 election included a great number of minorities who had real, legitimate complaints about being left out of discussions at City Hall, and saw in Ford someone who would stand up for their suburban concerns. But as Desmond Cole brilliantly pointed out, Mayor Ford’s record on race is abysmal, a fact perfectly captured by the constantly contradictory rhetoric of saying he supports minority youth while he refuses to address any of the system issues that plague them. Minority voters were had by the effectiveness of Ford’s campaign team. Now, when the press quite legitimately goes after Ford, they do so in a way that completely gratuitously brings race into the equation. It’s a bit damned if you do, damned if you don’t, isn’t it? And while it is Ford’s transgressions that are obviously the story here, we shouldn’t simply ignore the gross negligence that has allowed a vital community of Torontonians to get caught in the crossfire.

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19 thoughts on “Innocent Bystanders

  1. You know, a lot of cocaine users are white … let’s see what happens when the media makes that connection.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this, Nav. I was bothered from the very beginning. I’m not sure why the photo of Ford partying with Anthony Smith on the Gawker piece signifies “he hangs with dealers.” The stories after Smith’s death say that he had dropped robbery charges, but no convictions. And since just about every black/brown young male in the burbs is “known to police,” I’m not sure exactly what a photo of Ford hanging out with him (although it’s totally inappropriate, due even to the difference in their ages) proves. The allegations might be true, but I’m not sure how this photo leads us to that conclusion.

    As for the Star’s use of “Somalis,” and (white) reporters then saying that peppering the story with that term shows some in-depth knowledge of multicultural Toronto that Gawker could never match, give me a break. That really pissed me off. Gawker’s use of “non-English language” was pretty stupid, but at least it wasn’t stereotypical and insulting. For Toronto journalists to believe that this somehow makes them more sophisticated in their knowledge and handling of race/ethnicity issues is angering, and kind of depressing.

    And what is the proof anyway? I’ll assume that nobody involved shared their last names or ethnic histories with either Gawker or the Star. So Is the Star saying that its reporters definitely, certainly 100% identify the language being spoken as Somali? If it’s a guess, it doesn’t belong, especially since the Star’s whole defense of holding the story is a century-old history of airtight reporting. If they’re confident in the language heard, then _one_ mention of Somali _as a language_ would be appropriate. Either way, the repeated use of “Somali” as an ethnic marker that’s code for “bad guys” is sloppy, and stereotypical, and sadly, something I’m sure the reporters and publishers involved won’t even question.

  3. Thanks for writing this piece. I’m not sure if you were aware, but the original story published by the Star on Thursday night had around *12* mentions of “Somali”. It was so egregious that in this original publication the word “Somali” appeared in the piece more often than the word “crack”. They appeared to have brought down the mentions to 6 in their revised piece but the same problems abound.

    I think you’re being too generous in characterizing their constant use of ethnicity as a “mistake”. They’ve had many inquiries and feedback from members of the Somali community( and others) through Twitter and email, yet have continued to leave the issue unaddressed. From my vantage point it appears issues of ethical responsibility fly out the window for the Star if an “exclusive” is in reach.

  4. Excellent article. It reminds me of a little article I read in a Canadian newspaper many years ago, perhaps five years after the outbreak of AIDS. The article said that they had traced the origin back to a black flight attendant in Montreal. Why not just say a flight attendant.

    I find so much of mainstream media is loaded with what I can only describe as a chronic lack of integrity. You’re too polite…this is only one more example of a very ugly, vulgar institution…not always, but far too often.

  5. Damn good piece Nav. Only one quibble:

    “The nightmare that has been Toronto’s political news scene for the past three years seems to have finally reached its awful zenith…”

    Every time we think he’s hit bottom, he finds a way to surprise us.

  6. Pingback: Toronto Star’s Somali-obsessed crack exclusive | Union Stayshyn

  7. Mohammed (@think_B1G) is absolutely right. I still have an earlier version of The Star story open in my browser. It mentioned the word “Somali” ten times in the body, and once in the subheader.

  8. Whether you wish to concede the fact or not, “Somali-Canadian” street gangs exist. They are ferociously cohesive and widely feared in the illicit drug dealing world. No amount of political correctness can alter the fact the Mayor of Toronto, who passes himself off as a proponent of “tough on crime” and “safe communities” is said to be video/recorded in their sordid milieu. Antony Smith, who is also mentioned in your critique, is also a person of colour, but this not the basis for a purportedly objectionable adjective in the Star coverage of the Ford crack story. So, as much as your blog makes many defensible and incisive observations about gratuitous racial stereotyping in media, it is almost totally inapplicable or irrelevant to the Toronto Star coverage in this case. In fact, if one were facetious, they could accuse the blog’s author of playing the race card just to take advantage of all the buzz.

    • Had Mayor Ford been dealing with some exclusive old buys club where they provided crack to all the top politicians and people in authority was the case, would we have the same discussion? The old boys club does not need the media mentioning their race , ethnicity or their religious backgrounds.

      Lets say this club was led for example by Italian people and they were doing this. The stories would only name the club and its owners in my opinion and that is all they would talk about.

      Bringing race or ethnicity into anything when most of the time it is ignored for other European countries is pretty much a blatant hypocrisy; the downtown murder in little Italy by an assassin dressed in construction clothes did not warrant such sensationalism. Look up the article on Dean Wiwchar by the Vancouver sun;

      http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Dean+Wiwchar+been+trouble+with+since/7419138/story.html

      This man is a violent criminal and yet we hear nothing about his past actions or his group. The media in your case is just reporting the Crack case and the Somali connection yet many connections are ignored every single day when it comes to all kinds of crime.

      • I disagree with you about people of Italian origin – of course nowadays the discrimination against descendants of Italian immigrants is nothing like what people “of colour” endure, but there is a pervasive stereotype of Mafia association. The Mafia does exist, and has Sicilian roots, and the Neopolitan Camorra and Calabrian Ndrangeta are also important crime syndicates, but associations are often still made between these criminal elements and an entire ethnicity.

      • Wait, you think that if this was all done by some Italian mafia, the media would have sort of left that part out.

        Just wow.

  9. The whole ethnic debate will almost always get played out when its a minority group. When a crime is committed the focus is always how to demonize a minority group and isolate the majority as unfortunate. The Tim Bosma case is a good example here; why does the media not mention the suspects background and how his privileged life led to the death of Tim Bosma over a truck? Having a 14 year old Guinness world record and being in a family of aviation for generations this suspect is never mentioned in the same way as most suspects. His past may also have a connection to a missing person case; the same way Tim Bosma disappeared. Being rich and from the majority excludes you from the same treatment that the minority receives.

    The media does not like to make stories out of anything not related to minorities or a religious group; they sell fear more when its not the majority committing crimes. Crime is committed by almost all people and all religions but only a few are mentioned in a way that is targeting the group in my opinion. The news does not just report, it also deals in manufacturing story lines which are obvious at times. The Somali / Jamaican / Sri Lankan / East Asian communities have more negative associations with their groups than any other group regardless of the total number of related crimes.

    • Specifically, I think the whole ethnic debate will get played out when there are multiple people who are members of the same ethnic minority group. Not so much when they’re not.

      For instance, in the article linked to above about Wiwchar, everyone is of a different ethnicity, so don’t have any obvious ethnic ties. Same with Bosma: lots of the articles covering his background talking his marriage having been a big event in the tight-knit Dutch community, but no other Dutch folk involved in the crime, and clearly the accused was not from the same same community. The Italian mafias, on the other hand…

    • The Canadian Association of Journalists have Ethics Guidelines which journalists should adhere to.

      Here are some of the guidelines:

      “We do not refer to a person’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, gender self-identification or physical ability unless it is pertinent to the story.|

      “We avoid stereotypes of race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status. And we take particular care in crime stories.”

      http://www.caj.ca/?p=1776

  10. While I disagree that minorities were a major force in propelling Rob Ford to become mayor, the bulk of this post is spot on. One interesting observation I found in Dougie’s press conference the other day was that eye-rolling pandering quasi-apology to the Somali-Canadian community for the way they’ve been portrayed in the media. Obviously the Fords don’t give two shit about what minorities think, just their votes (and again I really don’t buy the argument that he got a huge bump from the minorities in Rexdale, it was the rich, older white people who haven’t moved to Milton or Tottenham yet). But what was interesting that the bulk of the television and newspaper reports on the presser failed to mention that smarmy line. Then again after so much of the media buckled at the racial angle and as the pathetic Twitter defences of Livingstone and Semley demonstrate a lot of our media just don’t have the exposure and knowledge about the intricacies of race that any mention of the line about the media offending the Somali-Canadian community would just blow back on their pasty faces. ;)

  11. Pingback: Don’t act so fucking shocked | Neville Park

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