White Issue(s)

By Jonathan Robson

You see them at ____fest at Harbourfront, or catch them climbing out of Bakka Phoenix. Volunteering at Karma Co-op. Gaunt, yogic middle-aged men and floor-skirted women who seem to embody what’s left of the promise of the Annex a generation ago. Presumably they like Metro Morning for the music, and set their weekends by its litany of cultural events and festivals. Often they’re wearing a vest and sandals.

These are the white people who seek out multicultural experiences. I am not one of them.

Maybe that’s because there weren’t any moon goddesses on the mantelpieces of my youth, nor any hanging spider plants in macrame. Instead, ours was a tidy, self-satisfied example of life amongst the WASP Establishment in Toronto: a big house in Rosedale with a new kitchen and a rose garden; a few divorces; two tennis clubs; a golf club; private school; a nanny; a cleaning lady, summer trips to Europe, etc. If there is a more effective means to grow up fundamentally ignorant of the existence, let alone the variant circumstances of others, it could only be more effective by a matter of degree. Rabbit stew takeaway from Arlequin at Ave and Dav was probably as close to a multicultural experience as I ever came to back then. Maybe that Gipsy Kings album; maybe Julio Iglesias.

Everyone was white. Everyone was, more or less, just like me. I mean, I still don’t know any other families that dress up in formal wear for Christmas dinner, but no-one’s parents had difficulty with English, and none of us would have looked out of place at the Orange Day parade, or in the choir at an Anglican Church (‘86-’92. I was SO cute.).

All throughout high school and on into University – I went to a small liberal-arts college in Halifax – “everyone” remained fairly homogeneously pale. In fact, a high percentage of the male student population wore boat shoes year-round. Boat shoes, a rugby jersey and you had to have a frisbee. Jerks.

I graduated. I grew up. I live in Leslieville. Newsflash – everyone is still white, and when I look down Queen St. on a Saturday morning, that’s all there is to see: white couples poking around for some brunch and maybe a dutch modern credenza like the one in my living room.

That’s the funny thing about being raised in the dominant culture of Toronto. If you don’t make a conscious decision to step away from its core whiteness, you won’t, and no one, barring some Bonfire of the Vanities type calamity, is ever going to make you. Some of us may adopt the cross-cultural curiosity of the Annex-dwellers described above, but it’s a choice, not unlike deciding to go carbon-neutral. In my case, and with the obvious exception of food – which I think ought not to count – it’s a choice I’ve never made.

But even in the case of those who do decide, regularly, to immerse themselves in others’ cultures, there always remains a transactional element to multiculturalism from our side of the equation. It is undeniably opt-in, like deciding between buying a sports car or converting to Buddhism because your wife left; or liking afrobeat or soca; or trying pickled herring. Whatever the case, if we didn’t grow up with it, we picked it.

Not so for those who find themselves on the other side, I’m given to understand.

The powerful cross-cultural event horizon which will erase the de facto primacy of my whiteness hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, I will continue to feel deeply weird any time I find myself at anyone else’s cultural happening. I’ll be at the back of the room feeling odd about an infant’s little gold earring. I might know the Lord’s prayer, but reciting the Seder will make me feel a bit
out of place. Injera tastes delicious, but I’ll only buy it and never try to bake it. I’ll still find myself wondering where everyone is going as I idle at a red light on my way to lunch before figuring out that they’re on your way to pray for the third time today. I’ll ask you questions about the war in the country of your parents’ birth though I know I shouldn’t assume you know anything I don’t. I will remain profoundly ignorant about your religious observances as I continue to trivialize my own.

But mostly, I won’t overthink my relationship to you or your identifiable group. Unless I’m at your wedding, or your wedding is my wedding, too. Then I’ll want a primer.

Jonathan, 30, occasionally toys with the idea of being a writer when he grows up.


10 thoughts on “White Issue(s)

  1. First!

    I, too, live in Leslieville. “White” here is very divided class-wise: there’s the old school eastenders in their budget beer parlours, and the new SUV stroller crowd.

    My own street is pretty mixed, race-wise, but in the teeming brunch lines of Queen East, the SUV strollers rule. So I think it’s more that public life here leans towards a certain class/race than it being truly homogeneous.

  2. “I went to a small liberal-arts college in Halifax – “everyone” remained fairly homogeneously pale.” Interesting. I went to Dalhousie and I remember it being ethnically diverse. At least in the engineering/math/comp sci segment.

  3. Having grown up in a very multicultural area of Scarborough, I admit that I have always kind of scoffed at the downtown Toronto version of multiculturalism. I grew up around, and had friends from every ethnic/racial group in the GTA, including white folks.

    Unlike what the author has described, the white people I grew up around were/are as multicultural as I am. This is because, pretty much from day one this is all they have known- to be surrounded by a rainbow of cultures at every turn.

    I applaud the author’s efforts of trying to reach that “other side”, but I feel as though they must understand that they, just like any one who does not organically grow up in a culture, will likely find it rather difficult to ever reach that level of understanding, and even acceptance, that they are seeking.

  4. As a WASP-y North Yorkois, I pride myself on being more than a little interested in different cultures, but never a know-it-all. I ask questions and over time my questions get better. A typical conversation with a new Chinese person–including many co-workers–starts like this.

    Me: Where are you from?
    Employee 1: Asia.
    Me: Specifically?
    Employee 1: China.
    Me: Northern China?
    Employee 1: Yes.
    Me: Harbin?
    Employee 1: No!! Not that far north! Shanxi.
    Me: Oh, I think that Employee 2 is from Shanxi
    Employee 2: No, I’m from Xi-An
    Me: Oh. Do they speak the same dialect in Shanxi and Xi-An?
    et cetera.

    Generally speaking, even if you don’t know much about a person’s culture, if your questions do not betray a total unwillingness to actually *learn* the answer, then you’ve gone a long way to overcoming your inertia and start a real conversation with them. People love talking about their home. In my experience, this is a better and more authentic place to start than attempting to adopt their cultural experiences.

    To be clear, in my North Yorkois excursions through Russian, Persian, Jewish, Arab and Korean lines of questioning, this strategy has backfired precisely once, in spectacular fashion.

    Talking to a doctor of obvious Sri Lankan extraction with a medium-long name. I had no chance of pronouncing his name on the first try, so I asked.
    Me: Tell me please, how exactly do you pronounce your last name?
    Doctor: it’s I———-a
    Me: Oh, is that a Tamil name?

    “NO!!!” said he, hugely offended: “I AM A PROUD SINHALESE!”

    I apologized, in WASP-y fashion, profusely for confusing them, and for my ignorance. And then I realized that his offense was greatly out of proportion to anything I had said.

    He was literally the most overtly racist individual I have ever met, and that’s significant in a cultural mosaic such as Toronto.

    • To be fair to your doctor, the tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils here in the GTA are pretty high. Many Sinhalese businesses in the area have been targeted by Tamil gangs and they are often slow to report these crimes because of the disparity between Tamil and Sinhalese communities here. So I can see where his sensitivity comes from. And there is a clear distinction between Tamil and Sinhalese names (though I only know this from years of being a cricket fan and on the rare occasion a Tamil makes the Sri Lankan team, his name stands out from the scorecard).

      • I always proceed from the premise that people are people, so treat them like people. Part of that premise, and you may disagree, is holding people to a high standard of mutual respect. By that reasoning, there’s no objective reason you could be offended at being mistaken as Tamil.

        When I ran this story by a Tamil friend, he confirmed that the Sinhalese generally hate them, and it seems to be back-and-forth mutual. This friend of mine used to be always on the periphery of Tamil gangs which were engaged in stealing credit cards and copying debit cards. I’m not sure about violence. He sat on the Gardiner and marched in Ottawa in support of the Tamil cause. Now he’s a nursing student, pragmatically planning for the future.

        I’m guessing by the look of revulsion on the good doctor’s face that he wouldn’t ever be able to see my Tamil friend as a nurse, but only as low grade scum. My friend, for his part, I’m sure would have strong feelings as well, and I’m not sure how we would react if he was working with a Sinhalese doctor. I hope that he could be professional about it. As for me, I now have this rule “Caution: Sinhalese hate Tamils” deeply cut into my psyche, but I consider it my responisbility to treat each person as if they’re not racist. If we accept that certain people are just structurally racist, then that sort of normalizes it, doesn’t it?

  5. Have found there is no side to cross over to.
    Even though I move more slowly these days, the speed of a crossing attempt would not matter. All the races and nations and dialects are all around me all the time now. Life in the St. Lawrence Market / Esplanade / Distillery stretch that I call my home neighbourhood is thoroughly mixed, and I like it.
    With my own mongrel mix of British, Armenian, American, and now Canadian
    I am enjoying this preview of how the rest of the world’s
    races, nations, and dialects will eventually be.

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