Would a Multicultural Bar Actually Just Be For White People?

Some more thoughts on ‘diverse drinking’…

by Anshuman Idamsetty and Navneet Alang

When we sat down to think about a multicultural bar for the Ethnic Aisle’s Booze Issue, we had one question in mind: how might you create a bar that includes and represents Toronto’s many cultures?

After getting some reaction to the post, however, it seems like we missed another really important question: would it even be a good idea? Because now we’re not so sure, and here’s why

  • For example, Pete Evans suggested on Twitter that you can’t really plan these things. What’d actually be preferable would simply be to let the market sort it out; if people want a “Chinese bar” or what-have-you, they’d either start or patronize one. It’s a good point, but it’s a also wise to keep in mind that market-based approaches to diversity – like in housing – have downsides, too.
  • Others, like Ethnic Aisle contributor Mike Warren, said that things like music are often a “great divider“. A “fusion” playlist might end up pleasing a tiny fraction of people, and alienating everyone else – and that’d probably extend to decor, seating etc. too.
  • In an awesome comment on the original post, “A Panlillo” exploded the whole idea of a multicultural drinking hole. We highly recommend you read the whole thing, but she questioned she questioned the very premise, arguing “How can the execution of this bar not resemble tokenism on drugs?”. It makes sense: If someone wanted a bar where they felt at home, but what they instead got was fusion, wouldn’t they simply be happier with a bar that catered to their idea of ‘home’ in the first place? The commenter had  another very interesting, provocative idea, too: “The ideal clientele, then, the clientele this establishment will unconsciously be aiming at, and whose risk of being offended is least among the lot, comprises of those who are not racially marked: white people, in other words.”  Touche!

In light of these very smart and much-appreciated insights, some more thoughts and questions of our own:

  • Would there be a difference between what first-, second- and third-gen, immigrants want in a bar? Many first generation immigrants have a habit of either adhering to the culture they’re familiar with, or diving head-first into their new surroundings. So a bar that ‘mixed things up’ might be off-putting to first-gen immigrants for very good reasons: it might be either ‘too Canadian’ or not nearly Canadian enough.
  • What about second- and third-generation immigrants, the people born and raised in Canada and multiple cultures? For tonnes of us, fusion is just an ordinary, everyday part of life, so an establishment that reflected that – like say the very hip Banh Mi Boys, which was started by the sons and daughters of first-gen Vietnamese immigrants – still feels worthwhile. The problem is the “diversity balancing act”: how do you keep it honest to things people know, while making it welcoming for all?
  • Maybe the solution is an idea that didn’t fit in our original post: that instead of ‘A Multicultural Bar’, what we need is a multicultural bar/coffee shop scene. Rather than trying to mix everything into one, perhaps the point is to mimic the way restaurants work where an establishment unapologetically just does its own “ethnic” thing and hopes people show up.
  • Here’s the basic point: we think that bars are a central part of the social fabric of any city. Toronto, especially in the past few years, has a bunch of great ones. Would our bar scene perhaps be even better if they didn’t all aim at being ‘Canadian’ in a really obvious way, and instead branched out to actually represent the lived experience of Toronto’s inhabitants?
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3 thoughts on “Would a Multicultural Bar Actually Just Be For White People?

  1. i get that authenticity is something that fusion or multicultural businesses have to prove in order to convince patrons of their legitimacy, but don’t all bars and restaurants that stem from another culture have to do that in canada because they are here, and not in their country of origin? aren’t they all interpreting their culture in some way, regardless of whether they’re doing fusion? and if that wasn’t difficult enough, they’re doing that interpretation only with what’s available to them in this country.

    • Thanks for the comment, Michael.

      For me, “authenticity” is the wrong way to think about this. Any attempt to nail down something authentic is inevitably going to be inauthentic to someone else. Imagine trying to serve the “authentic Canadian drink” at a bar – there’d be a hundred different opinions. So, basically: we agree!

      What we’re trying to suggest here is that, as opposed to our original post, that maybe instead of ‘a multicultural bar’, it might be nice to start some of our bars that reflect our many – and often ‘inauthentic’ – experiences as Torontonians.

  2. If I was in a multicultural bar and saw Denise Balkisoon there, I would send the waiter over with a cocktail and my phone number. Saw your pic in the Star today–U R HOT!!!

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