This One’s For the Children

N927S32ABy Denise Balkissoon

I’m a former child bookworm who was hurt and confused by the racism in some of my favourites (I suppose Frances Hodgson Burnett was just “a product of her time”). I’m also a very new parent who wants my babe to love books, but avoid those icky feelings. So I was unhappy to see the stark stats in a recent New York Times piece about characters of colour in children’s books–of thousands of books published in the U.S. last year, not even 500 have African-American or Latina protagonists–and pleased that it sparked some good convos on Twitter.

I figured that compiling all of the suggested books into a handy list would be handy. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, most especially Amena Rajwani of the Toronto Public Library . If you’ve got more, add them in the comments!

After the jump: a WHOLE BUNCH of multicultural books for babies, kids and teens (in absolutely no particular order):

Continue reading


Navigating High School

by Tiana Reid

From the National Post, 2011: Brothers James and Jose Wilson at Oakwood C.I.

From the National Post, 2011: Brothers James and Jose Wilson at Oakwood C.I.

In grade 10, I transferred from a small French-language public school to Oakwood Collegiate Institute on St. Clair West. In the papers, Oakwood was described as “multicultural;” to me, it was where my dad and uncle passed through after moving to Canada from Jamaica during their adolescence.

My old school was comprised of students whose parents were from Quebec and the Francophonie at large, especially African countries colonized by France. There, I learned that Toronto’s construction of “diversity” was  (to borrow from theorist Raymond Williams’ definitions of community) positive and warmly persuasive. At Oakwood, Mean Girls’ Janis Ian could have doodled a complex geographical map while siting in the back of sex-ed class. There were “black doors,” on the north side, closer to little Jamaica; “gino doors,” closer to Corso Italia; and “white doors,” adjacent to the small neighbourhood known as Regal Heights with big, turn-of-the-century homes.

The doors weren’t necessarily enforced zones, but rather names that we used to refer to areas where most people of certain colours hung out. No one really went to the cafeteria (I went only once at actual lunch time during my three years there), so hanging out around the doors were how we mapped out our social relationships. The doors weren’t severe roadblocks that obstructed physical movement—they were more of a psychic understanding than anything else.

Continue reading

One Bride, Two Dresses

By Denise Balkissoon (well, by all of the brides, actually)

For many, The White Dress is an essential piece of the wedding, symbolizing everything from a massive new commitment, to celebrity status for a day, to long-guarded virginal purity (ha). But for mix-and-match Torontonians, those traditions often dovetail with others, which are also marked with fancy dress. Here, some local brides talk about why they chose to wear both a white gown as well as an outfit with different cultural meaning.

Jaclyn Law, Chinese-Canadian
Married in 2001
I’d redo certain things about my wedding, if I could (like not having it in January!), but I still love my wedding dress – it’s so simple and pretty. My husband and I decided to have a traditional Chinese banquet (his idea, actually), so I went with a cheongsam, too. I changed into it after the third course. When I entered the room, everyone started applauding — I probably turned as red as the dress! I got both gowns plus matching hair decor in Scarborough. My husband, whose background is Czech, wore a rented black tux with a mandarin collar. In the pictures, we look like a couple of kids.


Cindy Ramkissoon-Shears, Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian
Married in 2008

I have always wanted to wear the traditional Hindu wedding sari, even though later in life I became a born again Christian.  Growing up in a Hindu home and attending many Hindu weddings, I fell in love with the designs, colours and accessories.  I remember being a small child and seeing one of my elder cousins in the traditional red sari walking down the stairs to meet her groom, having the veil of flowers hanging on her face. From that moment I knew that is what I wanted to wear at my wedding.  My spouse is not of my culture but he welcomed my ideas and so did our wedding party. I chose to wear baby yellow, as the traditional wedding colours are red or yellow.

We were married in a church and our pastor was very excited that although were we being married under Christian rites, other cultures and traditions were still being represented in our clothing.  My pastor and his spouse also wore traditional Indian outfits at our ceremony.  After the ceremony, we changed into the traditional white dress and white suit for the remaining of our pictures and for the reception.  Honestly, if I could dance in a sari, I probably would have continued to wear that throughout the night!

Continue reading

You Can Find Them In The Club: Toronto’s East-Asian Scene

IMG_2702-copyBy Karen K. Ho

“It’s hard to explain without seeming racist,” laughs David In when asked about the East-Asian party scene in Toronto. The 29-year-old Korean-Canadian is a co-founder of Epic Nights. The entertainment production company produces concerts and other events, but Epic specializes in promoting club nights targeted at young East-Asian students and professionals.

I haven’t been to a nightclub in years, but I still know that clubbing is a massive part of Toronto’s entertainment industry. I also know that East-Asian nights are incredibly popular. What I wanted to figured out was exactly how popular, and how parties focused on East-Asian clubbers might be different than a “regular” club night. So I asked David, and here’s what I learned.

Club gear transcends race. “You’ll have your hipsters and the guys who are all GQ’d, and obviously the douche-bags who are wearing Ed Hardy,” David said. “You know, the True Religion jeans and really flashy standout style.”

East-Asians drink what everyone else drinks. Bottle service orders are dominated by vodka, while bar orders are mostly Jagerbombs and tequila shots.

“Asian Glow” exists. (It’s increased acetaldehyde accumulation, ok?) “Some people will have one sip of beer and they’ll turn red,” David laughs.

Friday night is Asian Night—it’s when club owners are most likely to ask Epic to help them bring in an Asian clientele. “However on Saturday it’s completely different,” he said, noting that the demand for “white” nights goes up. “But those tend to become mixed anyway.”

Continue reading

Just Say No: Q&A with a Muslim

By Bhairavi Thanki

Aisha Khan (a pseudonym) is a 24-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Aisha is young and ambitious, so I asked her whether she felt Toronto’s alcohol-friendly culture was a career impediment.

Bhairavi: Tell me about the drinking culture around you, from high school going into university.

Aisha: I grew up in a really ethnically and culturally diverse area at Jane and St. Clair. The only kids that really drank in high school were basically the rich white kids. It was never really an issue till later on in university. In the beginning I wouldn’t drink and I would say that it was for religious reasons. But that was kind of the monotone answer that I was almost expected and conditioned to give.

I did experiment with drinking in university. It did have something to do with fitting in that I had to try it. How do you spurn something without trying it first, right? It just didn’t appeal to me when I did do it.

BT: Was drinking an issue in university?

AK: I wouldn’t say it was a huge problem in university or in high school. It started becoming more of an issue at my first job, when I worked for a communications firm. There were only 15 of us. It was tight knit and the office had a big drinking culture. I had become more observant in my faith too, so I had more of a personal reason to refrain from it.

Whether it was taking a client out to a bar, or getting together after work for drinks, I felt like the odd person out. The firm wasn’t ethnically diverse, so I just felt like the odd person out period, let alone as someone who practiced a faith. At that time I had my own insecurities around praying in the work force, or telling people I was fasting, or how I dressed and all that stuff. In retrospect I wasn’t strong enough to say “it’s not that I just don’t drink, it’s that I don’t even want to be in a bar.” I just felt really polarized. That’s the only time I felt polarized because of drinking.

BT: Did you have a problem with friends drinking around you while you were hanging out with them?

AK: When people get tipsy is when I get uncomfortable. Not really uncomfortable, but I ask myself “should I really be here?” When there were gatherings at my first job, I would feel out of place to the point where I left events early. It felt weird to me to be the only sober person in a room full of people who were inebriated.

I didn’t want to make people who did drink feel like there was something morally wrong with them. Even now I am careful about how I describe things to people, because I don’t want it to seem like I am holier than thou. For example, when scholars in the Muslim community talk about “modest dressing,” I don’t like using that terminology when describing myself. “Modest” means different things to different people.

Continue reading

Rob Ford’s Diversity Distraction

By Desmond Cole

Since 2006, it’s been City of Toronto policy that all advertised civic appointments—both paid jobs and hundreds of volunteer opportunities—make a direct appeal for applications from “women, youth, First Nations, people with disabilities and racialized communities.” In late September, a damning report by the city’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, (who is, in fact, a woman) revealed that mayoral staff tried to delete the line calling for diverse applications during the appointment process for 120 citizen positions on city boards this past spring.

The revelation of mayor Rob Ford’s interference was another troubling window into his administration’s dismissive approach to inclusion and diversity. It also shed more light on Ford’s bizarre political posturing: even as he trumpets his private commitment to charity for marginalized people, the mayor reassures to his base that public, systemic change is out of the question.

Ford’s response to Crean’s report was a standard denial and dismissal. “That’s a ridiculous question,” he said when asked if he was against diversity. In the face of such a serious accusation, it would have been easy to drag out Toronto’s well-worn “Diversity, Our Strength” motto to placate concerned residents. The mayor’s refusal to even pay lip service to the idea was a silent statement that those who believe in the motto, and its accompanying policies, are not worth his attention.

Continue reading

Racism, Future: Let’s Mix it Up

By Denise Balkissoon

Officially, Toronto is way multicultural. In my experience, it’s increasingly segregated. Aside from the subway at rush hour, I see deepening cliques and enclaves. Some of them don’t bother me as much as others—the white crowd at a Neko Case show is no biggie, the white crowd at the National Magazine Awards very frustrating—but the overall effect isn’t the city where I want to live.

We’ve long known that Toronto is split geographically by income, and that the growing low-income areas tend to be majority non-white. Poverty is definitely racialized in this city and it’s impossible to talk about racism without noting that all of the ways that people can be marginalized are infuriatingly linked. Remember, ethnic segregation in Toronto isn’t just about poverty—middle-class and affluent people often live in ethnic enclaves long after they’ve earned enough to have wider housing choices.

Now, I like that I can get three different Jamaican dishes from three different restaurants on Eglinton West. I’m currently soliciting invitations to go dancing at one of the Ethiopian nightspots on Danforth. But rigid enclaves can encourage an Us and Them attitude, especially since, in hyper-diverse 2012 Toronto, “racism” doesn’t just mean Anglos versus everyone else. Plenty of ethnic groups are ok with white people, but continue to throw shade at other ethnicities. Old country beef fought out in the new land keeps dominant groups dominant—grudges and in-fighting allows the historical cream to stay on top. Lack of interaction gives suspicion an incubator in which to flourish.

Continue reading