provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is it Racist to Ask "Too White?"

Is it Racist to Ask if a Community or a University or Company is "Too White?"

In February, in a Vancouver Sun Commentary, I asked rhetorically what was wrong with Kits. Many people believed that my use of the term "white" was racist. Was it?

When I pointed out that in a city where every neighbourhood had significant ethnic Chinese populations, and asked whether a neighbourhood that was all white was a "problem," the answer I did not supply was "Nothing is wrong with Kits." What does it mean that nothing is wrong with Kits? What does it mean that we can ask the question of a neighborhood or a school whether it is "too Asian?" and yet it is meaningless to ask if a neighborhood or a company is "too white?"

When you ask yourself what is wrong with Kits, and the likely answer you come up with is "Nothing is wrong with Kits," what is erased in that sense of normalcy is the great amounts of political work and a long history of white supremacy that made that normal.

Racial hierarchy in Canada started from the very first moments of clearing indigenous peoples from their lands, and the long history of white supremacy created anti-Asian and anti-Native and anti-Jewish prejudice. It created racial categories such as "Oriental," "Indian," and "Black." It also created a category called "white."

But the category of "white" is not the same as the other categories because in a society that is built around white supremacy, those able to be a part of the category of "white" received privileges that were denied the others. The categories are not equal. People who came to Canada as "Finns" or "Italians" or "Ukrainians" and had never thought of themselves as "white" in their home villages learned very quickly that to be "white" had advantages. Those categorized by the system of racial classification as "non-white" had almost no choice in the matter.

For most of Canadian and U.S. history, people wanted to "pass" as "white" because of the privileges. Very few people who could be counted as "white" wanted to pass as "black" or "Indian." What does that tell us?

We now live in a time when being classified as "white" doesn't seem to give the same advantages it used to give. In fact, many people now don't even bother trying to identify that way because it isn't much of a benefit. But that doesn't mean there aren't still long-standing legacies of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.

An all-white neighborhood takes a great deal of political work to build. It can endure long after such work has been done. There is nothing "wrong" with the people who live in Kits, but they might wonder what the historical causes are that led to the creation of whites-only neighborhoods such as Shaughnessy, Kerrsidale, and the British Properties, and why each of them were desegregated by Hong Kong Chinese migrants in the 1990s. Kitsilano was not.

We live in a society that was built out of inequity. So many of those inequities were overcome. We have mixed couples and marriages a-plenty. We have children who do not think about race. But that does not mean all of the legacies of inequity are gone. By asking "what is wrong with Kits?" the answer for most people is "nothing." And that should give us pause, because if we ask "what is wrong with Richmond?" the common answer is "too many Chinese." I haven't even touched upon the vicious anti-Native prejudice that passes for common sense in Canada, and our convenient forgetting that we live on someone else's unceded land.

If Macleans asks what is wrong with our top universities, and their answer is "Too Asian," that says a lot about just what we find so normal that the whiteness of Kitsilano is normal and all those "Asians" around us are a "problem."

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