Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His latest book is Disorientation: The Experience of Being Black in the World, from which this essay is adapted.
As a nine-year-old, I had the bizarre perception that all Canadian adults were white but kids could come in multiple shades. This was in Brampton, a suburb-turned-city northwest of Toronto. My family was new to the country. Back then, in the late 1980s, teachers, librarians, salespeople in department stores, bank tellers, bus drivers, catalogue models, every employed adult with the exception of church people – white. In Trinidad, everyone from our politicians to police officers, bankers to bakers, shared a physical familiarity with me; I was never disoriented or displaced by one racial group dominating another.
I crept toward a pernicious logical conclusion. Everybody non-white in Canada had to be from elsewhere, therefore everybody non-white had less claim to the country. Everyone non-white should defer. There wasn’t a thought to people preceding white settlers, Canada’s Indigenous people, apart from a spiritless unit on the Inuit in elementary school. They were swept aside with the same temporal irrelevance as dinosaurs. Extinct. What would become of the rest of us? Would our parents grow extinct? Would they go “back home” as they threatened – or perhaps dreamt? Maybe my non-white friends themselves would grow into white people.
Apart from the white blanket, there was an ideological covering over Canada. Canadians wore modesty – genuine in its insecurity but false in its self-chastisement – as a protective identity, especially when it came to Americans. We played the part of America’s younger, polite, simple-minded, hockey-playing sibling. Too innocent for racial awareness, let alone discrimination. Canadian innocence persists, to a degree, to the present. This positioning of moral superiority over Americans shuts down dialogue about Canada’s own discriminatory practices against numerous ethnicities. So humbleproud are we of our beloved status internationally that we uphold the Multiculturalism Act, the inclusion of POC, as a domain where we finally beat the Americans at something. But everything that is possible in the U.S. is possible in Canada. Shootings. Poor Black areas. Suspicious looks at Black bodies. Kids streamed into technical futures instead of academic ones. It’s all here.
My family moved when I was in middle school to a more affordable area of the city, meaning more diverse. Those streets had kids from everywhere. Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Vietnamese, Chinese, Black kids from across the Caribbean (not too many Africans and fewer African-Americans), immigrant white kids from Italy, Portugal, Poland, waspy white kids, mixed kids, phenotypically unidentifiable kids. The baseball or street hockey teams resembled a future-friendly multicultural world. We were a drawing of diversity.
Over the years, Brampton has since undergone a radical transformation. Like animals sensing a tsunami, white people fled Brampton as Indian and Pakistani immigrants moved in. By the most recent census numbers, the three largest groups are South Asians at 44.3 per cent of the population, Europeans at 26 per cent, and Blacks at 13.9 per cent. The city has now gained a reputation among the other suburbs of Toronto as an ethnic enclave, just like Richmond Hill for Asians and Vaughan for Italians. You can read visible discomfort on the faces of non-Indian people as they gaze upon strip malls with Hindi signs. Neighbourhood conspiracy theories circulate about how South Asians are getting money to buy all the new developments in Brampton, about how they are “taking over” the government. That rhetoric of ethnic groups “taking over” historically precedes the reassertion of white dominance. In Brampton, we witness the irony – or is it hypocrisy? – of white inclusive policies. White policy makers congratulate themselves on the majority presence of a single non-white group. The presence of Indians in Brampton means that the area is diverse. Checkmark. Move on. In this way, the diversity of an area causes the white imagination to dismiss the area. Move out. Diversity to them means difference between groups. What white people rarely address is the incredible diversity within a group. A Black area comprises Somalis and Ethiopians and Ghanaians and Jamaicans and Haitians and descendants of Black Canadian slaves, etc. Same with South Asians. The Indians in Brampton are not all Indian by nationality, but Sri Lankan or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. The signs on the strip malls may not be Hindi but Urdu. The language we hear around us is more likely languages, plural. Within the Indian diaspora, people can prefer other identities: Sikh or Punjabi or Gujarati or Bengali or Brahmin.
My parents did not move out of Brampton. I’m there often. We are not a part of the majority group in the city. We were never. I can imagine what white nostalgia feels like. One sees businesses opening and closing according to the desires of the rising community, but not yours. Exclusion. Displacement. At the worst of times, people knock on my mother’s door to ask if she’d like to sell her house. Communication is occasionally difficult with older South Asian people. But that’s where my foray into empathy ends. I actually don’t resent South Asians for transforming the landscape of my childhood. I don’t grieve. I still feel free to wander the malls, to patronize the same post office my family has for decades, even if it is under new management. I see a community that is not organized by whiteness, that is unapologetically present, that inhabits the buildings, colleges and schools built by others as if they always belonged there. I see young people flirting in the streets, new immigrants waiting on the bus to deliver them to an overnight shift, old men on park benches leaning on canes. They have formed friendships late in life, so far away from where they started. Did they consider this life for themselves when they were young, handsome and tall in Punjab?
Jump forward 30 years and a dozen moves to Vancouver. When I walked with my partner Chiayi through our neighbourhood in Vancouver, people seemed to relax. She would stop in front of houses and take pictures of people’s gardens. I stood on the sidewalk, scanning the street. No one gave her looks for taking photos of their lilacs. She would ask homeowners about their coyote squash and wisteria. They offered us grapes from their vines. Such things never happen when I am alone.
I am aware of the kind of privilege and access that her race grants me.
Once, when we were walking, I stopped in front of a house I admired and a man came out. I saw that, when he noticed me, something in him rose, like a tinted car window, like he thought I might return later and rob his house. But when he saw Chiayi, the window rolled down. He told us that he built the house himself. He told us about the architect. I listened politely. I tried to visibly admire his house, but not too much.
In Vancouver, there is a similar fear of Asians taking over, not so much the city’s civic life but its real estate. Headlines: RACE AND REAL ESTATE: HOW HOT CHINESE MONEY IS MAKING VANCOUVER UNLIVABLE; IMMIGRATION HAS “UNDOUBTEDLY” ESCALATED HOUSING PRICES IN VANCOUVER, TORONTO, SAYS STUDY; VANCOUVER HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED BY CHINESE IMMIGRANTS; DOES CHINA’S MONEY THREATEN CANADA’S SOVEREINGTY?; IS YOUR CITY BEING SOLD OFF TO GLOBAL ELITES?
Like the Greater Toronto Area, the Greater Vancouver Area also has its ethnic enclaves. The city becomes more diverse as you travel east. Affluent white and Asian people live in Point Grey. I lived near Little India. As you go east and south beyond the city, you’ll find large Chinese populations in Burnaby and Richmond (53 per cent) and South Asians in Surrey (32 per cent).
Vancouver is more conspicuously moneyed than Toronto. BMWs are Vancouver’s Honda. It’s no big deal to see Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins. Students traverse campuses in Balenciaga and Supreme. They carry boxy Fjallraven backpacks. They step on the backs of their Gucci shoes until they’re flattened into a pair of slippers. At minimum wage, those shoes cost two weeks of work. Two of Canada’s three most profitable malls are in Vancouver. Near Pacific Mall, in the city’s luxury zone, there are stores so fancy I have never heard of them, but I know they’re not for me. (How do you know that? Why are you limiting yourself? Please. Let’s not kid ourselves.)
Allow me a hypothesis. I’m fine if it’s proven wrong. I can’t help but think the extreme valuation and conspicuous consumption in Vancouver is a display of people proving they are worth being here. The policies of immigration attract the best people of a foreign country – more points for doctors, graduate degrees, etc. – then question their credentials, then underemploy and devalue them with stunning systemic biases. I don’t know how many generations it takes to get beyond that debasement. And so, to compensate, the immigrants to Vancouver (those who can) buy expensive properties, things, so all you see upon looking at them is their value, taken to a literal extreme. Not all. Some of the money is old money, built over generations in Canada, and held quietly. Some of the money is relocated money, perhaps from Hong Kong into Canadian investments in the event that political tensions with mainland China escalate. Some of the money is young money, spent as if the world were a playground. Again, of course, there are Asians in Vancouver for whom none of this is true. Yet how are they perceived? I wonder if all of the money associated with Asians in the region looks equally threatening to white Canadians who see no way to compete with it. Hence the headlines.
In Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, I gave my (mostly white) students an exercise designed to increase their capacity for risk and empathy. The exercise goes like this: Visit a place that makes you uncomfortable or insecure. If you grew up in a city, go into a forest, into the wild (safely, etc.), veer off path (safely, etc.), encounter the terror of aporia, or pathlessness. If you are from a suburb, venture into the poorest postal code in Canada, East Hastings. Don’t rush through. Find a place to be and stay there. Don’t ignore people. Write there without anthropologizing or trafficking in misfortune. Note your anxieties. As a third option, I suggest entering an upscale store where you don’t think you’d be welcome. Process the experience and allow yourself to be processed.
One fall, I did that last version of the assignment. I went into an expensive store in Vancouver’s luxury zone with a friend, a Brown guy, born and raised in a very white Quebec town. My friend was expensively dressed, as usual. See the above hypothesis. The salesperson was friendly. He followed us upstairs. We were not harassed. In my head, I heard the white chorus say, See, we told you so. You’ve been a presumptuous, paranoid dick. The problem is with you, not us.
Would I ever go back to that store again? No. Why? Beyond the evidence of this experience, I know that I am not the desired client in that space. It cannot be proven. It can only be known.
The exercise that I would like to give students involves asking them to go into a place where they are the only person of their race and attempt an interaction without using any of their privileges, of whiteness, of gender, of money. As a minority in that situation, divested of power, how do you even begin to engage with an impervious world?
I have one body, yet it receives so many reactions. This is true for many racialized people. My partner and I share an immigrant understanding that other ways of thinking and living are as valid as North American ways. We get smug sometimes at the blind spots of North Americans. The smugness, I think, attempts to elevate our occasional outsider status. We have charged memories of the countries where we were born and the years when white kids made fun of our pronunciation and the categories that people are so intent on filling with our bodies. We know, too, that as kids who were raised here, who pass adoptively, we live on the inside of North American culture in a way our parents do not. Between us, there’s an immigrant code that the West is not the centre of humanity. The whole world is livable. People live good lives never having encountered whiteness.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.