It took four years for Emile Wickham to get official confirmation of what he already knew: that the treatment he received on his birthday was racist.
Mr. Wickham is black, as are the friends he went to dinner with one night in May, 2014, at the Chinese restaurant Hong Shing in Toronto, just north of City Hall. There, they were asked to pay their bill in advance – a request that Mr. Wickham suspected hadn’t been made of the non-black patrons around them.
After confirming this, he confronted the server, who refunded the group’s money. They walked out, no longer hungry or in the mood for celebration. The incident so bothered Mr. Wickham that he was still thinking of it a year later, when he filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
This week, the proprietors of Hong Shing were ordered to pay $10,000 to Mr. Wickham for violating section 1 of the province’s human-rights code, which guarantees equal treatment when accessing goods, services and facilities. The tribunal’s adjudicator said that Mr. Wickham was treated as “a potential thief in waiting.” There are many unpleasant truths confirmed by this story, including that black people in Toronto face consistent prejudice when going about their daily lives. Another grim reality it proves is often hard to talk about: the persistent racism between groups of non-white people, especially that directed at black Canadians, and how it works to maintain white supremacy.
On Monday, a Globe and Mail tweet about Mr. Wickham’s story attracted hundreds of comments, many of them racist. The vitriol was pointed at the group of black friends, but also against the restaurant: Toxic tropes about Chinese people’s relationship to money, or the quality of their food, were common.
The owners and staff at Hong Shing have likely experienced anti-Asian racism personally, perhaps many times. This doesn’t excuse them in any way from participating in anti-black racism – in fact, it might be the cause of it.
For centuries, pseudo-scientists have attempted to categorize human beings by race in a ploy to justify unjustifiable behaviour. Participants in this embarrassing game include philosophy celebrity Immanuel Kant and storied botanist Carl Linnaeus.
On the very worthwhile podcast Seeing White, American scholar Ibram Kendi dates the earliest attempts at racial categorization to the 1400s. That’s when broad, global slavery practices – in which many cultures enslaved basically whoever they could get their hands on, including their own people – evolved into overwhelmingly European enslavement of predominantly African people.
Where previously the justifications for erasing other humans’ basic rights were equally varied, those excuses began to narrow. Racial classifications denigrating dark skin tones and African origins became the dominant narrative.
That doesn’t mean that those who were neither black nor white were given equal status to white Europeans. Instead, a divide-and-conquer hierarchy emerged, in which a chance at a marginally less subjugated life was offered to those who participated in black oppression.
This hierarchy existed in many forms, in many places; apartheid South Africa’s “racial classification” was less harsh on those who were “coloured” than “native.” Convincing those of mixed race or Asian ancestry to help police black people made the system stronger and took some of the work out of white hands.
Today, this often plays out as the “model minority” trope, in which particularly skilled or educated East and South Asian immigrants are granted visas and citizenship to Western countries, including Canada. Their successes (which, yes Uncle, still require hard work) are used against other racialized people who live in entrenched poverty, including the Indigenous.
This, too, is a weapon that non-black, non-white Canadians often carry of their own volition – the fear that it could be turned against them adds incentive to use it.
Records show that the current owner of Hong Shing is 25-year-old Colin Li, who took it over from his parents. He hasn’t spoken with any media since the tribunal’s ruling, nor offered Mr. Wickham a private apology − in fact, he’s stated that he plans to appeal.
That’s a shame. There are many bridges to be built over the gulfs created by this ancient tactic of division, and Mr. Li could help, if he has the courage.