Novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College. His new novel, Original Prin, will be published in September.
Yes, we’re those parents: While watching Hidden Figures with our kids on a recent Friday night, we paused the movie for a history lesson. We had to. Otherwise, how could our four daughters – Toronto-born children of a white Midwesterner and Sri Lankan-Canadian who met in graduate school in Boston – possibly understand why a brilliant female African-American mathematician was running from building to building to use the “Colored” washroom? And so, we explained that decades ago in the American South, and as part of a much larger and deeper history and practice of prejudice in the United States, black women were treated as fundamentally inferior because of their race and gender. Our tones suggested that our daughters should be shocked.
They weren’t. Instead, one of the them, age 7, observed that at school the other day, one of the girls on the playground told her that “she likes her white friends more than her brown friends.” My wife was surprised. I was surprised. Our older daughters weren’t surprised at all. This deeply, deeply disappointed me. After ambivalently hearing a little more from them about their experiences as brown girls, we mumbled something about the need to discuss this more and watched the rest of the movie. We really had no idea what to say to our kids. Understanding themselves as “brown friends” wasn’t supposed to be part of their life stories.
In Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Paul Gilroy cites movies and TV shows such as Star Trek to argue that outer space often seems like the only place where – thanks to the presence of alien others – our estimations of each other tend to be free from the forms of racialization that have otherwise so often defined human relations. For years now, I’ve subconsciously assumed my personal family life proved Prof. Gilroy wrong. To be sure, I appreciate that my father’s experience, as an Sri Lankan immigrant arriving in a comparatively monochromatic Canada in the 1960s, involved racially-charged encounters with unwelcoming white people. I have also come to terms, more or less, with the far milder if still racially framed experiences I had in the 1980s, as a brown kid growing up in Oshawa, Ont. Most of those experiences involved schoolyard snickers about my presumed family connections to brown convenience store owners around town and on TV – the kind of situation that the comedian Hari Kondabolu explores in his autobiographical documentary The Problem with Apu. My own situation wasn’t helped when my well-intentioned mother answered my desperate request to dress up as a Star Wars character for Halloween one year by getting me an Admiral Akbar costume. Of all the people in the Star Wars universe, why did I have to be him? If anyone is, he’s the ethnic guy on Star Wars. It confirmed everything.
But 30 years later, with my own family I am living the good life – meaning, a life well beyond the color line. We are two urban professionals and four mixed-race children in an upscale neighbourhood in Toronto – a Volvo and kale-encrusted centre stage for living out enlightened thinking about equity, diversity and inclusivity. We’re also Catholic, in a city where – this Easter weekend and every Sunday – you can attend mass in 33 different languages. We are part of a faith that’s more internally pluralist, globally and locally, than any other world religion, which only strengthens our other assumptions of cosmopolitan, postracial liberty.
But now I am faced with the unnerving fact that my daughters are also growing up being perceived and assessed in everyday encounters according to the colour of their skin, and also, of course, perceiving and assessing themselves. They are being formed by these encounters in ways that I cannot readily make out because of my deep investment in a multigenerational family story and national narrative of assimilationist cosmopolitanism that, it turns out, won’t be, as I had hoped and presumed, the only story of this latest, most privileged Canadian generation.
Meanwhile, I have been following the intensifying efforts of men and women of colour to name and overcome long-standing interpersonal and institutional barriers in culture and politics and business and education, and I have done so with empathy and intellectual interest, but at a certain remove. As moved and persuaded as I have been by the arguments writers such as Kamal Al-Solaylee, Anna Holmes and Zadie Smith have recently made about the unevenness of experience and prospects within racialized communities, and of my own accompanying implication in this, I have never given a moment’s thought, until a few Fridays ago, to the possibility that my own children could be implicated in this situation as well. After all, they are poster girls for Drake’s Toronto and Justin Trudeau’s Canada!
How, now, to avoid exchanging one kind of false consciousness for another? They may be brown, but my daughters are living out very different trajectories than brown women elsewhere in our city and around the world, women whose economic and cultural and geographic markers do not vouchsafe them the same kinds of security and possibility that exist when, like my kids, you’re born both brown and beyond the colour line. How should we value shared experiences of racialization without becoming myopic about accompanying, unresolved inequalities?
My four daughters are natural-born cosmopolitans. They are also future women of colour. They will, and indeed already do, inhabit both of these identities on terms well beyond my autobiographical and aspirational choosing. To regard them as both is a fuller and truer if more complex and ambiguous construal of who they are in this world, and of the world itself. In time, they could easily, in fact too easily collapse this complexity by choosing to inhabit one of these identities to the exclusion of the other, as so many others have, including, in many ways, their father. The greater challenge, for them and for their parents, is to forge capacities for self-awareness and solidarity that allow them to recognize and navigate a world of manifold asymmetries, one defined by ratios of privilege and prejudice both visible and hidden.
No doubt, in the coming weeks, my family will go see A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay’s ambitious adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel. From its director through to its cast, the movie features women of colour in commanding roles. I have no idea what my daughters will make of the movie but I bet the teachable moments will be for me, not for them.