Jagmeet Singh deserves a Luther. A fictional character played by the American comedian Keegan-Michael Key, Luther was Barack Obama’s “anger translator,” an alter-ego that reacted to racism in a way the first black president of the United States could not. In the real world, Mr. Obama endured years of provocation and lies about his personal life with his trademark calm. On the sketch show Key & Peele, Luther yelled “I am not a Muslim!” through a bullhorn, before staring wild-eyed into the camera, ready for a fight.
The NDP Leader needed a Luther most recently this week, at Montreal’s Atwater Market. There, as seen in a video released by CBC, he was approached by an older white man, who shook his hand and leaned in, as if to tell him a secret.
“You should cut your turban off,” he said. “You’ll look like a Canadian.” His soft voice belied the violence of the words he was aiming directly at an intimate vulnerability: Mr. Singh’s faith, the core beliefs that guide him as he makes his way through the world.
The federal election campaign of 2019 should be remembered as the one where Canadian prejudice stepped into the spotlight – going well beyond bozo eruptions and defaced signs to offer up multiple images of Justin Trudeau in brown- and blackface and a 2005 clip of Andrew Scheer comparing same-sex marriage to a dog’s tail.
This year’s election campaign should also be remembered as the one where Mr. Singh was made to keep demonstrating the way marginalized people in this country are told to act in the face of that prejudice. That is, to be endlessly kind and forgiving, to consider constant, casual denials of our humanity as the price of being, as the man said to Mr. Singh, “Canadian.”
Mr. Singh’s grace in the face of ugliness has been noted ever since he entered the public eye – during the 2017 NDP leadership race, he shut down an Islamophobic heckler by leading a chant of “love and courage." It’s a purposeful approach. In September, after Mr. Trudeau’s embarrassment forced Mr. Singh to once again discuss his ethnicity instead of his policies, he remarked that he used to react like Luther, confronting racism “with my fists.”
He has credited his Sikhism for helping him develop a different reaction. His turban symbolizes just where he finds the generosity that allowed him to refer to the ever-so-gentle attacker in the CBC video as “sir.”
“I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” he said, walking away. “That’s the beauty of Canada.”
His reaction was right for him, since dismantling prejudice isn’t the job of those that experience it. My own inner Luther, though, immediately clenched her teeth. “Who do you think you’re fooling? Because it’s not me,” would have been her response, as her eyes narrowed to slits. “Even without a turban, or a hijab, or dreadlocks, you wouldn’t see me as Canadian.”
Consider that Mr. Singh’s hair underneath his turban is very long, as seen in a video he made weeks ago, for all the good that it did. And remember that cutting off long hair, especially on boys, is one of the oldest attempts to make people “Canadian,” an act of forced assimilation imposed on thousands of Indigenous children in residential schools.
This week, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation unfurled a banner with the names of 2,800 Indigenous little ones who died at those schools after being taken from their families. I don’t doubt that many of them had their hair cut off. And I don’t believe that if Mr. Singh did remove his turban, his historic campaign for Canada’s highest political office would be unencumbered by prejudice.
Mere hours after the Atwater incident, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet faced Mr. Singh in a debate, and saw fit to repeatedly mention that the province’s voters need a leader who "resemble[s] you.” Interpret that how you will, keeping in mind that Quebec’s Bill 21 prohibits some of those in government jobs from wearing religious symbols.
Mr. Singh has repeatedly said that while Bill 21 – which is being challenged in court by three teachers – makes him “sad,” he wouldn’t try to dismantle it as prime minister.
I think Luther would have a different answer. In the end, though, both anger and decency in the face of prejudice come at an emotional cost, the annual, weekly, daily price of being Canadian.
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