Without debate about interracial dynamics, these dynamics will not change
In a letter of 350 words, published in Geist 65, Michael Redhill calls me a racist once and implies that I am a racist on at least four other occasions. Redhill’s repetition of the ultimate insult of the postmodern era offers a fascinating, if depressing, window into how certain Canadian writers betray their responsibility to the society they live in. In an earlier column ( “Kingmakers,” Geist 63), I examined Margaret Atwood’s advocacy of Vincent Lam during the 2006 Giller Prize ceremonies as evidence of the Wasp cultural establishment’s need to diversify its ethnic alliances in order to shore up its dominance in the twenty-first century. This prompted the writer Lisa Moore to accuse me of a variety of sins, including, by implication, racism. Now Redhill, rushing to Moore’s defence, repeats the racism cry.
Redhill’s cynical invocation of racism belittles the pain caused by racist acts, just as people who liken everyone they disagree with to Adolf Hitler banalize the monstrous reality of Nazism. An observer of colour would be justified in finding ridiculous the spectacle of three overprivileged white people such as Moore, Redhill and me squabbling over who is a racist. We may all claim our own forms of marginalization—Redhill is Jewish, Moore a Newfoundlander, and I am an immigrant—but none of us has to contend with the distrustful stare on the street, or the nervous hostility of the attendant at the drugstore counter, that are the daily currency of, for example, Canadians of Afro-Caribbean descent. All three of us draw on the European cultural tradition whose development fed on the wealth Europe accumulated by classifying the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world as subhuman in order to colonize them. It would be suicidally foolish to repudiate the European cultural heritage; it would be naïve, however, not to recognize that racism is fatally interwoven into that heritage. The issue is not that some white people are racist and others aren’t. We are all the inheritors of a culture drenched in racist assumptions. The question is: to what extent can we examine these assumptions, explore and analyze the ways that interracial interactions play themselves out in our multiracial society, and, in this way, understand and better appreciate the multicoloured patchwork of our daily lives?
The conversation about interracial dynamics is, arguably, the most important one that can take place in contemporary Canada. Michael Redhill decries the discussion of race as “disgusting.” His position is reactionary, because without debate about interracial dynamics, these dynamics will not change. It’s true that a debate of this sort requires a freewheeling openness that is unCanadian; it is undeniable that such debate will provoke some stereotyped, or even racist, remarks. But it’s only once such biases have been flushed into the open that they can be addressed. We must have this debate, to which my “Kingmakers” column contributes, because, increasingly, we all live multiracial lives.
For five years I shared my life with a black Jamaican-Canadian woman. On numerous occasions I saw service people, who treated me with courtesy, become brusque and impolite when my partner addressed them. My partner never invoked the r-word in response to this treatment, preferring to murmur, “I guess that lady must be having a bad day.” To be defined on the basis of race is painful, also, when one retains only tenuous ties to the culture with which the racial definition is associated. My sixteen-year-old godson is currently writing a novel to express his contradictory experiences as a North American teenager of Chinese descent who had the opportunity to go “back” for a few months to a China he had never known. My Salvadoran-American first cousin, having spent much of her life denying her Latin American origins, suddenly announced that she was rearranging an international flight in order to stop off in San Salvador. My Jewish stepsisters’ attachment to their Jewishness has waxed and waned over the years according to the social circles in which they were moving.
The burden of racial pigeonholing for people who our society defines as racially (or even culturally) different is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The representation, manipulation or exploitation of race in the public culture sets boundaries that influence the way people treat each other on the street. Knee-jerk defences of the token promotion of a few selected individuals do not address this problem; indeed, by trivializing it, such propaganda makes the situation worse. Even in countries where public discourse—the words of politicians, business people, television channels and tabloids—is overtly racist, this blatant racism provides a target for those who oppose it; the covert version, enshrined in liberal pieties and strategic tokenism, is more difficult to combat. In a multi- racial society such as Canada’s, which deflects confrontation with its multi- racial make-up through the euphemism of “multiculturalism,” anyone who raises the issue of the public manipulation of race, or tries to analyze the significance of race in public contexts, becomes susceptible to attack as a racist merely for commenting on racial difference.
In such a climate, Michael Redhill can say, sarcastically, that he would “love to hear Henighan’s ideas about Jews,” because anyone who attempts to analyze the public manipulation of race can be smeared with all forms of racism. If Redhill had done some research before writing those words, he could have learned about my vision of Jews through the depiction of the Sephardic family in my novel The Streets of Winter, the descriptions of the vestiges of the Jewish community in Chisinau, Moldova, in my travel book Lost Province, or the discussion of the Holocaust in my new book, A Grave in the Air.
Lisa Moore has spoken in public about eating dinner at the home of her good friend Michael Ondaatje; Redhill is a long-time employee of the Ondaatje family; Ondaatje and Atwood have been supporting each other for decades. These people are old friends who share an interest in limiting discussion about the dynamics of literary power in Canada. Racism is the most effective accusation with which to carry out this witch hunt; it’s the magic word with which to discredit anyone who evokes the spectre of open debate. But these shock tactics also hurt people far beyond the literary world by curtailing a potentially fruitful conversation about how race is exploited in our society. As long as the Toronto literary cocktail parties that Redhill imagines me attending remain thronged with sloganeering pawns who mimic the wooden pieties of the status quo, fail to challenge the encrusted assumptions that surround us and, through their subservience, reinforce a polite, self-congratulatory form of oppression that closes down debate, thoughtful people will seek elsewhere for the passion for language, literature and ideas that keeps a culture alive.