It wasn’t so long ago that an Alberta politician inadvertently loosened his tongue long enough for the ugly truth to seep out. He basically admitted that his whiteness was an unearned advantage over equally qualified non-white, non-Christian competitors.
As a Caucasian, I have an advantage. When different community leaders such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community.
Had he employed more sophisticated wording, avoided naming specific ethnic communities and religions, that fiasco might have been avoided. The monochromatic mainstream media tends to notice and capitalize on overt racism, yet are blind to the subtle, yet equally noxious ways members of the dominant culture degrade the rest of us. The slick, educated, highbrow types tend to use coded language to insult minorities. Delivery makes a difference.
Post-election, strategist Warren Kinsella took to his blog to bash Toronto Mayoral hopeful Olivia Chow. He managed to slyly infer her foreign accent, her ethnic background and her gender to discredit her candidacy.
The Liberal party stalwart’s scathing review includes passages like this:
“Our last memory of her, before she ran, was the stoic, dignified, quiet widow, standing beside Jack Layton’s casket.. She was the frontrunner, at the start, because voters thought she was still the woman they remembered from Jack’s funeral. But she wasn’t. She’d changed.”
This is a perfect example of how the observer’s biases and clichés shape how they view minorities. Chow didn’t surrender to stereotypes of the silent, obedient Chinese woman. Nor should she.
In mainstream media, Asian Americans are also portrayed as poor communicators who are quiet, shy, humble, passive, non-confrontational, and speak poor English with an accent. [source]
Of all of Chow’s accomplishments — Teacher, City councillor, Member of Parliament, Cancer survivor — Kinsella assumes the only “position” that voters remember is as a quiet, dutiful widow. An accessory to her husband’s final act. Did Olivia Chow change or did she step outside the pigeonhole in which she’d been confined in the observer’s mind? For hundreds of thousands of Chow supporters, she is much more than Kinsella’s cunning reduction.
[Olivia Chow] was hard to understand…. She didn’t speak English at home, and that is what hurt her the most, in the end: in debates, in scrums, she always sounded like she was translating something from Chinese into English.
Olivia Chow is a Torontonian who happens to be born abroad, as almost 7 million other Canadians were. Chow’s articulation belies her non-British bloodlines. So what? She counts amongst 1.8 million Torontonians who speak what Stats Can calls “an immigrant language” at home. There’s a bizarre notion that mild bilingualism is a feature for white Anglo establishment types, but it mysteriously morphs into a flaw when people of colour acquire that skill.
Canadians endowed with imported intonations are the spice which enlivens Toronto’s festivals, infuses its restaurants, and nourishes the very soul of the T-dot. It’s also a fact of life in the “world’s most multicultural city“. For all those Canadians who aren’t endowed with pure British bloodlines, Kinsella’s thinly-veiled prejudice speaks volumes.
[Olivia Chow] was dominated, easily, but the slick former radio host and the talking points machine.
She looked like what she was: an unremarkable person who struggled to communicate. Who was consistently dominated by her two main opponents. […]
Perhaps Chow couldn’t keep up with the bar brawl atmosphere which reigned at some debates. Even as racist taunts were thrown at her, Chow’s three white male opponents remained conspicuously tongue-tied. It is well documented that women face particular challenges when swimming in the political shark pool. One of the many obstacles for women is the constant bully dialogue which poisons political arena. If the men who ran alongside Olivia Chow towered over her, it is not due to her aversion to interrupt or shout back. It’s attributable to her opponents’ failure to rise to Chow’s civilized level of respectable conversation.
Kinsella’s diatribe continues:
Olivia Chow, however, never looked or sounded like a mayor.
Since all 65 of Toronto’s elected mayors have looked euro-centric and white, an observer might conclude that Chow doesn’t look the part. To many doubters, Senator Obama didn’t “look like a President,” either. Having grown so accustomed to seeing a “neutrally ethnic” prototype (one that looks like themselves), some elites set artificial restrictions on the seat of power. It isn’t hard to fathom what visuals would match Kinsella’s “ideal mayoral look.” Olivia Chow never stood a chance.
For many Canadians, reports of overt defamations and discriminatory vandalism during the Toronto municipal race were a revelation. Incredulous retorts such as “We can’t be racist. We’re multicultural” come to mind. Toronto’s thin veneer of tolerance is fleeting — punctured by high stakes.
Warren Kinsella’s is right to critique Chow’s policy ideas and/or inability to find an issue which resonates with the majority of voters. However, his post-election editorial is fraught with dog-whistle innuendo which still handicap women and minorities. It’s time we recognize that people like Olivia Chow aren’t the problem. We must rid ourselves of debilitating stereotypes that cloud our judgement.