Column

WHITE LIKE US

The socially progressive are shocked. ‘We’re colour-blind, for God’s sake!’

KATE FILLION October 24 2005
Column

WHITE LIKE US

The socially progressive are shocked. ‘We’re colour-blind, for God’s sake!’

KATE FILLION October 24 2005

WHITE LIKE US

The socially progressive are shocked. ‘We’re colour-blind, for God’s sake!’

KATE FILLION

Column

I USED TO THINK I was colour-blind. Maybe this is why I didn’t really notice that throughout my childhood I never had a black doctor, dentist or teacher. I did, however, have a black idol, Harriet Tubman, and I recall writing a high-minded little essay in Grade 6 to the effect that Canada was morally superior to the U.S. because slavery had never existed here. (It was years before I discovered that, in fact, it had, and was only formally abolished in 1834.)

Then, when I was 19,1 spent the summer in an almost exclusively black area of Washington, where, after being mugged and having my apartment broken into twice, I was forced to conclude that, sadly, the criminals in my neighbourhood were not as colourblind as I thought I was. They could see perfectly well that I was white, and probably had stuff worth stealing. My black neighbour laughed, not unkindly, when I expressed outrage that a mugger had picked me—one of the nice white people!—to rob, and told me she’d never had the luxury of being colour-blind.

I can’t say I really understood what she meant until I began studying black history at university, where it was impossible not to notice I was the only white in my classes, or to pretend that the colour of my skin didn’t influence how I was treated—or the way I felt about myself. Over time, I became accustomed to the not always friendly scrutiny of the other students and my professors. But my awareness of my own difference—which meant, among other things, that I could not fly under the radar and skip class—did not go away. I learned to weigh my words cautiously before opening my mouth (not a bad thing, in my case), and often felt, whether it was true or not, that I had to overcome expectations that white people were distinctly subpar when it came to grasping the subtleties of the subject matter.

I’m not pretending to know what it feels like to be black; when I left the classroom, of course, the meanings attached to my skin colour changed radically. But I did learn that when you’re the visible minority, it’s virtually impossible to be colourblind. You can’t simply forget how few people look like you.

This may be true even in a highly multicultural city like Toronto, where, on Oct. 8, black leaders joined under the umbrella of the Coalition of African Canadian Community Organizations to tell the city, via the front page of the Toronto Star, that they are not colour-blind—and no one else ought to be, either. This summer, amidst an explosion of gun violence, most of the dead were black men—and, the coalition added,

SOME GROUPS, like francophones, already have separate services. ‘For them, it’s about creating a level playing field. But when it comes to blacks, it’s segregation.’

blacks are dropping out of school in disproportionately high numbers. Blacks, they said, are in fact different from other minorities—more vulnerable, more oppressed by racism—and thus require a new set of separate services.

The coalition’s wish list includes the creation of a provincial office of African-Canadian affairs, an economic development agency, a diversion program for young blacks accused of minor crimes, and support for a black-focused school (the last item is controversial within the black community). Members also want funding restored to social services programs for at-risk youth, and a return to gathering race-based statistics for policing, education and employment, to gauge exactly what’s going on in the city.

“A return to segregation,” warned the lead editorial in last Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, because “Separate is never equal.” We’re all in this multicultural melting pot together, was the message, and blacks were urged to join “the mainstream, in every sphere.”

No doubt many would like to do just that, perhaps starting with jobs at the mainstream Globe, which has almost no black reporters or editors (nor does Maclean’s). The reality is, while parts of Toronto’s mainstream are highly diverse, there is truth to the coalition’s argument that blacks have made less progress than other minorities. It is possible to walk through large residential areas— Forest Hill, say, or Leaside—without seeing a black face aside from the odd nanny, who may well live in a virtually all-black neighbourhood. And there are plenty of whitefocused schools—they’re called private schools—as well as virtually all-white private clubs.

These forms of segregation may not be intentional. But is their existence more or less harmful than the coalition’s attempts to create a set of separate programs for poor blacks?

Some groups—francophones, Aboriginals— already have separate services. “For them, it’s all about creating a level playing field. But when it comes to blacks, it’s segregation,” Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, told the Star. But black separatism has different political and historical overtones, and it makes a lot of whites feel more guilty. And more put upon. Don’t they get it? We’re colour-blind, for God’s sake!

Few blacks seem to appreciate such declarations. Perhaps that’s because they hear only the note of self-congratulation: “Racism? Not my fault!” Hü