Where are you from…really?

written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Renee

Immigration continues to be a great issue in the United States with opponents using racialized arguments to attack undocumented workers. Even the first African-American president, Barack Obama, referred to them as illegal, when he announced that they would have no access to his new health care plan. It cannot be denied that several American industries are particularly dependent upon the labour of undocumented workers. The practice has been to ignore the importance of their contributions, while stripping them of their humanity.

In Canada, the subject of immigration is quite different than it is to the U.S.; a significant amount of the conversation is determined by what is understood to be a Canadian identity. Before the Articles of Confederation, Canada was divided into upper and lower Canada. This division was essentially based in language. The over arching debate in Canadian politics has historically been language and this colours our understanding of who is and is not Canadian.

To be Canadian is to be white. My unhusband’s family has been here for generations and his whiteness serves to tell the casual onlooker, that he has a right to claim his citizenship in a way that I will never be able to. We were born in the same city, 10 years apart, but race opens spaces to him that will forever be closed to me. Despite an official policy of multiculturalism, I am an additive at best.

Next month is Black History Month and Canadians will momentarily take the time to acknowledge that blacks have been here for generations but only because doing so allows Canadians to display a liberal credential to the world of inclusivity. February is a very political month in that it perpetuates the lie that race is no longer a problem here. Canadians love to get on a holier-than-thou soap box and look southward with a false air of superiority. During Black History Month the overriding message is that the Underground Railroad lead to the safety of Canadian shores. No discussion takes place about the raving racism engaged in by our Prime Ministers or the fact that Jim Crow existed here. Acknowledging the Underground Railroad allows Canadians to look morally superior and if the cost means admitting that there are black Canadians for a scant 28 days, well that is a price that whiteness is willing to pay.

Eleven months a year we are invisible; you see, black Canadians are always from somewhere else. Despite the facts that blacks have been a part of the Canadian experience from almost the beginning, the most common question is “Where are you from really?”. If you are black in this country, it is assumed that you are recent immigrant from Jamaica or Africa. My birth certificate is no less blue than my unhusband’s, but my citizenship is always questionable. This means that a person of colour is always necessarily “other”.

Violence, rape, robbery etc., are not committed by Canadians, they are committed by “other” people. People of colour are presumed to lack awareness about the goodness of being Canadian and it is often suggested that we cling to supposedly savage ways. This of course is perpetuated by the fact that we steadfastly refuse to acknowledge experience and education from other parts of the world. I have met countless doctors, dentists, accountants and engineers doing menial jobs because somehow unless you have Canadian, American or even British education or experience, you are necessarily incompetent and not fit to match up to Canadian standards. Take a guess as to which countries are specifically stigmatized?

Canada welcomes you as long as you are intent to serve the dinner, rather than expect a seat at the table. We have increasingly tightened our immigration laws, as the race and ethnicity of those attempting to build a new life within our borders moves away from Caucasian. The birthrate is declining and even though we will soon be dependent upon immigrants to keep our population stable, we still only want those that are white. Even though every single person living here who is not of First Nations descent is an immigrant, the label is decidedly used as a slur against people of color.

Canadians loudly announce to the world that unlike the U.S., we have a salad bowl instead of a melting pot. Immigrants are encouraged to hold on to their heritage and traditions, however; what we do not announce to the world is that we continually mock and deride those that do. These very same traditions are used against a body of colour to declare them specifically as an outsider. Canadian traditions are for whiteness and we certainly have no desire to allow inclusivity to actually exist. The Mountie is still understood to be white, blonde and blue-eyed, even though black mounties do exist. “Dudley Do-Right” is still the guardian of all that is good and pure.

“Immigrant” in Canada in many ways is a negative descriptor applied specifically to people of colour. Using “the N word” would be far too gauche and showy. Just like our patriotism, we hold our prejudices close to the vest. The irony that most will not admit is that the denial of race problem in Canada is predicated upon the false belief that all people of color here are immigrants. In a homogenous society, inter-racial strife would be non-existent and therefore; the identity of Canada as white bolsters the lie and soothes the senses.

Renee blogs at Womanist Musings.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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