When some people branded the entire city of Vancouver as racist for not electing persons of colour, their arguments sounded dangerous to me, a journalist of colour
By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Nov 20, 2018
Wading through the flood of coverage on Vancouver council election, I suddenly started scratching my head. A frightening thought streaked through my mind. The more I thought about it, the more it frightened me. #councilsowhite hashtag kept playing in my mind for long.
Then I decided I should write about it.
But first allow me to share a memory. I had just started my own news website a little less than a decade ago after giving up the local newspaper job. I was enjoying my newfound freedom as an independent journalist — sparing none, fearing nothing, and poking my nose into places where few local journalist would dare to. However, what I remember fondly from those days is my reporting on society and culture, the stories on common people — their personal lives, economic struggles, family problems, health challenges, heritage, and faith.
My first feature story was on an old woman, the last local descendant of the man known to be the earliest settler in town. I remember vividly talking to the woman for more than an hour at her home. I doubted this woman had ever spoken for so long about her family history to a person of colour, especially the one who knew little about her culture and society, having come from India a few years ago. As the conversation wore on, that feeling vanished. When I came back I felt I had just spoken to a friend. I can still picture that woman rummaging through a treasure trove of old photographs of her family and the town, trying to find what I needed for my story.
Here was a brown East Indian man among white people, some of whom suffered him as a bitter critic while others cheered him on as loyal readers proud of his community journalism, his narratives of their personal and social lives, and, of course, their civic problems. I used to buttonhole random people on the streets, trying to cajole stories out of them. I sat with them in their drawing rooms and churches, quizzing them about their lives. Increasingly, I had stopped feeling I was visibly different. I did face a few instances of racism but those would hardly count in a decade-long experience.
I can’t say definitely how the rising vitriol against white people will shape race relations in the coming few years in Canada, but I do see it delegitimising my career as a journalist who writes mainly on the lives and issues of white people.
My subjects were white; my readers were white; and my advertisers were white. But none ever wondered or questioned how I could represent the local community authentically as a journalist who was a recent East Indian immigrant. Instead, a lot of people considered me the voice of the community.
The more I read about the outrage on Vancouver council election, the more I saw this question coming up here on North Shore: if a white person cannot legitimately represent the people of colour as a councillor, how can a person of colour represent the white people as a journalist? No one has ever asked me that. But now I am afraid someone might think along those lines.
I can’t say definitely how the rising vitriol against white people will shape race relations in the coming few years in Canada, but I do see it delegitimising my career as a journalist who writes mainly on the lives and issues of white people. If you argue that only a person of colour can voice the civic concerns of his fellow people, then won’t it also be true that only a white journalist can report authentically on civic and cultural issues of the white people? I am afraid the #councilsowhite argument will chase me out of North Shore and leave me only when I reach Surrey or Abbotsford where I can report on my fellow persons of colour.
Will I, who have broken out of racial ghetto, be now driven back because I am condemned by my race to voice the concerns of only those people who look like me? Am I forever frozen in my racial identity? Can persons of colour never transcend their race? And where would the representation-by-pigmentation argument stop? If a white politician can’t represent a Chinese citizen, how do we know a politician from the Chinese community can be the voice of a newly arrived Pakistani immigrant? Can a Filipino represent the concerns of South Asians? Can a straight South Korean truly be the voice of a South Korean from the LGBTQ community? For that matter, given the cultural gap, can even a second-generation East Indian politician represent a fellow East Indian who has been in Canada for just a few years?
Of course, you do wonder if disabled people find any representation among politicians which will make you further wonder if someone on a wheel chair can really represent someone who is blind. If we ever ended up with a council where everyone is tall and slim, won’t it be a great injustice with the large number of unrepresented short and chubby people?
If we look beyond race, we can find many other factors that may lead to low minority representation on councils. But it seems #councilsowhite was more an occasion for white-bashing than finding solutions to a problem.
And while we are at it, it’s worth asking can any politician every truly represent those who live on the streets? It’s amazing that people who root for diversity can see people of colour as a monolith. If someone with a Chinese surname on the council will make the council appear more approachable to his fellow Chinese — as another argument goes — I can bet she will not encourage most of the Filipinos, Egyptians or Punjabis who shy away from council because it’s white. The even more alarming assumption behind the #councilsowhite argument is that a person of colour will always vote for another person of colour.
Just a few days before the election results were out, I got a call from a Punjabi man I know in Squamish. He was canvassing among the Punjabi community for a white woman running for mayor. The two other Punjabi candidates did not catch his fancy. That won’t have surprised any Punjabi but would certainly perplex a #councilsowhite protester. It’s condescending to assume that an individual doesn’t have the ability to discern election platforms and vote beyond the consideration of race. Richmond, a city that has ethnic majority but has elected a majority white council, is proof that race isn’t as much an issue for voters as is often assumed. A related assumption is that a person of colour is running for council only to represent persons of colour. Then why would white people vote for this candidate who has made it clear he won’t be representing them in the first place?
Many assumptions behind the #councilsowhite outrage draw a permanent line between the whites and people of colour. No one will, can or should cross that line. Race, it appears, is your destined cubbyhole. While many of the #councilsowhite protesters might think they are arguing for bringing people of colour to the political mainstream, their arguments could actually drive a few ministers out of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.
If half of the Vancouver councillors should have been people of colour corresponding to their number, don’t we have #cabinetsosikh? Sikhs, my fellow people of colour, are just 1.4% of the population but make up more than 10% of the cabinet. The deeper you go down this rabbit hole, the more absurd it gets. There are nearly five times more Chinese in Canada than Sikhs, then how come we have such a lop-sided cabinet with four Sikhs and just one Chinese? There are far more Muslims in Canada than Sikhs. Why don’t we see more of them in the Cabinet? Will East Indians of other castes and beliefs see these four Sikhs as their representatives?
Race, just like religion, is a significant factor in politics and civic life. No convincing analysis of Canadian politics can keep race out. But to brand a whole town as racist and assume that people of colour inevitably vote only for people of colour is pushing the race factor too far. It seems #councilsowhite was more an occasion for white-bashing than finding solutions to a problem. If we look beyond race, we can find many other factors that may lead to low minority representation on councils. Voter apathy, which has led to same councils getting elected again and again in BC, could be a big factor in low minority representation too. Lack of integration and tribal rivalries could be other factors. Many people blame the electoral processes, particularly the at-large system. The City of Brampton in Ontario, where visible minorities are now in majority, has a ward system. But voters decided to elect only two people of colour. In several wards, ethnic candidates trailed far behind white candidates.
Probably, it’s a combination of several factors that keeps visible minorities out of councils. No doubt, the issue deserves deep study. Hashtags are convenient pegs to hang totalising narratives. The crude racial interpretation of Vancouver council election made me feel like a person with special needs — I need only a person of colour to understand me and voice my civic concerns, and I am disabled to know and analyse concerns of anyone other than my own tribesmen.
As much as I am pained at some people labelling an entire city as racist, I am afraid that #councilsowhite is also a writing on the wall for me — get back to your ghetto.
Gagandeep Ghuman is the Editor, The Global Canadian