White Issue(s)


By Jonathan Robson

You see them at ____fest at Harbourfront, or catch them climbing out of Bakka Phoenix. Volunteering at Karma Co-op. Gaunt, yogic middle-aged men and floor-skirted women who seem to embody what’s left of the promise of the Annex a generation ago. Presumably they like Metro Morning for the music, and set their weekends by its litany of cultural events and festivals. Often they’re wearing a vest and sandals.

These are the white people who seek out multicultural experiences. I am not one of them.

Maybe that’s because there weren’t any moon goddesses on the mantelpieces of my youth, nor any hanging spider plants in macrame. Instead, ours was a tidy, self-satisfied example of life amongst the WASP Establishment in Toronto: a big house in Rosedale with a new kitchen and a rose garden; a few divorces; two tennis clubs; a golf club; private school; a nanny; a cleaning lady, summer trips to Europe, etc. If there is a more effective means to grow up fundamentally ignorant of the existence, let alone the variant circumstances of others, it could only be more effective by a matter of degree. Rabbit stew takeaway from Arlequin at Ave and Dav was probably as close to a multicultural experience as I ever came to back then. Maybe that Gipsy Kings album; maybe Julio Iglesias.

Everyone was white. Everyone was, more or less, just like me. I mean, I still don’t know any other families that dress up in formal wear for Christmas dinner, but no-one’s parents had difficulty with English, and none of us would have looked out of place at the Orange Day parade, or in the choir at an Anglican Church (‘86-’92. I was SO cute.).

All throughout high school and on into University - I went to a small liberal-arts college in Halifax - “everyone” remained fairly homogeneously pale. In fact, a high percentage of the male student population wore boat shoes year-round. Boat shoes, a rugby jersey and you had to have a frisbee. Jerks.

I graduated. I grew up. I live in Leslieville. Newsflash - everyone is still white, and when I look down Queen St. on a Saturday morning, that’s all there is to see: white couples poking around for some brunch and maybe a dutch modern credenza like the one in my living room.

That’s the funny thing about being raised in the dominant culture of Toronto. If you don’t make a conscious decision to step away from its core whiteness, you won’t, and no one, barring some Bonfire of the Vanities type calamity, is ever going to make you. Some of us may adopt the cross-cultural curiosity of the Annex-dwellers described above, but it’s a choice, not unlike deciding to go carbon-neutral. In my case, and with the obvious exception of food - which I think ought not to count - it’s a choice I’ve never made.

But even in the case of those who do decide, regularly, to immerse themselves in others’ cultures, there always remains a transactional element to multiculturalism from our side of the equation. It is undeniably opt-in, like deciding between buying a sports car or converting to Buddhism because your wife left; or liking afrobeat or soca; or trying pickled herring. Whatever the case, if we didn’t grow up with it, we picked it.

Not so for those who find themselves on the other side, I’m given to understand.

The powerful cross-cultural event horizon which will erase the de facto primacy of my whiteness hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, I will continue to feel deeply weird any time I find myself at anyone else’s cultural happening. I’ll be at the back of the room feeling odd about an infant’s little gold earring. I might know the Lord’s prayer, but reciting the Seder will make me feel a bit out of place. Injera tastes delicious, but I’ll only buy it and never try to bake it. I’ll still find myself wondering where everyone is going as I idle at a red light on my way to lunch before figuring out that they’re on your way to pray for the third time today. I’ll ask you questions about the war in the country of your parents’ birth though I know I shouldn’t assume you know anything I don’t. I will remain profoundly ignorant about your religious observances as I continue to trivialize my own.

But mostly, I won’t overthink my relationship to you or your identifiable group. Unless I’m at your wedding, or your wedding is my wedding, too. Then I’ll want a primer.

Jonathan, 30, occasionally toys with the idea of being a writer when he grows up.