What We Talk About When We Talk About Whiteness

By Navneet Alang

When we launched the Ethnic Aisle almost a year ago, we did so because we wanted to hear the voices of people from ethnicities and cultures that were sadly missing from mainstream discourse. So we’d understand if you were a little skeptical of this, our White Issue, which will see white writers talk about... well, being white. Sounds a little strange for this site, doesn’t it?

Yet, despite the fact that it’s everywhere, we rarely talk about the various forms of whiteness as cultures or ethnicities unto themselves. Far too often, whiteness is a kind of assumed norm without a name—something neatly encapsulated by the fact that no-one ever calls grilled cheese or steak “ethnic food”. Instead of thinking about things like Western dress, sexual mores or eating habits as specific ethnic, cultural practices, we treat them as if they just are. In such a situation, the “normal” ends up becoming the normative—the thing everyone just assumes is the default.

But in a city like Toronto, where just over half of the population comes from some place else* (see below), it won’t do to keep talking about things that way. So, we asked some local writers to shed light on the experience of being white in a kaleidoscopic, multicultural city. Our point isn’t so much to have yet one more view from a white person as it is to think about where whiteness fits into a modern city where, soon enough, no one group will form a dominant majority.

If you think the idea is misguided, then that’s what comment sections are for—and, to be honest, we hope they’ll be lively. But along the way, perhaps we’ll do a little something to demystify whiteness. Maybe we’ll learn about exotic dining habits, which, as we understand it, involve eating a kind of loaf made from meat, at 6pm. Perhaps we’ll come to understand more clearly why a set of miniature crystal animals is less tacky a wedding gift than handy, no-strings-attached cash. But most of all, what we hope is that in thinking about “white” as just one of many identities, we’ll move away from treating it as the norm—and get a little closer to the idea that we are all, each in our own way, “ethnic”.

*To clarify, this is not to imply that Toronto's visible minorities are somehow not Torontonian or Canadian - simply that, statistically speaking, half of Toronto's population is foreign-born. It's this fact makes "demystifying whiteness" as the norm and centre such an an important project.