Innocent Bystanders

by Navneet Alang

The nightmare that has been Toronto’s political news scene for the past three years seems to have finally reached its awful zenith. With allegations that Mayor Rob Ford may have smoked crack and made homophobic, racist remarks on video, there is no end to the ill effects of this latest head-shaking fiasco: the continued reduction of our municipal political sphere to a never-ending circus; the serious harm done to Toronto’s international image by a man who claims to be raising its business profile; and the simple fact that a city that was finally starting to hit its stride has been seriously set back by its woefully inadequate mayor.

But one more unexpected, negative, and completely unnecessary effect of this mess has been the circulation of a profoundly xenophobic tone about the people who have the video in question. Though the original Gawker piece made precisely no mention of the ethnicity of the video owners, the Toronto Star article mentions the word “Somali” six times, and uses ethnicity as shorthand for easily identifying who ‘these people' are. This is a problem.

The most obvious issue with the use of the term Somali is one of simple accuracy. If the people in question live here, they are Somali-Canadians, Canadians of Somali descent, or, ya’ know, Torontonians. It’s simply bad form and more than a bit odd that Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, the writers of the article, would choose to mark these men out as "foreigners" rather than residents of the city.

Of course, it raises the question of why an ethnic descriptor was necessary at all. Some, like Now Magazine’s John Semley and the Star’s Andew Livingstone, have advanced the argument that including ethnicity helps to not only contextualize the story, but lends it credibility. The Somali-Canadian community at Kipling and Dixon in Etobicoke is in some ways like many other ghettoized, low-income communities across the country: drugs and drug trafficking are an undeniable problem. But the idea that ethnicity is a good predictor of behaviour—which after all is essentially the argument Semley and Livingstone are making—is exactly the problem with racial profiling. As a methodology, it’s simply a bad way to talk about individuals, because even if a practice is common amongst a group, there’s no guarantee specific members of that group will repeat the practice—or even identify as part of that group. Saying these men are Somali to link them to drugs is about as useful as pointing out the colour of their clothes.

But perhaps most galling of all is just how frequently it was repeated in the original Star piece, which had the effect of scattering a basic factual and ethical error across local media and the globe, often in unexpected ways. The notion that Ford’s acquaintances are “Somali men” has now ricocheted around the world—showing up on sites like Buzzfeed—and has now circled its way back to Canadian media, like in this troubling column from Christie Blatchford. It’s like a study in stereotypes in miniature: you invoke an inaccurate description, link something seedy to a certain ethnic group, and then watch the associations you made with that group get repeated over and over.

To put it more plainly, when of all people a Gawker writer calls you out on the pernicious effects of your rhetoric, you fucked up. Doolittle and Donovan basically repeated an old-age practice of marking certain people out as weird, threatening ‘others’, using subtle foreignness as a kind of shorthand for that not-so-subtle  Canadian xenophobia. It’s irresponsible, it’s stupid, and they should do what they can to fix their mistake.

What makes this whole mess even more depressing is the circular nature of the prejudice at work. Ford’s voter base from the 2010 election included a great number of minorities who had real, legitimate complaints about being left out of discussions at City Hall, and saw in Ford someone who would stand up for their suburban concerns. But as Desmond Cole brilliantly pointed out, Mayor Ford’s record on race is abysmal, a fact perfectly captured by the constantly contradictory rhetoric of saying he supports minority youth while he refuses to address any of the system issues that plague them. Minority voters were had by the effectiveness of Ford’s campaign team. Now, when the press quite legitimately goes after Ford, they do so in a way that completely gratuitously brings race into the equation. It’s a bit damned if you do, damned if you don’t, isn't it? And while it is Ford’s transgressions that are obviously the story here, we shouldn't simply ignore the gross negligence that has allowed a vital community of Torontonians to get caught in the crossfire.