Seeking Success in Canada's Lonely Multiculturalism Experiment

Jonathan Kay, the editor-in-chief of The Walrus, recently wrote about the rags to riches story of Roy Ratnavel, a Bay Street investment manager. Billed as a “lesson in success and diversity,” it focuses on the benefits of faking it till you make it into a white mainstream notion of Canadiana. While Ratnavel himself “has never encountered what he regards as unambiguous racism,” the Walrus article suggests that what we learn from his story is that immigrants should let go of their baggage in order to be successful. 

In response, Murrad Hemmadi, senior editor at Canadian Business, wrote a series of Tweets calling out the reductionist tone of the piece. Hemmadi argued that although it was an important narrative, it ignores the barriers immigrants face in many workplace settings, especially as they relate to media or leadership positions. Using illustrative quotes from the article he demonstrates how it implicitly supports "the anti-anti-racism approach to diversity," and "puts the onus for success firmly on the immigrant, person of colour, or otherwise disenfranchised individual."

I struggle myself at times with this perspective and it has left me with a lot of questions. There’s a report that came out in August that 67% of white people in the US didn’t want to talk about race on social media. It was too uncomfortable to do so. What do we get across by pointing out systemic issues related to social inequity - whether that relates to race, gender, or class? Should migrants reminisce about their loss of culture? Does the discussion only highlight differences rather than similarities?

The experience of otherness is reinforced by the microaggressions that take place every day. It may depend on the headspace you are in as to whether you are aware of them or how you receive them. The last 20 minutes (start at 39:10) of this Invisibilia podcast are worth having a listen to. It compares two frames of references Hassan Minaj of the 'The Daily Show' lives with. One perspective comes from his dad’s struggle living as a Muslim in India and the respite he found in America. The other is the racism and challenges Minaj faced growing up as a Muslim kid in the post-911 world.

The pressure to integrate is felt in other ways: the Globe and Mail recently explored how it contributes to the loss of heritage languages by third generation immigrants or even earlier. A familiar story in many immigrant households is “parents who speak in their native language to children who respond mostly in English.” There is a rush to fit in for the first and second generation communities, but narratives of your family give way to an often superficial relationship with grandparents or aunties living abroad.  

Some young Muslims are challenging their loss of heritage; the Montreal-based company Mode-ste is determined to “reconcile modernity with modesty” by designing “affordable maxi dresses, long-sleeved tunics, relaxed-fit trousers and ankle-length pencil skirts,” which conform to Islamic modesty laws. “The company is poised to cross the million-dollar mark in 2017, thanks in part to a November appearance on CBC’s 'Dragons’ Den,' as well as a collaboration with modest-fashion maven Saufeeya Goodson, whose @HijabFashion Instagram page has 2.6 million followers.” It’s a good reminder that whatever happens, things will move forward, and as Zadie Smith says below, not to despair. Culture will evolve and people will come up with ways to reinvent and keep a part of themselves.

Taking place just days after the election of Donald Trump,  author Zadie Smith’s speech (on the occasion of winning the 2016 Welt Literature Prize) is well worth a read. It is a powerful, and at times personal, exploration of multiculturalism and progress in an unsettled, unpredictable time. One thing that struck me was how insufficient labels are in capturing our messy human experience. Smith says “individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities.” Immigrants who must be, indeed are demanded to be, many things at once, understand this all too well.

Amy Sanderson