Thursday, July 14, 2016

Race, America, and Canadian Patriotism: Reflections on a Chosen Country

I've been struggling with what to write about in this post. I planned to write a sweet little post about my Canada Day outfit, and why I love Canada. But then all the news of the last few weeks hit me in the gut -- hard. I felt that it would be disrespectful to write a post about my love of Canada, without addressing our track record on racism, especially in relation to Canada's Indigenous people. 

So this post is a bit of a mish-mash, about my Canada Day outfit, about why I love Canada, and about the ways in which Canada is failing many of its citizens. After all, true patriotism is not blind. If we love our nation, and I do, we must face its flaws and work to change them -- for the good of all.

Dress: Mytlewood; Headband: Stylize; Shoes: Ecco; Brooch and earrings: vintage from my great-aunt
I am American. I don't hide that. I was born in the United States and lived there for the first six years of my life. I moved here in 1976 when my step-father got an academic job here. My entire family is American, from New York state and New York City. I spent all my summers and many other holidays in the United States. I lived in New York city for a short time in 1999.

I long ago pledged allegiance to Canada (including, yes, the queen!) thus gaining Canadian citizenship, and I have the sometimes euphoric love of Canada that only an immigrant can have. Still I have never felt the need to revoke my American citizenship.

We have some pretty negative stereotypes about Americans up here in Canada and I know, first hand, that they are not based in universal fact. Some of my favourite people are or were Americans. But I'm still very happy to be in Canada. I still choose Canada.

For about a year now, I've been watching events unfolding in the States with horror and disbelief. As much as some of us want to think of Trump as a bad joke, I can't do that. He has far too many followers for us to safely dismiss him as the loser that he obviously is. Once upon a recent time, there was another absurd, racist, jingoistic wanna-be leader in the world. People thought of him as a harmless joke too and that was a huge mistake. His name was Hitler. I do not draw that parallel lightly.

I'm Jewish. I've heard rhetoric like Trump's before. So this time, the target is Muslims, not Jews. It makes little difference. I'm not one to dismiss racism and religious intolerance just because it's not directed at me. The story is essentially the same: blame the "others" for all your problems, work the public up into a racist frenzy of fear and loathing, and rise to power. It's extremely dangerous.

At the same time, I've been watching mass shootings in America become like the bad weather that has come with climate change: expected and quickly forgotten, its warnings and solutions entirely ignored. Up here, we watch all this and cannot begin to fathom why some Americans cling so tightly to the "right to bear arms." It makes no sense to us, any more than Trump's popularity, the political power of the religious right, or people's aversion to universal health care.

I was still reeling from the homophobic massacre in Orlando, and the xenophobic reactions to it, when Alton Sterling was executed by the police in Baton Rouge. I was still grappling with that, when Philando Castille was executed by the police in Minnesota. I was still in horrified shock over that, when a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas. I couldn't catch my breath as horror after horror punched me in the gut. 

Throughout this, I've been overwhelmingly relieved to be living in Canada. I feel safer here, saner, and I feel that my adolescent step-sons are safer too.

Canadians are pretty quiet and subtle about our patriotism, but we can get pretty smug and obvious about it when we compare ourselves to Americans. Whatever our faults, we tell each other, at least we're not like Americans. Our citizens have a global reputation for being Not Like Americans, and we're proud of it. We're proud of the image we project to the outside world -- and to ourselves: peaceful, polite, respectful, and not plagued by aggression, jingoism, ignorance of other cultures, unchecked capitalism, religious zealotry, and the legacy of slavery.

But is our smugness unfounded? Are we telling ourselves some pretty lies about ourselves? What's the truth behind the picture we have painted of ourselves?

Well, for one thing, we sure as hell aren't free of racism. I know this in part because, as a white person, I hear other white people say the most awful things here, particularly about Asians and Aboriginal people. Yes, we have racism but we pretend we don't.

I once heard a joke: In the States, if a racist man spits on a black man, he says, "I spit on you!" In Canada, if a racist man spits on a black man, he says, "It's raining." 

Yeah. That's pretty much it. (Though the "It's raining" approach seems to be getting more popular in the States these days).

Any white person with half a heart has to ask herself what she can do in the face of all this overt and covert racism. Perhaps because I'm a writer, my first answer to the question is to speak out and never to remain silent when these issues come up. 

After the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille last week, when people, white or otherwise, asked me how I was, I told them the truth: I'm extremely upset about the recent news in the States. I was appalled by the responses I got from white Canadians. They engaged in all kinds of logically flawed, mental contortions to maintain their false beliefs that black men are not the targets of police brutality in the States. One man I spoke to had been far more upset when that gorilla was killed in the zoo in the States than he was when two humans, black men, were killed by police. In fact, he didn't seem upset by that at all, despite the fact that he has black friends, despite the fact that he doesn't believe himself to be even a tiny bit racist.  

If I had doubted that racism is alive and well in Canada, and I guess I hadn't really, I couldn't doubt it after those conversations. I was literally trembling with impotent rage and sorrow.

And the thing is, I think these deniers know, deep in their hearts, that there is a problem. They say they've never seen it. They say it's not there. But they're lying. When I asked the man who was so upset about the gorilla if he'd like to be raising black boys in the States right now, his answer was swift, "God no!" Would he be worried about their safety, specifically in the presence of police? "Yes."

He knows. He knows there's a problem, not just in the United States, but in Canada too. Everyone knows it. Why won't they own up to it? Are they afraid that owning up to it would also mean owning up to the fact that it's up to them, to us, to you and me, to do something about it?

No matter how uncomfortable and sometimes even fearful it makes me to speak out when I hear people being racist, I'll never stop. It's my moral duty to speak. But I admit that I don't always raise the topic myself. I did the other day because a Native friend on Facebook had posted something asking white people to do just that: speak with our white friends about racism. So I did. And it was awful. I'm sure she, a Native woman, wouldn't be surprised by any of the things I heard.

Canada's track record with Aboriginal peoples is appalling. I might have been able to tell myself that our racism against black people wasn't all that bad, but I'd have to be a fool to say the same of Canadians' racism against Native people. I have heard it all (and not just from white Canadians). I've heard about "drunk Indians," "Indians sleeping on the street," "lazy Indians," "Squaw whores," "freeloading Indians"... and worse.

When I've taught Aboriginal short stories in classes, my students have felt perfectly within their rights to use these disgusting racial slurs in academic discussion. They believe these slurs not to be racist epithets, but to be irrefutable truths. I admit that part of why I've taught, say, Louise Erdrich's short story, American Horse, is precisely because I know it will raise this racist bile to my students' lips, giving me the chance to refute it with truth, as best I can.

When I hear this bile, I talk about literal and cultural genocide. I talk about colonialism and stolen land. I talk about institutionalized racism. I talk about residential schools and PTSD. In the face of all this, the "best" argument I get, from students and the general population is a snide, "They should just get over it," and, my all time least favourite, "I didn't do these things to them. It has nothing to do with me."

Really? That's when I talk about white privilege. If you're still benefiting from the institutional racism that keeps oppressed groups down -- and, if you're white, you are -- it has everything to do with you. If you're blaming those groups for their own oppression -- by saying they're lazy, drunk, rude, whatever -- it has everything to do with you. And if you're denying there's a problem, you are the problem.

Sometimes I feel like I'm spitting into a tidal wave. But I won't stop.

I have a habit of drawing parallels between various forms of oppression and I can tell you this for sure: silence and denial about racism have intense parallels to the wall of silence and denial I face about child sexual abuse. I know how badly that can hurt. It's not something I care to do to others.

Oppression is not just abstract. It is about bodies.

In part because my skin is white (and therefore highly marketable to paedophiles), my body has been beaten, drugged, tortured, sold, and raped, by the very people who were supposed to protect me: adult care-takers. I am physically disabled for life because of it but I did make it out alive. Not all trafficked children do. When I was a young child, I witnessed the depraved murder of a little white girl my age. I got the message. My body was disposable. My life didn't matter. I felt grief and impotent rage. I know what it is to be turned into an object, to be dehumanized and degraded.

Because their skin is black, African-American men and boys are beaten and tortured by the very people who are supposed to protect them: the police. Many make it out alive but most know someone who didn't. They get the message. Their bodies are disposable. Their lives don't matter. Is it any wonder their grief turns to impotent rage? They know what it is to be dehumanized and degraded.

Because they are Native, Aboriginal women and girls are statistically much more likely to be beaten, tortured, drugged, sold, and raped. They are more likely to die violent deaths. Their deaths and disappearances are seldom taken seriously by the police or by the general population. Even if they survive, they probably know someone who didn't. The message is clear. Their bodies are disposable. Their lives don't matter. Their grief can sometimes swallow their rage, replacing it with a self-loathing and shame that should be directed at their attackers, not themselves. These women and girls know what it is to be degraded and dehumanized.

My affinity with the oppressed is not just abstract. It's about bodies, my body, their bodies: tortured, discarded. It's about real lives and real, individual suffering. It's about hell. How could I not fight to end it, wherever I see it?

Here in Canada, I have learned so much from Native communities. Their stories, their culture, their realities have been kept in shadows and lies for centuries. They've learned new ways to move into the light without denying the darkness. In their learning, I find some powerful lessons as I grapple with my own truth of having been a sex trafficked little girl. For one thing, I've learned that living in denial is never a good thing. While most white people become wilfully blind and deaf when I try to tell them my story, most Native people do not. That in itself is a gift.

And I've learned that virtually everything I was taught in school about Natives was not true. I can't even begin to go into all the lies I was taught. That is the subject of many books. But here's a start: I was actually taught that Native people are all gone. Can you believe that? They're not. Despite all attempts to erase them, culturally and literally, they're still here, in every walk of life. The tenacity of the human spirit is a beautiful thing.

I live on unceded Aboriginal territory. In other words, my entire city is built on stolen land, never sold or signed over to the white people. When I first moved to Canada as a little girl, I lived less than a block away from the Musqueam reserve. I was told that they'd been given a special plot of land that was all their own, but I was not taught that the rest of the land, our land, had been stolen from them. I fell madly, deeply, and completely in love with this land long before I understood all this. It was my white privilege that made it possible for me live here.

This is a small portion of just one of Aaron Carapella's fabulous maps of the Americas' First Nations. If you'd like to buy them, go to Tribal Nations Maps.
Another lie I was taught is that "Indians," as they were then called, were and had always been one big, unified group, sharing one culture, one identity, and one set of beliefs. If someone said this about Europe, we'd know it is absurd. It's equally absurd to say it about the First Nations of the Americas. The Americas were lands of many nations, many identities, many cultures, many languages, and many beliefs. 

I had to learn this on my own. My deep connection to the lush land I've chosen naturally leads me to become interested in the history and cultures of the people whose roots are here. As a white North American, I've often wondered what it feels like to live on your indigenous land. The connection to that land must be amazing. 

Cultures, religions, and spiritualties are not just abstract. They are rooted in the geographies of their birth. Jewish prayer, for instance, is filled with references to "ha eretz," the land, its seasons, and the fruits it bears for its people. I practise Judaism, after a fashion, but I've never even been to the Middle East. I'm here. Is it any wonder, then, that my love of this land has led me to learn more and more about the cultures and belief systems of the people who were here first?

This love of our chosen home is a big part of why Beau and I chose to get married in a Native longhouse. It is an unspeakably beautiful space, filled with images that resonate with anyone who lives here: salmon, ravens, bears. And it's cedar. We were enveloped in the reddish gold and beautiful scent of cedar. Given how much we love this land, that just seemed right. We worried about being yet another white couple appropriating Indigenous cultures. That's why it was so special when my Musqueam friend, Mary, surprised us with a song her great uncle had written. I told her it felt like a welcome, and she told me that had been her intention.

But this isn't all just about my feelings about Native cultures. It's not just about my gaining something from them. If I'm going to live on their land, if I'm going to be treated better than they are simply because I'm white, don't I at least owe them the respect of knowing who they are, of seeing them? Don't I owe them the respect of listening to them, hearing what they have endured, and standing up for them when I can?

Isn't this part of being a good Canadian citizen?

So back to Canada Day. Absolutely none of the above withstanding, I do love Canada. I feel incredibly fortunate to live here. Many people feel as I do and, yes, this does include people within the very minorities that Canada has oppressed. Life and patriotism are like that: complicated.

But even those of us who are proudly Canadian are pretty quiet about it. The only "large" flag I saw on Canada Day was this one, and I know for a fact that it's up there all the time, just a convenient curtain to keep this porch shady. Canada is not a country that drapes itself in its own flag. I like that.

Instead, on Canada Day, most people's patriotism manifests itself in quietly wearing a red and white t-shirts. 

And then going about a casual ...

... mellow day off, sometimes followed by a nice little barbeque and some fireworks. That's all. That's enough. Strong feelings need not always be loud.

We're not ones for chest puffing about our nation, not much anyway.

My chest puffing in some of these photos was ham acting, pretending at a variety of patriotism that is frowned upon up here. Indeed, my Canada Day outfit was really over the top, more of a camp gesture than one of pride.

But the dress (which you've seen before here) was so perfect for the day, I thought I'd go for it anyway.

Beau kept exclaiming about how nice it looks on my figure and, even I, with all my self-loathing about my body, can actually see what he means. It is pretty figure flattering. It makes me quite pleased to be so curvy.

The dress' style is unmistakably 1960s so I had fun posing in front of this little garage which looks like a tiny house, 1960s house, in red and white for Canada Day, naturally.

A wide headband is a no-brainer with virtually any 1960s inspired outfit, but making it white was definitely in homage to the day.

So were my two bangles, red and white together.

If I owned white shoes, I'd have worn them too. Instead, I wore my black mary-janes (mary-janes also being a staple of the 1960s), but made sure to carry my black cane ...

... and wear black sunglasses to carry black through the whole outfit.

And then there were my great-aunt's daisies! My aunt, who died at 97 last year, was my grandmother's baby sister, and much loved by everyone who knew her. She and I shared a passion for jewelry, including costume jewelry, so, when she died, I asked if I could have her costume pieces. Nobody else wanted them but I sure did! 

Daisies were a staple of 1960s fashion and I'd been thinking that I should own some, when the box of my aunt's jewellery finally arrived, complete with many daisies!

The 60s daisy trend was very much a part of the youth scene of the time so my aunt's love of them is quite entertaining to me, given that she was well into middle age when she bought them. Good for her! Like me, she never cared much what other people thought of her, and she had no problem expressing her opinions, no matter how unpopular they might be. So 60s daisies it was, for her and for me.

I was born in 1970 so never even experienced the 1960s, but I had great fun with this all over 60s, Canada Day look. It seemed particularly appropriate given that I've been lamenting the loss of my city's earlier, less populated version of itself.

There is some irony in my wearing my aunt's jewellery in a post so critical of America, and British colonialism. You see, though my entire maternal family, including my great aunt, were left wing and pacifist, my aunt married a right wing, government man. Looking back, my guess is that he was in the CIA. There were a lot of rumours about him going to foreign countries for work and leaving just before coups. The assumption was that he had a hand in fomenting them.

A few years before she died, I asked my aunt how she and her husband made their marriage work, given that she had remained left wing all her life. She said simply, "We loved each other." To her, that was answer enough. That answer would probably suffice for most people, but it wouldn't for me. I respected my aunt's love for her husband, but I know that a similar love would not work for me.

Politics is not, for me, something separate from my daily life and my ethical views. My politics are deeply informed by my ethics, what I feel is right and just, not just for me and those I love, but for the people of my country and even the world. These ethics are a direct product of my deeply held faith, one that I feel requires me to act with compassion, not just for my family and friends, but for all people, especially the oppressed.

How then, could I possibly marry someone whose political views were not similar to my own? 

My politics, my ethics, my faith, are a big part of my choice to live in Canada -- for many reasons, some of which I've explained in this post. It's a good fit for me.

In my choice to live here, I have made some sacrifices. If I had moved back to the States, especially New York, I might have been able to tap into the more established intellectual and artistic cultures there, and I probably could have built a more lucrative career than I did here. But it just wasn't worth it.

I breathe easier up here. It's my home.

But I'm not wilfully blind to my nation's failings. I hope my eyes are wide open and my vision clear. Where it is not, I hope I will be humble enough to listen when people tell me what I'm missing.

As with all of life, I appreciate and try to preserve the good ... 

... but I should never deny or turn away from the bad. We must recognize the bad and try to change it. Isn't this what it means to love your country fiercely? Isn't that what patriotism is all about?

(I'm sharing this with Fashion Should Be FunRachel the HatModish Matrons on In The Writer's ClosetHappiness at Midlife, High Altitude StyleTina's Pink Friday, Not Dead Yet Style, Sydney Fashion HunterNot Dressed As Lamb, Style Crone, and Adri Lately.)


  1. So well said! and yes that dress is wonderful on you.

    1. Thanks and thanks. I'd had it in my head that this dress isn't flattering but the photos changed my mind.

  2. go you.
    and understanding.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement. It can get quite demoralizing. Go you too! Maybe we can affect some real change.

  3. Dear Charlotte, thank you for linkup with tinaspinkfriday :)
    You look amazing in this red dress and the daisie accessoires.
    You re right bad things must change. I am speechless about these incidents.
    Hughs Tina

  4. I love Canada, and have considered moving there many times. Your post, so well expressed, reminds me that Canada is not heaven. But the Canadian view of guns, gun violence, and the glorifying of guns - is one I share completely. Beautiful dress and beautiful woman - thanks for sharing, xo


    1. Thanks. I do really prefer Canada. The American love of guns is completely bizarre to me and virtually every other Canadian.

  5. Thanks for linking up to Top of the World Style. You look great in this dress. I like the pins that you wear with it. Great styling

    1. Thank my great aunt for the pin and earrings. I've wanted some for a long time.

  6. I have joked with my husband that if Trump becomes President, we need to move to Canada :) I love this red dress on you!

    Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you soon!


    1. A lot of Americans are saying that. I surely wouldn't want to be down there with him as president. He's terrifying!

  7. You are adorable in your red dress, Charlotte! And what a beautiful and fun styling with black and white accessories too!

    1. Thanks, Natalia. It's even itchy, thick, polyester, just right for the 60s. :) I wish my aunt were still alive to hear all the nice things people are saying about her jewellery. She lived a good long life though. She was 97 when she passed last fall.

  8. "Retro adorable" is almost always my goal so thanks! Thanks to my aunt for the earrings. I got so many pieces from her when she passed. They'll slowly show up in my blog.

  9. Excellent essay Charlotte. I share your feelings on racism. And I'm often ashamed of Canada for its poor relations with First Nations.

    I feel a need to connect with FN women but I have no idea how to go about connecting except as I meet women in my daily life - which is seldom!

    Thanks so much for putting your feelings here for everyone to read! <3