The Question of Race in Canada

Lawrence Hill writes about something that drives Ron nuts:

Canadians have a favourite pastime, and they don’t even realize it. They like to ask—they absolutely have to ask—where you are from if you don’t look convincingly white.

Here’s a narrative of how it goes:

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “what is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from? [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”] ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth.” [Code for “I’m not letting you off the hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

As Margaret Cho says when someone tells her that I just can’t tell you asians apart! she says Why do you need to tell us apart? Where are we going?

Or you can see how Henry Wu describes it in his book on Asian-American history and society: Where are you from? Wu calls it perpetual foreigner syndrome:

have heard the point as a direct taunt. It comes as the heckler’s jeer: “If you don’t like it here, then go back where you came from.” Or it comes as the snubbed host’s uncomprehending whine: “Don’t you like everything this country has given you?” The perpetual foreigner syndrome also can be expressed as empathy. They don’t realize that I speak English perfectly well and am accustomed to shaking hands.






3 responses to “The Question of Race in Canada”

  1. Al Avatar

    Being Canadian as well as arrogantly assuming I am more sensitive to racial dynamics than most of my countrymen, I have to say that while you are accurate and it is often annoying to the point of turning away when I hear it, I think the intention is honorable. Canadians have an often engaged habit of making sure evryone feels ok all the time. Often it takes the form of these obsessive and sometimes patronizing attempts. If most actually thought they were being pressumptive, they would be mortified!


  2. okokokalready Avatar

    Canada has no edge on the USA with the perpetual foreigner syndrome.

    I usually play the trump card when someone starts whining and simply say “Indeed and since my ancestors arrived with William Penn, help write the PA Consititution and the other half waved ‘ello to the Vikings if not a few other eary birds.. I do suggest you get out now if you don’t qualify. Leave it for the rest of us who have ALL our ancestors show up before 1776. I fully agree. Get rid of the Johnny come lately and improve the land. Thank you for offering to leave.

    That usually ends the conversation right then. They get the point very fast. [and I have the paperwork to prove it. wink]

  3. Pamela Stewart Avatar

    I am not Canadian, but experience some of the same racial puzzlement from (im)polite strangers regarding my son Joshua. I am an Anglo poster child with blond locks and my husband is tall dark and handsomely full-blooded Navajo. Josh came out looking much more like his Dad (thankfully he didn’t inherit Mom’s big nose). I have had these experiences in grocery stores and Starbucks:

    “What a cute little boy! When did you adopt him?”

    “He is so sweet! Where is he from?” (at which point I gesture to my ovaries)

    And my favorite from a sweet Chinese grannie and grandpa: “Is your baby Chinese?” They proceeded to tell me the story of their daughter, who married an Anglo too, and whose daughter apparently is a spitting image of Josh.

    I like to think that he will grow up to be secure in his roots, but able to fit into any racial category, much like Lou Diamond Phillips who rotates between a latino gangster, chinese martial artist, brazilian capoeira fighter or native american warrior.

    Here is a shot of the bubs with Mom and Dad – click on the pic to make it bigger.

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