People who look like me
by Daniel McNeil
M. A. History, University of Toronto
December 2002/January 2003
The Greeks called all other nations…barbarians,
A white Canadian recently told me, “If you aren’t white, you’re ‘dark’”. As a mixed race individual I didn’t agree with his crude description of a white and “dark” world, and found it slightly more ignorant than the countless observations of whites that “you look just like [insert some other person of colour they know or have seen on TV]”. In Toronto, there are many non-white ethnic groups – Hispanic, south-east Asian, Asian, etc – and each one encompasses a wide variety of skin tones and political groups. Yet basic labels constructed to help whites fit (and rank) “exotic” individuals into their worldview, or herd them all into a “visible minority” category, can be perpetuated by Black “leaders”.
In the March 3rd edition of The Toronto Star, some African Canadians could attack the dreams of white liberals for a contemporary colour-blind society (“In a world of inequality, can judges stay colour blind?” Margaret Parsons and Marie Chen). However, other Blacks, such as Superintendent Forde, who consider themselves on “the cutting edge of change and leadership” (“Driving force behind a new era of policing” Dale Anne Freed), called for “more people who look like me, more visible minorities”. Such simplistic comments by “trailblazing individuals”, demand colour-blindness within visible minority communities, parrot the desires of certain whites to see all visible minorities as similar types, and ignore Malcolm X’s observation to a predominantly Black audience: “the white man says, ‘you’re Black’. Turn around, look at yourselves; you’re 1,001 different colors.”
What happened to unity in diversity? Since when do non-whites have to accept some whites' inability to appreciate differences within and between visible minority groups? Just when we are campaigning to whites for them to hire “more of our kind”? But aren’t we still fighting against “looking alike” to police officers wishing to profile “Black criminals”? And shouldn’t police officers aware of their role as “examples to their own community” recognize the differences within Black communities? Should we even bother with police line-ups if Superindent Forde looks like moustached Lincoln Alexander? Or if our American brother Colin Powell looks like Michael Jordan (with or without his moustache)? Or our sister to the south, Oprah Winfrey? Or is racial profiling OK when “respectable” Blacks look alike in their uniforms and suits so as to try and inspire our youth to go into the “right kind” of jobs? Even if we ignore cases that reveal the ethnic rather than “pure” racial basis of diasporic Black communities (as well as gender divisions and the significant socio-economic ruptures that can separate leaders from the people they supposedly represent), have we lost sight of our human ability to empathise and relate to people who do not look like us, but offer values that we share, as well as our own ability to be an individual?
We need to be careful of coveting “more people who look like ourselves”. Let’s not euphemistically describe a desire to be surrounded by more people who share our skin tone (or ignore its potential promotion of nepotism). Instead, we may find it useful to think about the limits of requests to simply replicate THE Black appearance (dictated by whom? Current political leaders? Advertising executives?). Such attempts to enact outward signs of “diversity” do not necessarily acknowledge either the differences within Black skin tones and facial structures, or Black thought and value systems.
All Black people and “visible minorities” don’t look, or think, alike. And I, for one, want to make sure that we have individuals committed to challenging racial profiling on the basis of all Blacks being “up to something”. I want to identify with people’s values, not their skin tone, and I worry that token gestures by police departments and governmental agencies (and opportunistic political parties) are there to fill the Black skin tone content and allay white guilt. Political correctness can easily help groups point to the availability of black success…“if only you work hard within the system”.
I like to remember a time when Blackness was also about the content of one’s character, resistance to exploitative policies and awareness that whites do not get to dictate who does or does not “look like us”. Black self-determination helped us be aware of our differences and acknowledge the limitations of Black “representatives.” Sometimes this could slip into an attack on so-called “treasonous mulattoes”, with the reasoning that darker skin tone = deeper racial pride or at least a more deserving recipient of government jobs. Black nationalism could also appear to be a knee-jerk reaction to conservative politicians or sheer jealousy at the mainstream success of “Toms”.
Nonetheless, knowledge of past struggles against labels imposed by fearful whites and continued by Blacks unwilling to reconceptualise the terms they use, alongside awareness that there are many Black people who do not look like me, has helped me to establish alliances with people who share my commitment to destroying misguided racial classifications and all-too dangerous racial profiling, in order to obtain social equality (of opportunity). Simply following leaders who think they “look like” all visible minorities won’t help us challenge white racists. If we follow the “examples for the Black community” promoted by The Toronto Star, we would allow certain whites to continue to think in terms of binary oppositions and attach themselves to hurtful rhetoric that suggests that they are being overrun by “dark Others”.
Daniel McNeil is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His research interests include observing how inclusive rooted or indigenous Black communities are of newer immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and looking at the rhetorical use of 'Americanisation' in Canada and the US.
by Daniel McNeil
Copyright © 2003 Daniel McNeil and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.