Volume 96, Issue 65
Friday, January 24, 2003

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Canada's multicultural smorgasbord: Part II of II
Camels, pickles, boas, ninjas and other stereotypes

Has anyone had any experiences with discrimination, being ostracized or segregation?

Amrita: I find that after the Sept. 11 incident, every time I go across the border I get looked at funny and I'm not tricking myself. They're a lot more tougher on me and my family, whenever we're at the airport together.

Ash: I can't deny it, I get that a lot, too. Even when you're taking inter-provincial flights, everyone else went into the green zone [and] I went to the red zone. I mean, I understand the logic behind it really, the authorities have nothing else to go on. But, at the same time, I'm standing there and here's my shampoo bottle being emptied just in case there's something harmful.

Catherine: One experience I had, these two white guys were saying things to me and I wanted to tell them that I am half white. I am not that different, why are you attacking me? There's still that commonalty.

Kamilla: And there's the commonalty that you're a person right?

Catherine: Yeah, that's what I was going to say. It's a commonalty that we're all people, we're all human beings. It was hard to deal with because I felt that I had been really betrayed by human beings. There's such a loss of respect. Again, maybe I lived in my na•ve little world, but I didn't think people treated people like that anymore. But you have to accept that there is a small minority of people like that and you can't let them prevent you from enjoying life.

Ash: Sometimes it's not just outward appearance that segregates you; I was born into a very unpleasant situation. As a Christian in the Middle East, there is discrimination against us. It's been made clear by governments all over the Middle East that we're not welcome, so it was sort of a way of life. Coming to Canada, I actually have more freedom, even though Sept. 11 sheds a negative light on my ethnicity.

Amrita: I feel that I've been discriminated against by my own culture more than I have any other culture. Not so much here at Western, but more so when I was in high school. I don't fit the stereotype of the typical brown person.

Rob: I've had homophobic epithets shouted at me numerous times and it just sort of slides off my back. What's more hurtful is what people don't know, like the use of language – even people talking and using the word "gay" to essentially mean "stupid." You can throw a lot of negative terms into how that word is used. I can find that kind of pervasive and a lot of people will be kind of offended and be like, "Oh well, I have gay friends, so it doesn't matter." But you can't really justify it, regardless of what your actual intent might have been, because, when someone hears that, especially if they're not out of the closet, it's just another reason not to come out. I think really subtle aspects are the most hurtful and still the most common still.

Ash: That's true. I have friends who will, for example, point to this chair and say "This chair is gay." What I find confusing is, how does this chair have a sexuality? It's a piece of furniture. So I question them on that.

Joyce: I'd like to go back to what Amrita was saying about her own culture discriminating [against] her more than others. When I go back home to Pacific Mall, which is the "Asian" place to be, it's like people look at me funny, like I don't belong there. I look like them, but I'm different already. When I walk into a bubble tea place, they already know that I'm not really one of them – like I'm different, like I'm not really a part of their culture.

Does anyone else share the same sentiment, that you're discriminated against by your own culture because you don't fit the stereotype or cookie-cutter version of what you should be?

Catherine: I'm not that cookie-cutter version of a black person or a brown person, and sometimes I do get that feeling of, "Oh, she's not really black" or whatever. It's kind of condescending, like "You're not really one of us, but we'll let you stay." I do kind of brush that off, because I think it's pretty ridiculous, but at the same time, it's there and you know it's there.

As a result of this, have you ever felt resentment towards your own culture?

Amrita: I wouldn't call it so much "resentment," or anything negative, but I do have some sentiment towards the stereotypical type of Indian person that you'll come across. I don't think they're negative feelings; they're just feelings that I know I don't belong and I'm OK with it, but I know it exists. If there's any interaction with someone who's that stereotypical, once I turn my back, I know there'll be a comment about what they'd call "whitewashed."

Rob: In terms of stereotypes, I've found myself being very wary of the stereotypical gay person. Not so much now, but earlier I think because I didn't want to be associated with the whole host of [stereotypically gay] qualities, whether they are good or bad in whoever's eyes – I didn't want to be pigeon-holed. As I became comfortable with it, I [didn't] resent the people as much as the stereotypes themselves. You know, the pink boa wearing, ecstasy-taking gay guy.

Kamilla: You mean you don't do that (laughter)?

Ash: You get the good stereotypes: you're always the well-dressed, good looking guy – I want some of those stereotypes.

Rob: Yeah, like I said, they can be good or bad. As you grow accustomed to it, you take not so much the people, but the stereotypes themselves.

Spencer: Stereotypes are a very double-edged sword in a lot of ways. Take the whole nature of categorization; they can be very useful in drawing immediate distinction, but, at the same time, can be very harmful when you fall into a pattern where you refuse to accept things that breakdown the stereotypical mold.

Ash: Some of [the stereotypes] are ridiculous, like what does my life experience have anything to do with camels? But, some people seriously think I own a camel or ride a camel or something like that. It's like my symbol, or I carry around a flag with a camel on it. But some of them just make you pause and think, who is this person in front of you that is bringing this to the table?

Spencer: For some of these people, in a sense, these jokes bring people together.

Ash: I agree with you, with good buddies, it's sort of a shared relationship – but some people are actually serious and the thing is, these are the kind of people who you need to take the extra couple of minutes to explain your perspective to. Someone who has a limited understanding of what an Egyptian Canadian is – someone who is tied in with pharaohs and has camels. When they're actually serious, that's when you realize, "I can't make fun of this person, they have no other frame of reference." I'm actually their first experience with my culture, so I pause and explain it to them.

Catherine: It really depends on where they're getting this view from. For a lot of people, their first meeting with certain cultures are through the media. As a result of media, this is the portrayal that they're getting – a certain culture or stereotype. This becomes this motif of this culture that is repeated over and over again through different media outlets and recycled. Eventually, that's all you're going to see, so that's what you believe.

Do you feel well-represented in the media?

Joyce: In our class with [media, information, technoculture professor Nick Dyer-Witheford], someone showed Lady and the Tramp last year and there was a portion about Siamese cats and how they were represented as Asian. Someone went on about the cats having slanty eyes, and a girl put up her hand and said, "But Asians do have slanty eyes," and she was dead serious. I don't think she realized what she said.

Spencer: I don't think she realizes much.

Joyce: I was just blown away and everyone was looking at me waiting for me to do something like "Fight her! Fight her!" and use my Jackie Chan moves.

Spencer: A ninja star to the forehead!

Ash: I feel as though there are nothing but negative mentions of anything that comes close to my culture in the media. Whether it's the news or a show like 24, Arabs are terrorists. That's the only kind of people that Arabs are in the media. I feel like I'm absolutely not represented, or if I am represented, it's only in a negative manner. It's to the point where I have never seen a positive representation of a Middle Eastern person.

Rob: In terms of media stereotypes, you have your straight-acting gay guy, you have your flame gay guy, you have your drag queen, and there's not much in between. The flamey gay guy and drag queen are always an occasion for laughter; they're never taken seriously. Jack on Will and Grace and most other people fall somewhere along that spectrum. I don't know where I really place myself on the Flame-O-Metre, but how high do my flames go? Yeah, don't quote that.

Everyone: We have to quote that.

Amrita: I don't really see a lot of Indianness. There's cultural programming on TV, but I never see [my culture represented on] an NBC show – like I never see a brown person on Friends. I don't think it's expected to be seen either. I know there's been one or two references to India, like Dr. Mukherjee, who was Phoebe's boyfriend or something like that. There's a representation that all brown people want to be doctor's or something.

Ash: You don't see negative representations or anything?

Amrita: Well yeah, you'll see the cab driver or something like that, but really, I don't see a whole lot of it.

Kamilla: The only thing I've seen with Polish people is this movie called Polish Wedding, which is just an atrocity. Don't ever see it – it's bad. The mother and daughter are sluts, all the sons are construction workers, the father feeds the children cigarettes and they eat perogies and pickles for breakfast.

Rob: When there is a racial or sexual minority in the media, [they're portrayed] very deliberately.

Catherine: Yeah, it's like the main issue. I remember on Ally McBeal, when Ally had that kiss with the other woman, and there was so much hype about it for days. It's like the big shit was like, "Oh my God, she's going to kiss another girl. Oh my God, did you see it?" It becomes such a big hype that there's going to be this minority represented, but if you asked me about media representations of myself, I think a lot of the people that we see in media, be it on TV or movies, are so unrealistic to begin with.

So the question becomes: is no representation better than negative representation?

Abstractly thinking, it's not personal, but I think no representation is better than negative. I mean, logically speaking, it's better to not have an opinion on something than have a distorted one. Just stay neutral.

Catherine: At least that way, you're starting from a clean slate and not having to overcome these negative viruses that are already there and have nothing to do with you.

Ash: I argue that you actually don't, because, from my experiences, even though I have no representation in the media, some other tag or identity has been tagged on to me and then I have to work at reversing that perspective and then bringing what I am to the table.

Rob: I agree – at least with queer representation – it's there and talked about and it's a starting point for some kind of discussion. Maybe someone who picks up a stereotype will then have a discussion with someone who enlightens them. So, at least it's going to be talked about, rather than being ignored or rather than us pretending that it doesn't exist, which to me is far worse.

Kamilla: That would be the hope that people would actually talk about it, but how many people just blindly accept the stereotype and never venture outside of it?

Amrita: I think, to some degree, it's also getting trendy – like Eastern religion is trendy. Going out for Pad Thai is trendy. When trends fall a certain way, people tend to go towards it.

Rob: Yeah, ever since Will and Grace came on the air, every straight girl wants a gay guy on her arm. You have like five girls who are like, "Can you be my Will?" I have several Graces, I don't need anymore.

So, what do we as young Canadians do now?

Ash: Sit down and talk about it with people who are willing to sit down and talk; more importantly, listen to other people and what they have to bring to the table. I think a forum like this is perfect; if anything, I think we should have more and more forums like this with much more diversity available. As much diversity as we have right now, we're still lacking an awful lot of people who can bring different ideas and perspectives to this discussion.

Catherine: You can't really know much about another culture unless you understand someone who comes from that culture and their experiences. By sharing in that, you'll see that there are a lot of parallels in everyone.

Spencer: Multiculturalism and diversity are catch phrases that don't go without challenge and contestation. You see a lot of things in the past 10 to 15 years, the Oka crisis, the Montreal Massacre, Francophone-Anglophone tensions running pretty high at times, and I'm not really sure what this all means. I'd like to believe that these challenges [do] not necessarily refute [multicultural] ideals, but [Canada is] definitely not the beautiful cultural mosaic that our heritage minister would lead us to believe.

Kamilla: Just a second ago, we were talking about trends and how "diversity" is becoming a catch phrase. I think it's true and we should be really careful that it doesn't just become a catch phrase and stay like this. We should actually talk about what it means to be from a different background – not just have an agreed respect for diversity without really knowing what that entails in greater depth. I don't know how to exactly put it, but it seems almost awkward to point out that there's a difference, because it's almost like being a racist to point out there are differences. But, I think those differences should be pointed out and not just brushed away – they should be celebrated.


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