(Image Credit: John Englart at flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
As the Book of Murphology says, “The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the fault-finders”. Therefore, finding ‘racism’ in everything & everyone is a fail-proof career option in current times.
NOT A ‘FIELD’ OF DREAMS
Some time last week, the University of South Carolina was the subject of a report that its school of social work would no longer use the word ‘field’ in its curriculum, owing to what it said were ‘racist connotations’ of the word. This led to the expected round of chagrin / mockery on social media.
My regular readers know that I steer clear of events happening in the US, primarily because I want to remain focused on Canadian issues. But when I came across this report, it reminded me of an article in the Toronto Star on December 01 last year, in which the author Kelly Skjerven argued that ‘newcomers with accents that present as racialized encounter dramatically tougher odds securing rentals’.
I will skip over the first obvious question that arises from the above: What does she mean by ‘accents that PRESENT AS racialized’? I will also not spend time on my objection to the term ‘racialized’, except to note that I find it both weird and insulting. The question on which I wish to zero in is, ‘What is ‘racialized accent?’. I am willing to concede that the term makes sense (or at least, some sense) inside the insulated confines of the world of white progressives. But out in the real world, does the term hold up to scrutiny?
Over the weeks following the publication of the Toronto Star article, I have been pondering these questions in a kind of desultory manner. Now, I have reached a point where I think I can share my views on this issue in an article. My conclusion is that the exercise to understand the idea of ‘racialized accent’ is akin to the proverbial search for the centre of an onion – once you have peeled away all the layers, you are left with nothing to show for your efforts, except tears. But at the same time, talking about ‘racialized accent’, and how it is a barrier to a class of people that progressives like to think of and portray as perpetual victims, gives one a lot of ‘cred’ in progressive circles. To put it in perhaps uncharitable terms, it satiates one’s need to take another sip from the cup of saviourism. Nevertheless, I think we need to engage in peeling away the layers of ‘racialized accent’ while being prepared to shed some voluntary tears.
LAYER 1: THE KIDS
Even within the immigrant families where everyone speaks fluent English, there is a stark difference in the accents of parents and their children. The latter, having grown up here, speak English in what we may call, for the sake of convenience, the ‘non-racialized accent’. In fact, I know young Canadians who can speak in both the accents – one at home and the other with their friends. But children who arrived in Canada at a later stage of their life (typically in their mid-teens) are less able to pick up the ‘non-racialized’ accent. Accent is a function of where one learns to speak a language and is not to be confused with the race that the person belongs to. Just because immigrants learned English in their country of origin, we can’t call their accent ‘racialized’ because race has got nothing to do with it.
LAYER 2: THE NON-ENGLISH LITERATE
It is a human weakness that once we devise a word to denote a group of people, we assume subconsciously that all the members of that group are identical to each other in every respect. The reality is, of course, very different. In the context of this discussion, immigrants arrive here carrying different levels of proficiency in English – including not knowing it at all. Over the two decades of my life in Canada, I have observed with some amusement that this latter class of immigrants now speak English with a ‘non-racialized’ accent. Sometimes their grammar may be faulty and their vocabulary lacking, but their accent is definitely NOT ‘racialized’. Again, this proves that accent is acquired where one learns the language.
LAYER 3: THOSE WHO DIDN’T IMMIGRATE
Back in the early 2000’s, I had to visit India and caught up with a cousin after several years. He told me that he had got a job at the India-based call centre for a company from out of Texas. The company’s clientele was also mostly within Texas, so all newly recruited call-centre agents were put through a 3-month training for speaking English with a Texan accent. Thereafter, there was training for the company’s products and the various kinds of calls that they may expect from customers. It was amusing – not just to me but to everyone around us – to note that I, having lived outside India for over a dozen years, was still speaking English with an Indian accent while my cousin, having never left India, had a Texan accent.
Let me clarify here that this cousin was perfectly fluent in English before getting this job. He was put through rigorous training that helped him to acquire the accent of a place he had never visited. I suspect that he is also capable of speaking English in two distinct accents, depending on the company – just like some children of immigrants in Canada do.
LAYER 4: INTERNAL DIFFERENCES
Even within one immigrant community – such as people from the Indian subcontinent – accents differ. I can safely say that each accent is informed by the speaker’s mother tongue. Even when they speak in Hindi or Urdu, their accents differ sufficiently to be a part of the plot for a movie or even a TV series (which have in fact been made). For people who grew up there, it is easy to identify the ethnicity of a speaker purely from listening to their speech. Just to give you one small example, when I was living in the UAE, one day I had to go to a government office. I only knew its general location, and as I reached close to it, I stopped and asked a man in Urdu (because he looked like he could be from the Indian subcontinent) as to where exactly this office was. He told me to take the next right turn and it would be the third building on the left. He pronounced the word ‘building’ as ‘bill-dung’, and I instantly knew that he was from the Punjab region.
In the context of the Toronto Star article, given the premise that a ‘racialized accent’ is a barrier to securing rental accommodation, the natural question that arises is whether an ‘ethnicized accent’ could also pose as an obstacle in the same endeavour. I am not saying this for the sake of argument – immigrants arrive with an entire package of ideas and beliefs, and unfortunately, animosity for other ethnicities or nationalities is among them. The tensions between India and Pakistan, as well as the troubled history between Pakistan and Bangladesh are well-known. Even within the same region, people from different sub-regions can have a negative view of the other.
For example, I was once discussing some worrisome developments in the Brampton East riding with a Sikh friend from India and asked what common factor could be responsible. He replied that mostof the residents in the area are from the Malwa region of Punjab (which is also in India), so he was not surprised to learn that these worrisome developments were happening. If a white Canadian were to make a similar remark about any immigrant community in public, there would be howls of protest about ‘profiling’ and ‘bigotry’. I don’t know what the people of Malwa are like. I suppose that most of them are nice people, but if this Sikh friend of mine were to deny a rental to a Sikh person from Malwa because of this negative opinion (presumably stemming from personal experience), how would we characterize his action? ‘Racism’ seems inapplicable because both the individuals would be not only be from the same country and race but also share their ethnicity and religion.
In fairness, the Toronto Star article uses the term ‘discrimination’ – but then makes it largely about ‘racialized accent’. I believe that the reason why these obstacles to renting exist is because people have an understandable anxiety about who lives in their home.
LAYER 5: CREDIT & CREDIBILITY
The Toronto Star article leans heavily on the fact that the difficulty to find a rental is especially higher for newcomers. But the as the article itself acknowledges, “… not having a credit history in Canada or a guarantor is one way housing providers can deny a newcomer’s application.” From personal experience, I can vouch for the fact that this has been the case for two decades (at least). Clearly, this part of the would-be renters’ difficulty exists because we (as a society) have failed to devise appropriate mechanisms for a need that is caused by our own decisions and actions (i.e., the official immigration policy). It would be unfair to attribute this failure to ‘racialized accent’ or any other factor.
MASTERS OF THEIR DOMAIN
Barring exceptions, I don’t think there is anyone who believes that property owners don’t part with some of their control over the property when they rent it out. The exact degree to which they lose control depends on the circumstances of each case. Therefore, determining whether a decision by a property owner is worthy of criticism or not must also be based on the same circumstances, and only those circumstances. For example, if a Muslim owner refuses to rent his basement to a Christian on the assumption that the latter would cook pork, the decision was based on dietary restrictions and not religious identity or race. Similarly for a staunchly vegetarian Hindu owner refusing to rent to a Muslim. Just as people can’t be forced to rent out parts of their home, they can also not be forced to rent them out outside their parameters of comfort. If these parameters also happen to align alongside the prospective renter’s race, it’s due to coincidence and not nefarious intent.
HAMMER & NAIL
A real, honest analysis of the issues facing us would help us to arrive at the right answers – or at least answers that aren’t horribly wrong. Unfortunately, it has become advantageous to have a pre-existing answer and then work one’s way back from there to the issue at hand. ‘Racism’ is one of those pre-existing answers to a whole range of questions. If one wants to make it sound even more ominous, one should use ‘systemic racism’ instead. The deftness and frequency with which one can work these pre-existing answers in any report, analysis or body of work determines one’s chances of progress.
The really concerning part here is that this development has the potential to influence how young Canadians entering the workforce perceive their chances of advancement. People adapt themselves to their circumstances for maximal benefit. If they see that finding ‘racism’ (or ‘climate change’ etc.) in everything helps them advance their careers, then they will adapt themselves to that environment. The downside (for the society) will be that we won’t be able to arrive at useful answers to our questions, leading to misdirected resources, futile attempts and wasted opportunities. If we want a better, more prosperous future for Canada, we must correct course, and correct it soon. Other countries are on the march, and we are in serious danger of being left behind.
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