Nobody likes being called racist. The word carries with it so much baggage and negative connotation that even to be painted with the appellation does some serious psychological damage. Nobody reacts more strongly to the label than do those who identify as conservative. The two words, conservative and racist, have been paired so often as to become synonymous. While conservatives, bristling under the accusation, tend to blame this conflation on liberal bias against the long-suffering conservative minority, those of us that actually pay attention to these kinds of things tend to notice stuff like this:
An email sent out by a Conservative campaign staffer in a Toronto riding seeking people in “national folklore costumes” to appear at a photo-op is an insulting use of so-called ethnic voters as props, critics say. Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouamar received an email late Tuesday from a Conservative campaign staffer for the Etobicoke Centre riding asking “representation from the Arab community” for a Thursday visit from Stephen Harper. “Do you have any cultural groups that would like to participate by having someone at the event in an ethnic costume? We are seeking one or two people from your community,” the email signed by Zeljko ‘Zed’ Zidaric said.
This is simply run-of-the-mill political pandering, to be sure. Every party targets minority voters, as they are a growing demographic with increasing political power. There is nothing wrong with looking for ways to increase one’s visibility in minority communities, and the above quotation speaks to the Conservative Party’s strategy to do just that. However, there is a great deal to be learned here about how members of the party view members of these communities. As far as Mr. Zidaric is concerned, members of minority communities are props to be posed in front of cameras, and then promptly forgotten about:
The Conservative government cut off more than $1 million in funding to the Canadian Arab Federation after the president expressed “hateful sentiments” toward Israel and Jews, according to then immigration minister Jason Kenney. “So suddenly now we exist as props for a photo op?” said Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouamar. “This is hypocrisy.”
The way that political representation is supposed to work is that members of special interest groups are courted for their support during campaigns. The price that politicians pay for the support is to move political influence to the benefit of those groups. For better or for worse, this is how groups of people get action from their political representatives beyond the list of campaign promises. However, if you don’t value the people whose endorsement you’re courting beyond what they can do for you in terms of votes, then you’re going to use them like props.
And so, to those of us that have watched the pattern of disrespect toward minority groups from conservative politicians over the years, statements like the above yield a total lack of surprise. Or, statements like this:
Donald Trump once again made headlines Friday over comments he made about President Barack Obama. This time, Trump steered away from the president’s citizenship, suggesting that votes Obama received in the 2008 election were race-based. “I have a great relationship with the blacks,” Donald Trump said on an Albany, N.Y. radio station Thursday morning. “I’ve always had a very great relationship with the blacks. But unfortunately, it seems the numbers that you cite are very, very frightening numbers.”
To a guy like Trump, they aren’t black people, they’re “the blacks”. They’re (we’re) a monolithic group that can be meaningfully defined by the colour of their skin. He doesn’t have to have a relationship with black people, as long as he has a good relationship with “the blacks”. The Conservative Party, at least the ones running the campaign in Etobicoke Centre, are not concerned with forming political partnerships with minority groups – they want photo ops with “the ethnics”. Having Jason Kenney spearhead outreach to communities with large immigrant populations is kind of like having Fred Phelps lead the Pride parade.
So it was a poor choice of words, but it reveals the underlying attitude, and something far worse. Political theatre aside, statements like Mr. Zidaric’s show that despite growing political clout, members of minority communities are considered second-class citizens. Many of the groups that spoke to the media articulated this position:
Shalini Konanur, a member of the Colour of Poverty campaign that released the video, said while the Tories have overtly pursued the ethnic vote, all major campaigns have been guilty of it. “That term, the ethnic vote, is quite a divisive term,” said Shalini Konanur. “We’ve always had the view that we’re all Canadians. We have Canadian issues. And those issues are larger than the “ethnic communities” or the racialized communities that we come from.”
It’s an all-too-real and disappointing fact that many people of colour (PoCs) in Canada are constantly made to feel as though they are guests in someone else’s home rather than members of the family. Having dark skin in Canada invariably means fielding an incessant stream of unsolicited questions about “where are you from?”, as though being white in Canada is the default and any deviations must be investigated. Most of us (if I may speak in such generalities) are capable of treating such interrogation as harmless and well-intentioned despite being tiresome, but to have our major political parties treat us this way is disheartening to say the least.
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