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Monday, January 17, 2011

Culture Shock

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the United States. Dr. King was an incredibly bright man who dreamed that one day, all Americans would be treated the same regardless of their ethnic or racial origins. As a Canadian who grew up in a town where a large percentage of folks descended from escaped slaves, I can appreciate where Dr. King was coming from but know there is much work to be done. 

I've noticed that in the United States, people seem obsessed with race. You're asked your pigmentation on everything from your driver's license to job and college application forms. If you happen to have parents of different races, the race you look like most at birth is generally the one you are assigned. 
Gaining favour with the races is a big deal as well. You hear about politicians trying to do things to secure the black or hispanic vote, whereas Canadian politicians are just trying to garner votes in general.

I also notice that as soon as I cross the border, people seem to give me a certain look. As a person who comes from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, I don't always seem to fit. I've been taken for white, mulatto, Mexican, middle eastern, or Aboriginal depending on where in the U.S. I am, the time of year, and my hairstyle. And the treatment I receive is often based on the race or ethnicity I am perceived to be. Racism is up front and centre, so much so that I've had even educated people come up to me and ask "what are you?".

In Canada, focus on race is considered a mark of intellectual inferiority. Both my psychiatrist and pharmacist are black, but this fact neither positively or negatively effects what I think about them. Both are decent, intelligent, and moral guys; good young men in a town filled with substance abuse and despair. When someone made a stink about my pharmacist Elijah's race, the perpetrator was arrested and people were outraged at the bigotry. You see, we're in a country so diverse but so inclusive that 51% of people wrote in "Canadian" as their ethnic origin on the last census. People are not assigned a caste from birth and one's pigmentation doesn't appear on a driver's license. The only piece of identification that holds a clue to someone's race is an Aboriginal status card that exempts First Nations people from paying federal taxes on goods purchased on reserves. 

This is not to say that America is a bad place. Canada deals with race in a different way than any other nation on Earth; it is most certainly the exception to the rule. America is a good place, but could be better. It's my view that the continual focus on separating the races at every opportunity means that true equality may not be seen in my lifetime. And this makes me sad. To know that my African-American friends will have to work harder and sometimes leave their communities to gain the opportunities that Euro-Americans have had from birth saddens me, but also infuriates me. This fundamental fact is the reason why my psychiatrist chose to come to Canada over the U.S. when he decided to leave Lagos. The United States will continue to be a fly-over country when it comes to educated ethnic minorities until Dr. King's most important words become the pulse of the nation.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

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