Instead of being “blind to difference,” let’s be curious about it
The great Canadian philosopher of multiculturalism, Charles Taylor, says everyone is a member of some minority group. That said, I was not part of a “visible” minority in Canada in my youth in the 1960s.
But I did grow up in rough-and-tough East Vancouver, in a working-class family. My father, in addition, had a schizophrenic breakdown.
In the era of Father-Knows-Best nuclear families, my mother had to raise us as a working single parent. So you could say I belonged to at least a few “invisible” minority groups.
Now, decades later, I continue to study, highlight and write about diversity of all kinds, whether to do with race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, national origin, economic class or religion.
Formally, my job description is Migration, Diversity and Religion Writer for the Vancouver Sun newspaper, the Postmedia Network and other media outlets.
I’m also chair of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ), which has more than 500 members on six continents, women and men who all write about religion in one way or another. They include Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists and more.
That’s not to mention I was born, raised and have continued to work, for the most part, in Metro Vancouver, one of the most ethnically diverse, or “cosmopolitan,” cities in the world, along with Greater Toronto. Maybe it’s no surprise I’m married to an immigrant.
People of European extraction are now a slim minority in both these big Canadian cities. I find it more than fascinating to be on the front lines of this phenomenon of trans-national migration, writing about dramatic ethnic, economic and geo-political changes they’re bringing to Canada.
One out of four Metro Vancouver residents now has ethnic Chinese origins, for instance. Another one in 12 are rooted in India, and one in 13 have connections to the Philippines.
Even though Canadians have mixed feelings about the way ethnic and racial diversity is developing in places such as Metro Vancouver and Toronto, people of different backgrounds tend to get along in relatively peaceful co-existence.
And even while there are outbreaks of real racial and religious superiority and discrimination across Canada, it is not an accident that residents of this country are often ranked on international surveys as the most “tolerant” in the world.
It’s to be celebrated.
On the other hand, what do we make of census-based maps showing that in cities like Vancouver and Toronto many members of ethnic minorities, along with people of European origins, seem to be unconsciously forming into loose enclaves? While some enjoy the familiarity that goes along with being in an enclave, others are concerned about ethno-cultural self-segregation.
Despite what many believe, the inter-marriage rate is also crawling up only very slowly in Canada. That’s in part because inter-marriage ratios have been going down among minorities in big Canadian cities when communities of people of the same ethnicity grow to a certain critical mass, which allows for greater choice of partners from within one’s ethnic group.
With complex ethno-cultural forces like these at play in Canada, I often keep in mind the advice of University of B.C. social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, who was raised in Lebanon.
It’s a country that was once lauded as the cosmopolitan “Paris of the Middle East.” Alas, in the 1970s it was torn apart by ethnic and religious conflict, which still simmers.
Many people now recommend avoiding conflict between ethno-cultural minority groups by acting “blind to difference,” by assuming everyone is more or less the same. But Norenzayan instead urges something more creative. He asks us to go the other direction and be “culturally curious.”
That means asking questions of each other, even if it’s sometimes awkward. “Cultural curiosity” invites us to engage in the dance of genuinely getting to know someone who is different from us, while assuming our equal worth. It may be the only way forward for Canada.