Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The one question I won't ask.

J-school’s greatest failure (apart from referring to itself as the cringe-worthy “j-school”) is its inability to prepare young journalists to report on issues of race and ethnicity.

That’s not to say that Ryerson didn’t try. Sure, I learned that it’s not appropriate to perpetuate stereotypes. And yes, I learned why it’s important to explore the stories and voices that are hidden in the margins. We even had a class dedicated to it; Critical Issues in Journalism, where we had to complete a community mapping exercise. (Along with my teammates, a group of three white girls, I completed a report on the Ethiopian disapora who’ve settled along the Danforth.) But they didn't teach us the most important skill
—if the story doesn't explicitly focus on race, when is it okay to bring up ethnicity in an interview? 

When I moved to Toronto eight years ago, I was completely unequipped to deal with the city’s full-frontal obsession with race and ethnicity. I had never heard the term “first-generation” before; I sincerely thought it was perfectly acceptable to refer to mandarin oranges as “Jap oranges”; I called the children’s game broken telephone “Chinese telephone”; and I truly believed that it was flat-out rude to ever ask about someone’s skin colour.

I learned quickly that Torontonians love to ask about skin colour and ethnic background. In my first month in Ontario, this was a problem. Typically, this is how the conversation would go:

“Where are you from?”


The questioner would usually laugh at this point. I never understood what was so funny about my answer. “No, where are your parents from?” 


“No,” they would say, this time getting frustrated, “I mean where did your grandparents come from?”

“Um, Alberta and Saskatchewan, I guess.” At this point, I was still totally ignorant to what I was actually being asked.

“No, are your great grandparents from Ireland? Scotland?” 

Now I was annoyed. In my mind, it was kind of a weird question. Why would anyone care about my ethnicity? I'm clearly white. Isn't that enough? So instead of giving them what they were asking for, I'd remain stubborn.

“Nope. They were from the Prairies too.”

Eight years later, I understand that in a city where everybody's from somewhere else, my white Canadian heritage makes me more exotic than most.

A little more context here—my hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta has a population of 13,893. Of those people, 13,892 are white.

Hyperbolizations aside, here’s the real breakdown: most Cold Lakers are of Polish or Ukranian descent, although despite immortalizing pyrogies and keeping tubs of sauerkraut in their fridges, many don't identify as such. Like me, they’ll tell you that they’re Canadian or Albertan. Roughly 10 per cent of the population is First Nations, and since I've moved away, the Muslim population has grown large enough to require a mosque. A small number of other immigrants have also moved into the area recently.

With minorities in Cold Lake being very much miniorities, I grew up believing that it was rude to mention someone’s ethnicity, let alone ask them what their background was. We’re all the same—race shouldn’t matter, right? At least that’s what I always thought. (It’s clear I learned this from my family. My aunt, who was also raised in Cold Lake, waited a full four months after meeting Jay to very cautiously ask, “So, what is he?”)

In general, I don't think that a Cold Laker would ever bring up race or ethnicity—at least not initially, and most definitely not to your face. (Racism in Cold Lake, much like the rest of the world, is alive and well.) The exception to this rule seems to be acknowledging, with quiet fascination, the recent influx of Filipino people to the area. (Over Christmas holidays, my dad informed up that his "Filipino” friend was coming over to cook us traditional Filipino food. “Does your friend have a name?” I insisted. “And can we please stop referring to him as your ‘Filipino friend’?”)

But even after nearly a decade in Toronto, I’m still completely unprepared to deal with issues of ethnicity. Although the topic fascinates me and I’m happy to discuss it, I’m known for my social gaffs related to when it is and when it is not appropriate to bring up race.

Last weekend, while I was reporting on the Spelling Bee of Canada’s 25th anniversary for the Grid, I faced this problem as a journalist for the first time. Although I had pitched a story on how the training tools that spellers use has changed since 1987, as soon as I walked in the room I knew where my story was. More than half of the contestants were South Asian and even the white contestants appeared to be first-generation Canadians.

In my reporter’s notebook, I jotted down a note and put an asterisk beside it: “Is English the first language of the winners? What’s the immigrant experience like w/learning English words?”

But when I filed my story to my editor on Monday morning, the copy made no mention of the ethnicity of the participants and I didn’t answer either of those questions. The truth is, I felt too awkward about it. The Cold Laker in me determined that it wasn’t appropriate to bring up the participants' race, even though I knew that’s where the story was. Instead, I wrote a 400-word blurb on Veronica Penny, a (white) girl from Ottawa who has already won the Spelling Bee twice but only placed fourth on Sunday. (Cute, but yawn.)

“The one thing that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the story, but may be of interest is that the majority of the spellers in attendance appeared to be first-generation Canadians,” I wrote in an email to my editor. He jumped on it. The short little story (seriously, it’s a blink and you could miss it blurb) was rewritten to focus on the immigrant angle and included an interview with an 8-year-old South Asian girl.

But then, during edits, the question came up. That question. The question I hate most.

“Where are they from?” my editor asked in the comments.

“Scarborough,” I answered. I knew full well this wasn't what he was asking. But the truth was that my Cold Lake sensibilities had prevented me from asking the family where they were from. I was worried about offending them.

It's the one question that I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable asking.