If we’ve learned anything from America, it’s that racial optimism is fragile
“I think, in a really disruptive way, a bearded, turbaned guy is going to be able to win over all of Canada,” Jagmeet Singh told Macleans this past August.
Today, Singh is one step closer to doing just that. Earlier this week, he won the federal NDP leadership with 53.8 per cent of ballots cast, becoming the first person of colour to lead a major Canadian political party.
Singh’s historic victory is somewhat reminiscent of Barack Obama’s first presidential election in 2008. Though the circumstances were significantly different—the former, elected leader of a major political party while the latter, elected president of the most powerful Western country—the two victories are remarkable in their own rights. Both were symbolic of a desire for change. The sense of optimism currently felt among many Canadians, the belief that if a Sikh man can be elected leader of the NDP then anyone can, is idealistic. Unfortunately, it is also naïve.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Obama’s presidency, it’s that this racial optimism, in all of its innocence and glory, is fragile and must be handled with caution. While such victories can certainly be the start of a new chapter in history, it cannot undo the ingrained racism that often permeates it.
Singh’s recent victory aside, at only 38, he is accomplished by all accounts. A passionate activist, he dedicated much of his early career as a criminal defense lawyer to helping immigrants and refugees. As a politician, in 2011, he became the first New Democrat to win a seat in Peel Region at any level of government. He was also the first sitting Sikh politician in Queen’s Park to wear a turban.
An apparent man of firsts, if the NDP were to win the federal election, Singh would become the first visible minority prime minister. (No NDP leader has ever won the federal election, so the likelihood of such a monumental victory is slim.)
But for all of his political achievements and firsts, Singh doesn’t look like the typical Canadian politician. He is also often reminded of it. With his brown skin, long beard, brightly coloured turbans and kirpan, many tend to focus more on his appearance than his position on political matters. On certain occasions, this focus has been distorted and twisted into something entirely different. Last month, Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet criticized Singh for his religious attire and just weeks prior, Singh was confronted by an angry white woman who publicly accused of being a part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although blatant displays of racism and prejudice can pale in comparison to those seen south of the border, Canada isn’t immune from such ideologies. Our government is still working to repair decades of genocide and violence inflicted on First Nations people while recently, a once hopeful Conservative leader pledged to screen new immigrants for “Canadian values.” Additionally, it wasn’t long ago that Canadians elected a prime minister who openly engaged in dog whistle politics and advocated for anti-Muslim laws.
Even in the face of the ugliest of racism, Singh has remained diplomatic and gracious, reinforcing his campaign slogan of “Love and Courage.” Moreover, he has remained confident that what makes him different might someday unite Canadians. It’s a mindset that many people of colour, especially those in the public eye, have had to adopt.
Confidence and diplomacy however, can only take one so far. While Canadians across the country took to social media to hail Singh’s victory Sunday evening, it wasn’t long before racist rhetoric and undertones penetrated the virtual celebrations. Some mocked his appearance while others spewed vile, racist and hateful obscenities. Many repeated the incorrect belief that Singh is a Muslim man and a believer of Sharia Law.
In perhaps every sense, Singh embodies what it means to be Canadian. As the child of immigrants, he understands the value of education and the hurdles many people go through to attain one. He knows the importance of hard work, while also recognizing how socioeconomic barriers disproportionately impact marginalized communities. He’s a successful and proud Sikh man.
If there were ever such a term as “The Canadian Dream,” Singh would be pretty close to achieving it. Admittedly, this is the very thing that countless Canadians admire most about him. It’s part of what makes his decisive win so special.
For others, it is what will always make Singh a less than qualified leader.
When reflecting on Obama’s 2008 presidential win, writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers “the sense that we were approaching an end-of-history moment.” It wasn’t that his victory would magically erase centuries of racism and white supremacy but rather, it was the optimism that in electing a black president, a real change in racial attitudes might come about. It wasn’t long after Obama’s election however, that Coates realized he’d “made an error.” Racism and prejudice were very much alive and still at work.
No historic moment could change that.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.