By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Multiculturalism and Sexual Politics

I suppose it is part of being in a foreign country. The moment I came to Canada, I was acutely aware and conscious of my racial difference. But I guess here in Toronto, the heightened sense of “difference” can also be accounted for because of the sheer diversity of the mix. At the same time it made feel absolutely “welcome.” (Hey I’m not the only Asian!) In fact the campus of St. George is particularly a sea of Asian students) and difference didn’t seem like it mattered. It was something that is Toronto.

Of course underneath the sense of multi-cultural nirvana, Toronto, like many other places in North America still grapples with issues of racial and sexual discrimination.

Last week, I chanced upon a conference on “The 6th Annual Racism and National Consciousness Conference,” which featured Dr. Ella Shohat as one of the keynote speakers.

Dr. Shohat is a Professor at the Department of Art and Public Policy and Middle Eastern Studies as well as the Department of Comparative Literature of the University of Toronto. She has lectured in Cornell and NYU and she spoke about the idea of “Eurocentricism,” speaking at length about the curriculum of universities across Canada.

While Toronto prides itself as a multi-cultural melting pot, as well as having integrated and is represented by faculty members from a wide variety of races (in some colleges and departments more than others), she pointed out how in substance, the “accommodation” did little to change the Eurocentric bias of the university’s sources of knowledge.

I don’t think I can do justice to Dr. Shohat’s entire lecture here (because she was a fantastic speaker) but her point was not to launch what may otherwise be easily dismissed as an ideologue’s rants against the system. Indeed, hers was a perfectly nuanced piece, pointing out the historical detail of knowledge bases like philosophy and even institutional policies around racial reform. Fulfilling academic expectations, her input was perfectly provocative to raise and ask questions around the real limitations of policy like “Affirmative Action.” (Or even Temporary Special Measures, as a parallel concept in International Law to address sex discrimination).
I became very interested about her point about “racial identity,” particularly how she acknowledged it as something very complex. Like Nancy Fraser, I sensed she was critical of “the politics of recognition,” and “identity politics,” especially when it veered towards essentialist notions, thereby also limiting members of the group or making impositions on them.

Fraser also discussed this as the pressure to be “authentic,” and “reification.” When she further pointed out that the notably significant aspects of “national or cultural identity” like sense of identity, self and belonging in a community, hardly ever coincide with political boundaries, I think (if I may borrow from Joyce), had an epiphany about what topic I wanted to write about in one of my classes (Development, Globalization, International Relations under the Lens of Gender).

As an example, she pointed out the situation of Aboriginal groups. First Nation or North American Indians call parts of both the US and Canada their home. Likewise, the Yanomamo of Brazil and Venezuela hardly count the border between the two countries as the division f their ancestral domains.

I thought of course that her point could be further extended to the situation of displaced peoples from migrants to trafficked persons.

In the afternoon there was a panel I also caught where speakers tackled (in great detail), Canada and the US’ complicity in politics in both Africa and Haiti. Even as I appreciated the breadth of data and information shared by the young speakers, I must say it reminded me in no small measure of the organized “Left” back home. I was amazed and disappointed that the vocabulary and arsenal of words being used was a throwback to 70s and 80s Marxism (vulgar Marxism if I may borrow from one Law Professor).

What I think was lacking in both emphatic and profoundly passionate speeches were a more sophisticated and updated view of states and social movements. There was a great tendency to valorize the side of social movements and honestly, I felt it was a bit naive.

This is not to say I didn’t agree with the positions expressed about the complicity of the US and Canada in not only protecting but actively looking out for commercial interests at stake in both cases. I just didn’t think that the presentation was being fair to the entire network of “other NGOs” which were branded as co-opted simply because they were not part of the government party and that they accepted assistance from development agencies. At one point, the young speaker went as far as to say “anybody who thinks that something good can ever come out of accepting money from CIDA for development projects is wrong.” Whoa. (Those are big words)
I wouldn’t put it past either USAID or CIDA to have specific political and economic agendas when they do give ODA but I think this isn’t the case in each and every instance. Some areas are perhaps more prone to the danger of co-optation the speaker thought of than others. Clearly, in economic related projects, specifically designed alongside facilitating SAPs, this is quite easily demonstrable.

But how would you categorize poverty alleviation aid in times of crises and calamity? Would we fault NGOs and beneficiary families for accepting drinking water, food and temporary shelter paid for with foreign assistance?

What about development projects which fund rights education for women and women’s human’s rights?

Racism through Institutionally Reinforced Poverty

Nonetheless, the conference organizers did make a clearer case for clarifying the issue of “racialized poverty” in Ontario by distributing fact sheets on actual Ontario figures on the situation.

According to the Color of Poverty Campaign, the poverty rate among white or Caucasians in Toronto fell by 28% (from 1980 to 2000), among racialized families, it went up by 361%

The facts sheets themselves acknowledge that the Toronto population is indeed dominated now by communities of color.

Not Quite Poverty but Versions of It? Not Quite Starving

This afternoon, I was happy to be reunited with a long time friend (my former classmate and roommate from law school days) who is now practising law here in Canada. She invited me to look into the conference of the “Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers,” right here in the University of Toronto, held at our very own Faculty of Law’s Flavelle House Conference Hall.

While the Conference featured speakers from the legal community who have more or less established themselves in practice and positions of both prestige and respect, I was surprised to learn that despite my initial impression that it was relatively easy for Asian lawyers to practise in Canada, the system was in fact unpredictable and that not everyone (or according to the FACL, hardly anybody Asian) has it easy.Speakers talked about not having the same requirements with colleagues who came from the same universities in Asia, as well as a variety of Masters degrees and Doctorate degree holders who have been required to go through law school all over and pass exams again before they could practice!

During the coffee break, my friend herself an LLM and PhD holder from York University here in Toronto, recounted how it took her a while to be able to practise law as Solicitor and Barrister. She also introduced me to another woman who not only had a PhD from York University but had a Masters’ Degree in English but because she took law from Asia, was required to do law school all over again. She had to contest the decision in order to get a reduction of the units being required for her to practise.

One speaker was second generation, Canadian born and educated from a family of academics originally from India. She spoke of her own struggles as someone considered “a minority” especially in the 1980s when there were so few people of colour in law school. In her batch she counted three and only two of them were women. When she did mention that in many ways, sexism compounds racism and that in legal practise, Asian men will have an advantage over their women counterparts, most of the women took notice.

During the break they shared how in the law firms they articled for prior to being able to practise; a usual experience for them would be to be mistaken for the secretary of the firm. (This happened a lot, I was made to understand)

I told my friend that that ever happened again she could always respond by saying “No, are you applying for the position? I’m sorry we have secretaries already.”

We have nothing against secretaries and administrative staff who probably are the backbone of any office structure but obviously in their contexts, the assumption was clearly both race and gender based stereotypes.

I heard a similar story before in the Philippines when we were in our first year of practice. I heard a “fraternity boy” brag to other batch mates that he had a great office in the firm ran by “brods,” and that (he laughed as he said this) our female valedictorian who worked in the same law firm, was right outside his door, and looked like his secretary sitting there with no office!

Clearly, sexism in the legal profession knows no boundaries. Admittedly though, the additional dimension of this form of racial discrimination (a double glass ceiling?) is for me, something new, and something I can’t help but see present in the situation of so many other Filipino migrants in other professions.

Our doctors already work as nurses in other countries and a number of them even lose their jobs when they fall into the habit of doing the white doctors’ job better than them. That is after all, practising medicine without a license.

As I understand, 36 % of migrants to Canada have at least a college education and currently, only 22% of locally born Canadians are college graduates. (I wish we had figures for advanced degrees and I told my friend this plus more information through a good baseline should be one of their next projects).

A former judge in the Philippines married a Canadian citizen and moved here in 1986 with high hopes of being able to land a job approximating his qualifications. He had been a lawyer in the Philippines and was a judge for many years. For five years he said he worked in a parking garage and on his fifth year, he was promoted as “parking attendant.”

He became a “Justice of the Peace,” back when the regulations did not yet require a law degree but he has since adjusted, now being in a job for which he feels completely qualified.

Another impression my friend and I had about the inconsistent accreditation process is that there may be an actual pattern not only along the lines of race and gender, but possibly also practise. I don’t yet know how to follow this hunch but I got the impression that corporate lawyers (from Asia) can land jobs and practise with relative ease than their counterpart immigration and human rights lawyers.
Surely the global economy’s demand for contracts to be translated and local laws to be deciphered (the imperative of the free and borderless market) is connected to this? Hell, somebody’s got to do the dirty work, huh?

To be sure, the most interesting experience of a multiculturalism overlaid with sexual politics for me was later today as I walked along Yonge St. in search of an umbrella (I wanted to replace one I lost last week). A slightly built man, who could pass for any South Asian nationality but I am guessing he was Bangladeshi (from his accent), walked alongside of me and started a conversation:

“Nice hat.”

“Thank you,” I said not wanting to be impolite and expected that was that as he said, “sorry to bother you.” So when he turned up at the next corner still alongside of me and still smiling, I was starting to get uncomfortable. But really he looked so slight (even to me) that I thought I could deck this guy and kick the shit out of him if he did anything and Yonge was a busy street so I wasn’t alone. It was bright and early in the afternoon.

“Are you from Philippine?”


“You have family here?”

“I’m a student.” (Tone of please I’m in a hurry, leave me alone)

“What you study?”

“Law. I’m a lawyer.” (Are you scared yet?)

Now at this point of the very awkward exchange, I was walking faster, but he walked faster too. I missed my turn and stopped. I was thinking all the while, OK if this is a “pick-up” surely the words LAWYER and LAW STUDENT would be threatening enough? Should I throw in “feminist” and scare the living daylights out of this guy? Did he even know what a feminist was? I didn’t want to be unfriendly nor rude and racist but I’m in a foreign city and alone so I was getting anxious. Wild imagination. He could be psycho.

“Where do you live? Is it OK if I talk to you later tonight?” (he raises his eyebrows like I am supposed to understand? What does he mean by that?)

Now at this point I am at a loss for words. My mind is going ----What??? Call it instinct or desperation but something kicked in and at this point I’m thinking this is really funny for a feminist. You know what? I invoked coverture.

I mean my husband is the best husband a feminist can have but while invoking a supposed proprietarial right over me (which he doesn’t have but in a social sense exists still in most sexist minds and institutions), and isn’t something I usually do, I did all of a sudden and blurted it out.

” I’m a married woman.”

Well that did it. He left so fast he could have been the roadrunner being chased by Wily Cayote! That was it? It figures. Sexual Politics is predictable and the rules sexists observe ought to be obvious. Even to a feminist? Or especially to a feminist? Tsk. Tsk.

I’m thinking if that ever happens to me again I could maybe say “Just to give you fair warning---I had an operation but I’m still very much a man...” (And lower my voice) Just to spice things up a bit. What do you think?


Blogger Leon said...

karol ruiz and deanna santos! on the same half of the continent! for some reason, it made me happy to see you both in that picture.


11:21 PM  

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