Talking About Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity, and Language – JAMES; SHADD (CSS)

JAMES, Carl E.; SHADD, Adrienne. Editors. Talking About Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity, and Language. 2nd Edition. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2001. 323p. Resenha de: HORTON, Todd. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.2, p., 2005.

As editors of a narrative anthology, James and Shadd have compiled a compelling series of stories exploring the complex perspectives of Canada’s racial, ethnic and linguistic minorities. Quotations are used to indicate that the term minorities can be considered by some to be marginalizing to the extent that it positions entire groups of people outside the mainstream majority, perpetuating their Otherness. However, as James states in the introduction, the term also indicate[s] the power relationships in our society: ‘majority’ represents not simply numbers, but the cultural group with political and economic power, as compared to the ‘minority,’ which does not have access to that power (p. 7). Using the work of Stuart Hall, James notes that in talking about ‘identity’ they view this core concept as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process and always constituted within, not outside representation (p. 2). In this vein, James and Shadd have successfully created a book that makes explicit the complex ways personal exchanges and interactions influence and inform understandings of race, ethnic and language identities. It does this by focusing on the vicissitudes of people’s daily encounters and, with each powerfully written story, the reader comes to appreciate the contingent, contextual and relational nature of identities.

The stories are clustered into five themed parts: Who’s Canadian Anyway?; Growing Up Different; Roots to Identity, Routes to Knowing; Race, Privilege, and Challenges; and, Confronting Stereotypes and Racism. Each part provides a space for the contributing authors to voice their individual experiences and interpretations of living in a world that defines people by their race, ethnicity and language.

In a selection from Part I entitled Where Are You Really From?: Notes of an ‘Immigrant’ from North Buxton, Ontario co-editor turned author Adrienne Shadd deftly weaves a story of invisibility and marginalization based on the title question. Shadd illustrates how the four hundred year history of Blacks in Canada has been made invisible in both this country and throughout the world leading to the widespread belief that there is no such thing as a Black Canadian save for recently arrived immigrants. She also draws on her experiences growing up in North Buxton, Ontario a rural Black community near Chatham once famous as a settlement of ex-slaves who escaped from the United States on the Underground Railroad to explore her views on the overlap of caste and class in the public consciousness and the affirmation that can come from education in segregated schools. However, the crux of the story is found in the complexity of daily encounters when varying forms of the question where are you really from are asked. Shadd explains how displays of frustration and annoyance to her answer of Canada and the pursuit of an answer that more satisfies the inquisitor’s conception of a Canadian marginalizes her in her own country. As Shadd explains, you are unintentionally denying me what is rightfully mine my birthright, my heritage and my long-standing place in the Canadian mosaic (p. 15). Still, Shadd is not content to tie up the point in a neat little package. Instead, she ends with an encounter that blows open the discussion again as a Guatemalan Canadian tells her that except for the Native people, the rest of us are just immigrants anyway (p. 16).

While the stories in Part I focus on issues of Canadian-ness, the stories in Part II explore the experiences of growing up, that precarious time when being seen as different or viewing oneself as different can be most traumatic. Stan Isoki, a teacher living in Ontario, relates his encounters with race in a story entitled Present Company Excluded, Of CourseRevisited. Here, Isoki takes the unusual step of updating his first edition manuscript by interjecting more recent commentary and reflection. The effect for the reader is the feeling of a dialogue between who and what the author was and who and what they have become. Isoki, a Canadian of Japanese heritage, shares his feelings of being made to feel both visible and invisible, saving his most potent criticism for several teachers who taught him as a boy and those with whom he worked as a colleague. The criticism is not vitriolic or vituperative, though he has every right to heap mountains of scorn on these individuals given their charge of educating young minds. Instead, Isoki’s critique is a cry for awareness and sensitivity on the part of teachers (and governments) as well as a call to action to re-create a vision of Canada that is truly multicultural.

One of the most insightful stories appears in Part III. Written by Howard Ramos and entitled It Was Always There: Looking for Identity in All the (Not) So Obvious Places, a road side encounter in northeastern New Brunswick is the catalyst for an exploration of the author’s feelings about his father’s identification with Canada and lack of connection to his native Ecuador. This also leads to a period of self-reflection about the ways the author has positioned his father as not quite Canadian and himself as having little or no relationship to his Ecuadorian heritage. Drawing on the work of Ernest Renan and Benedict Anderson, Ramos comes to understand that identity, like nation-building, is a process of forgetting, misinterpreting and re-creating symbols and markers (p. 108). His father, in an effort to become Canadian, forgot his past while subtly sharing that past, that part of who he is, with his son. Ramos, in turn had to acknowledge his misinterpretation of what it means to be Canadian and the boundaries he has created that prevent his father from being who he wishes to be. He also had to recognize his connection to his Ecuadorian heritage as something that was always there, waiting to be embraced in the fullest sense of Canada’s yet to be achieved society based on multiculturalism and acceptance of diversity.

One of the most compelling contributions to the book occurs in Part V. Entitled I Didn’t Know You Were Jewishand Other Things Not To Say When You Find Out, Ivan Kalmar’s piece initially caused me a great deal of discomfort which, I believe, was his intent. Written in a quasi-advice column style, Kalmar refers to the reader as you fostering the feeling of being spoken and occasionally lectured to directly. My feelings of consternation stemmed from indignation at his assumption that I, an educated person, would ever be culturally insensitive. This is mixed with feelings of guilt as I secretly admit to myself that I may indeed have said things or acted in just the ways he describes. Once passed what at times felt like an assault on my enlightened self, I read and re-read his reasoning for offering such advice. In each case, Kalmar thoughtfully demonstrates the challenge of being culturally sensitive, noting that what is often intended as a compliment or search for common conversational ground can also be interpreted as intolerant and insulting. This duality can be frustrating, but just as you feel like you will never be able to get it right or that no matter what you do someone will take offense, Kalmar acknowledges that most people have purity of intent and exhorts that he simply wishes to encourage consideration of his points and reconsideration of our words and actions. The coda to the piece emphasizes a generosity of spirit toward people as they struggle to live in a world characterized by multiple perspectives on identity, saying that even if we occasionally slip up, not to worry as we mean well. As he says, I’m not only a Jew. I am a human being, like you (p. 240).

James and Shadd’s book was written as an effort to make explicit how identities related to race, ethnicity and language influence and inform individuals’ life experiences and relationships (p. 2) and in this regard it succeeds brilliantly. Highly readable, the book is applicable to any university course wishing to delve into the complex world of identities. While not written for secondary school, portions of this book could be used by teachers to introduce a concept, encourage discussion or address a relevant issue. Indeed, there are few more effective entry points into discussions of race, ethnicity and language than the daily encounter.

Todd Horton – Faculty of Education. Nipissing University. North Bay, Ontario.

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