On Friday evening I hosted the second of our six lectures, this one titled “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” and presented by Wendy Peterson. Wendy described diversity by noting that there are hundreds of distinct First Nations in North America, but that we treat them all as a single entity under the Indian Act and in our culture. She recalled seeing a local newspaper article that referred to two women who were “aboriginal in appearance”, and asked us what we thought that should mean: did it mean that they looked like doctors, teachers, theologians? She showed us a series of photos of her own friends, mostly aboriginal, and while not many of them looked alike, they were all similarly (highly) educated and successful people. She noted that she herself is “pigmentally challenged” (she is Metis), but that her son is often assumed to be Filipino, even by other Filipinos. So what does it mean to be “aboriginal in appearance,” and how can we have a truly diverse society and welcome refugees when we still have difficulty acknowledging diversity within our first peoples?
Diversity is hard. One of the greatest strengths of the human brain is its ability to categorize things: there are so many things and creatures around us, if we saw every single one of them as unique we would not be able to process it all. Our brain simplifies the process by creating categories, which is why we can say “lawn” instead of seeing millions of individual blades of grass. This is handy for lawns and leaves, but less helpful when we’re dealing with people, because categorization requires simplifying something down to a particular characteristic. Human beings are too complex to be simplified like that and still maintain their dignity, and because of this, our ability to relate to them is diminished. We can’t relate to people who are reduced to a single characteristic, especially if that characteristic that we’ve reduced them to is the very way that they are different from us. But that’s precisely the way we categorize people: by the ways they are different from us, rather than the ways we are the same. This makes sense from the perspective of efficient systems of categorization, but it does nothing to help us empathize with people who are different from us. The name for this process is called “Othering”, turning a person who is actually very like us in most ways into an “other”, someone who is very much unlike us.
It’s nearly impossible to get through life without othering people. We all do it, by virtue of our brain functions if for no other reason; but we’re also often raised with certain notions of different people groups or “others.” We tend to gang up on public figures when they let their othering slip out in a debate or interview, but we’re all guilty of it any time we fail to treat someone as a human being with their own thoughts and volition. Is my height my dominant characteristic? I sincerely hope not – I would hope it would be my intellect, my integrity, my attitude, or some virtue – but I once walked down a busy street in Osaka, Japan, and I drew an awful lot of stares, and while I don’t begrudge people for noticing that I stand out, it gets frustrating explaining that I’m not a basketball player. I can’t imagine what it’s like to explain to people that I do indeed have a “real” PhD (one example that Wendy gave on Friday), or have people assume that I’m a terrorist simply because of my skin tone or last name. In our culture, we need to find a balance between recognizing differences and reducing people to those differences. That’s hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile!
In our government, though, we don’t have the limitations of our brains as an excuse for othering. We have carefully crafted policies and laws that should not succumb to any person’s cultural or racial blind spots. Even so, in Canada we have a long history of policies that thoroughly and deliberately “other” indigenous people, and we are currently doing the same to Muslims. A perfect example is the way that our government refuses to allow a woman in a niqab (a garment that some Muslim women wear as an act of religious obedience and devotion, to express modesty) to swear an oath of citizenship. Two courts have already upheld her right to swear the oath without removing her head covering, but the Harper government has appealed to the Supreme Court. Harper’s argument is that the niqab comes from a culture that is anti-women, and that may be; a niqab may be used by many as a way to suppress women. But the moment we assume that rather than listening to this woman’s own story, we have othered her in a way that strips her of her dignity even as she attempts to swear an oath to our nation. We absolutely should support women’s rights, but we cannot do so by removing their freedoms and pigeonholing them based on a single characteristic.
Muslims vote at about half of the national average rate – only about 30%. Indigenous people in Canada vote even less. I have a hard time blaming them, given our history and current policies. We need a government that is willing to replace policies that other entire people groups with policies that truly embrace diversity. This will be hard: it will cost us money, and security. The Green Party of Canada wants to begin dialogue with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis, rather than treating all First Nations as a single group, and honouring the treaties that we made with them. We want to collaborate with them to solve problems, rather than assuming a paternal stance and telling them how to run their affairs. We also want to support more refugees, and streamline the refugee process as much as possible so that we can adequately respond to the demand. These things will be difficult to do, but they’re so worthwhile! Join us. Vote Green.