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Multiculturalism can't defeat xenophobia

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This article is the second in a four-part series addressing the myths that conflate multiculturalism and anti-racism. Each article will address different aspects of this debate as follows: part one: Multicultural immigration is not racial benevolence; part two: Multicultural diversity is not racial equality; part three: Multiculturalism does not address xenophobia; part four: Multiculturalism is not decolonization. Links to these articles will be added as they are published.

Amid heightened awareness of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism this year, more Canadians have expressed pride in their country's multicultural values. 

"Multiculturalism," it seems, is a comforting ideal when persistent racial inequities disturb our collective consciousness. From far-right politicians who rally against "extreme multiculturalism," to anti-racist activists pleading for a "defense of multiculturalism," there appears to be consensus that multiculturalism is the binary opposite of racism.  

As Ghassan Hage has written, however, "multiculturalism [is] … merely a different way of reinforcing White power."  

This four-part series unpacks the myths -- implicit and explicit -- upholding the false equivalence between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Indeed, multicultural discourse is more effective at obscuring racism than it is at addressing it. 

The first article in the series demystified Canada's multicultural immigration and refugee policy; while the second addressed the misconception that multiculturalism advances racial equality. 

This third installment will attend to an apparent contradiction within multiculturalism -- decades after its implementation, and as Canadians increasingly identify with its values, far-right white supremacy is not only present but growing.

Myth: Multiculturalism undermines far-right white supremacy 

"Vote for the leaders who will not divide you, not dance with white supremacists," -- Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, July 2019.

Today, there are over 100 active white supremacist groups across the country -- their presence made known via regular hate crimes against non-whites, and white power protests. A study this year found that Canadians are among the most globally active in right-wing Internet forums. The 2017 murder of six Muslim men at a Quebec mosque attests to the lethality of racist sentiment in the country.

All of this has been happening under the national political leadership of the Liberal party -- commonly associated with the promotion of "multiculturalism" -- and as a growing number of Canadians express pride in Canada's multicultural values.

Professor Ghassan Hage reconciles the seemingly contradictory flourishing of both "multiculturalism" and "white supremacy" by theorizing of these two philosophies as different expressions of a common logic. As he says: "both White racists and White multiculturalists share in a conception … of the nation as a space structured around a White culture, where Aboriginal people and non-White "ethnics" are merely national objects to be moved or removed according to a White national will."

Indeed, the common multicultural call for "tolerance" is illustrative of their shared discursive terrain. As professor Preston King wrote in Toleration: "if one concedes or promotes a power to tolerate, one equally concedes a power not to 'tolerate.'"  Ironically, the multicultural act of pleading for tolerance reasserts the white supremacist power to be intolerant.

Multiculturalism doesn't sacrifice the right to intolerance -- and neither does it truly forsake its practice. Across the political spectrum, a majority of Canadians expressed support for "immigrant values tests" -- the evaluation of newcomers based on their subscription to "Canadian values."

While NDP subscribers believed prospective Canadians should be assessed for their endorsement of "women's equality," Conservatives felt they should be grilled on their "patriotism."

"Values tests" are hypocritical and illogical -- based on the assumption that existing Canadians carry the same set of "values," and that society is only functional because of this loosely defined shared morality, they scrutinize immigrants in a way that naturalized Canadians are not.

Both white "multiculturalists" and "white supremacists" have limits on their "tolerance" -- a limit exclusively deployed against non-white non-citizens. Indeed, NDP supporters have yet to insist that the men who kill a woman every 2.5 days in this country be deported for failing to uphold "Canadian values." Both share a disbelief that (non-white) immigrants are sufficiently "civilized" to live among (white) Canadians.

While "multiculturalists" and "supremacists" have different "tolerations," both default to the position that non-whites are "intolerable," and both assume that their "tolerability" criteria should be deployed towards gatekeeping the nation -- their nation.

"Multicultural" and "white supremacist" discourses are complementary not contradictory. Both emerge from a common position of white supremacy -- the assumed managerial authority of whites over the Canadian national space.

And white supremacy always requires the infliction of violence. What distinguishes the two, then, is that multiculturalists are "secure in the knowledge that the state is acting out their violence for them." Indeed, Indigenous and Black people are killed more routinely and predictably by police officers than they are by white supremacist activists.

Multiculturalists can admonish those civilians who would harass, kill and target non-white others -- while legitimizing a state body that harasses, kills and targets non-white others. They can distance themselves physically and philosophically from white supremacist violence -- can even disavow its most explicit manifestations -- while still benefiting from a racial hierarchy at which they are on top.

Ultimately, multiculturalism allows whites to enforce their racial dominance without ever having to use their fists, and while also professing a progressive appreciation for "cultural diversity."

Multiculturalist discourse also distracts from the role of economic injustice in the production of xenophobia. As professors Arun Kundnani and Deepa Kumar explain, a crucial event in the production of "whiteness" in the U.S. was the Bacon's Rebellion of 1676: African and Anglo bond labourers revolted against the system of indentured servitude; and, to diffuse their collective strength, the ruling Anglo elite turned Afro labourers into slaves, and granted Anglo labourers limited legal and economic benefits.  

W.E.B. Du Bois described these white privileges as a "psychological wage" -- one that compensated white-designated people for their economic exploitation and, hence, effectively splintered allegiances between white and Black labourers mutually exploited materially, but differently positioned socially and legally.

While race was historically galvanized to divide and conquer the working class, citizenship differentials function similarly today. As professor Nandita Sharma writes: "the rhetoric of border controls with its accompanying moral panics against those identified as (im)migrants helps to further the project of capitalist globalization."  

The Canadian government's temporary migrant worker programs exploit the non-citizenship status of Global South migrant workers to circumvent basic labour standards.  Manipulating the manufactured distinction between "Canadian" and "non-Canadian" thus exerts a downward pressure on wages and other basic entitlements -- to the detriment of working-class labourers across the globe. 

The white supremacist narrative that "immigrants are stealing our jobs" attests to the success of xenophobic discourse in displacing white working-class discontent away from global capitalist wealth-hoarding and onto non-white non-citizens suffering under the same system.

State calls for "multicultural tolerance" ring hollow in the context of state-facilitated racialized strife.

Myth: We know racism when we encounter it

"We all have a responsibility to call out racism and discrimination -- so call it out whenever and wherever you see it," -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, July 2020.

Multiculturalist discourse conceives of racism as an external force operating "out there" -- something we can "see."  Rarely does it appreciate that racism is the very lens we are looking through.

Indeed, the majority of Canadians were rightly horrified at news of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting. Yet, after the shooting, hate crimes against Muslims across Canada soared; the targeted mosque was voted down in a town referendum to build a cemetery to bury their dead; a fundraiser for Ayman Derbali -- made quadriplegic as he tried to save others from the shooter's bullets -- raised just a small fraction of what was raised for non-Muslim victims of other tragic incidents. 

A parliamentary motion to condemn and investigate Islamophobia was met with widespread scrutiny and backlash, including by sitting members of Parliament. Polls found a majority of Canadians still held negative views of Muslims.

Racism doesn't only prosper via our conscious dislike of non-white others -- but, more endemically, through a dominant discourse that renders racism normal, or even desirable.

This discourse is advanced by mainstream media -- which, studies show, over-report on acts of "terrorism" committed by Muslims, while under-reporting on those against Muslims.  

It is advanced through state bodies which identify Muslim "terrorism" as the "principal ... threat to Canada," despite much higher rates of white supremacist and right-wing extremist violence; and the courts -- which reserve the label of "terrorist" almost exclusively for Muslims.

This discourse is even advanced by self-proclaimed anti-racists -- like the "human rights" organization B'nai Brith, which invited to speak the well-known Islamophobe Ben Shapiro. The Quebec mosque shooter visited Shapiro's Twitter page 93 times in the month leading up to the shooting.

Normalized racism persists through the abstraction of racialized legal and political categories. The backlash against the financial settlement with Omar Khadr -- despite being a straight-forward legal issue with historical precedence -- reflects the power of the "terrorist" label in evicting those subject to it from their basic rights and humanity.

Normalized racism persists through public posturing that contradicts political practice. After the introduction of the infamous U.S. "Muslim ban," Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted that "to those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith." 

Yet, the government kept in tact the "Safe Third Country Agreement," which prevented asylum-seekers who enter the U.S. first from seeking refuge in Canada, based on the assumption that the U.S. is a safe haven. That same year, RCMP officers apprehended over 20,000 asylum seekers trying to enter Canada from the U.S.

As polls show, most Canadians are both proud of multiculturalism and deny the seriousness of Islamophobia. Normalized racism persists because multiculturalist discourse narrows our understanding of racism so thoroughly that most of us can't identify ourselves among its perpetrators.

The final article in this series will address the contradictions of a "multicultural" Canada on stolen land, arguing that multiculturalism is not decolonization.

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming,and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Dom ./Unsplash

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