Media rears racist head during protests

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Sunday morning. 10 a.m. While the rest of the world might be up and at it, I'm fast asleep. That is, until the church bells down the street start their fierce ringing.

Grudgingly, I wake up. And I wonder -- would my neighbourhood be so tolerant of the morning bells if they came not from a church, but from a temple? Or a mosque?

The answer to my question may lie in the protests that ensnared Toronto and Ottawa these past months, demanding an end to the violence in Sri Lanka. The protesters garnered their fair share of media attention, but not for the reasons you may expect.

There was little focus on the cause of the protests, or on the political inaction that has greeted their months-long campaign to draw attention to the genocide through letter-writing, handing out pamphlets, parliamentary lobbying and protests.

Instead the focus has been on the instigators of the protests. And -- more specifically -- on the fact that many of these instigators are hyphenated Canadians.

While mainstream media often finds it suffice to define protests by their cause, these ones have been defined by ethnicity. These protesters have not been labelled Canadians, but Tamil-Canadians, Tamils and sometimes even just as immigrants.

Once ethnicity is established, the media coverage often veers into one of two paths. One path regurgitates the complaints of public disturbance and the implied question of what right these hyphenated Canadians have to disturb the public.

The second line of coverage is a subtle collection of lessons, courtesy of predominantly white newsrooms across Canada, on what a Canadian is, how they should act and what they look like.

Here are the lessons I've learned so far: non-white Canadians shouldn't disrupt other "real" Canadians. Non-white Canadians shouldn't care about what happens beyond our borders, and particularly in their ancestral homeland. Non-white Canadians shouldn't imagine an expanded role for Canada on the world stage. Non-whites should be more concerned about their fellow Canadians ensnarled in traffic than the slaughter of non-whites halfway around the world.

It goes on: if you came here from another country -- you will never be a real Canadian, despite what your citizenship certificate says. Simply being non-white is enough to label you as an immigrant -- those polite terms of first, second and third generation Canadians don't apply to non-whites. Democracy is voting every few years -- anything more is asking too much from your elected officials. Non-white Canadians protesting should carry Canadian flags, so that white Canadians know where your allegiances lie.

Since these protesters took to the streets, media has been openly questioning what democratic rights minority groups in Canada have and what causes they should be allowed to support.

The boundaries between "real" Canadians and the rest of us are reinforced by the "us and them" language that has strongly characterized the media coverage. The Toronto Star editorialized that the inconvenience the Tamil community was causing undermines "any sympathy that the rest of us might have felt for their cause." Exactly who were they speaking for when they evoked the "rest of us?"

In the Globe and Mail, columns have bordered on ridiculous, begging answers as to why blatant ignorance earns column space in a national newspaper. Margaret Wente boasts of not previously knowing of the existence of any Tamil communities in Canada, adding "there are many mini-nations in our midst. And most of us don't know anything about them." In a country where nearly one in five people belongs to one of these "mini-nations," what is she talking about? And where does she work, live and play that she is not exposed to any of these communities in one form or another?

For her colleague Christie Blatchford, being non-white in Canada means being potentially illegal. She writes, "we live in a country where we don't even know how many of our fellows are Tamils from Sri Lanka, but are simultaneously asked to accept on faith that they are properly and legally here and to extend to them every privilege conferred by Canadian citizenship -- and to suck it up without complaint."

These columnists are leading this racist dance, and many readers are gladly following, responding with comments urging the protesters to go back to where they came from (even though many were born in Canada), charging that they are all on welfare, chiding them for wanting too much from our elected politicians and ultimately begrudging them for not living up to the standard of Canadian-ness that the media purports.

Some of the problem lies in the weaknesses of most newsrooms across Canada to report on race and identity, particularly when it comes to the hyphenated among us.

Immigrants, as well as first, second and third generation Canadians who are visible minorities abound in big cities. Our skin colour marks us, inescapably, as another type of Canadian. For most of us, the search for our identity lands us in a tangled mess of our ancestors' homeland and Canada. Our allegiances aren't limited to one country, but instead pay homage to the myriad of cultures that form our identity.

It is this diversity that could ultimately be Canada's strength on the international stage -- but don't rely on media to report on that.

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