After emigrating from Kenya in the 1970s, my mom’s family jumped around Toronto for a few years, before eventually settling in Oshawa, a sizable city about an hour East of Toronto’s downtown core. Moving from one of the most multicultural hubs in the world to a city that was, even as recently as the 2006 census, at least 90 percent European was—to put it lightly—a bit of a culture shock.
When the families of my grandfather and his three brothers—a grand total of 16 people—moved into four detached bungalows on the same suburban street in the mid-‘70s, they dramatically increased the South Asian population of Oshawa overnight. As I’m sure you suspected, this seismic demographic shift did not go unnoticed by the community at large.
Within weeks, my mom and her cousins were enrolled in local high schools, becoming the targets of merciless racism at the hands of their peers, while my grandfather and his brothers jointly received a personalized letter from the mayor of the city, “thanking them for bringing diversity to the city.” I know this sounds like the plot point of a hokey sitcom, and I wish it were, but I can assure you this was a real thing that really happened.
I was thinking about this story recently, as I was reflecting on the disastrous comments about race that kindred Oshawa-native Daniel Caesar made during his alcohol-fueled live stream on Instagram earlier this week. Responding to a controversy surrounding the media personality YesJulz, the barely cogent R&B talent issued the following statement, prompting an immense backlash on social media:
“Why are we being so mean to white people right now? That's a serious question. Why is it that we're allowed to be disrespectful and rude to everybody else, and when anybody returns any type of energy to us... […] That's not equality.”
To be clear: I don’t have much sympathy for the perspective Caesar expressed. Speaking bluntly, it’s naive, misguided, and conveys almost no clear-sighted understanding of racial politics from either a current or historical perspective. With that said, what good does it do on a societal level to condemn a person’s views categorically without at least trying to diagnose and address the circumstances that led to their formation?
I’ve never actually met Daniel Caesar personally, so I obviously can’t speak to his formative experiences on a granular level, but I do know a thing or two about Oshawa based on my family’s assorted history there. So, in the spirit of trying to contextualize the various environmental factors that could have potentially led to the formation of Caesar’s misguided worldview, here are a few anecdotal observations about what it’s like to grow up in this city.
As I mentioned above, Oshawa, despite its proximity to a region of nearly unprecedented multicultural diversity, is still overwhelmingly white. By virtue of this, minority children who grow up here are often made to feel like outsiders by default, forced to assimilate to the dominant culture in order fit in socially, but never quite able to bridge this gap entirely. It creates the classic struggle that people of color have been discussing for years, wherein they feel trapped between two worlds at once.
As kids feel constantly out of place, simply on the basis of their appearance, they conform to the tastes and ideologies of the friends they grow up with, making them “too white” to fit in with the members of their own ethnic communities. Wishing to feel at home in either of their communities, it is not uncommon for these kids to start desperately clinging on to any semblance of approval.
Unfortunately, by virtue of this same geographical closeness to the big city, ethnic stereotypes trickle East throughout the Greater Toronto Area over time, eventually finding their way to Oshawa and seeping into the minds of its residents.
Yet, whereas people who live in the big city have enough exposure to minority groups to appreciate their disparate natures, a lot of kids in Oshawa may know just one representative from each particular minority group. Often, it’s the kid who grew up with them, generally emulating their behavior at all turns. Over time, this produces a lot of insidious exceptionalism. There are only so many times a kid—one who may be desperate for approval—can receive a backhanded compliment, saying “you’re not like the other people in your [minority group]” before they start to internalize it and develop a subconscious prejudice for their own people.
With this context in mind, perhaps you can see how a young black kid growing up in Oshawa, like Daniel Caesar, may have arrived at the viewpoint on racial politics that he espoused on Instagram two days ago. If, hypothetically, he grew up with a bunch of kids who constantly complained about supposed reverse racism, felt the need to agree with them in order to fit in, and then subconsciously internalized this perspective over time, it’s not insane to think that he has a fair amount of unlearning to do before he can come out the other end as “woke” as you or me.
Once you take a moment to appreciate this, doesn’t it seem like a bit of an overreaction to “cancel” him indiscriminately?
I'm not suggesting that it's the responsibility of marginalized people to educate Caesar on something that should be self-evident, or even suggesting that he's deserving of their empathy in this regard. But if the ultimate goal of all this discourse is to foster greater social awareness, I'm not sure righteously cracking jokes about his appearance on social media is the way forward, either.