I mean, what should I have expected when Jon Kay started the segment with, “I think it should be a strict meritocracy”?
On Sunday night, the CBC asked me to join a segment on The National about affirmative action in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet—you can watch it below if, for some reason, you get erections watching car crashes. My fellow panelists were Jon Kay, editor of The Walrus, and Tasha Kheiriddin, CBC political commentator and National Post columnist, both of whom disagreed with Trudeau’s promise to have a 50% female cabinet. The whole thing was weird, like almost all television spots are, and any gaps in the segment were filled with me looking around the studio for help.
My partner told me I should do the segment. He usually stands behind me, gently coaxing out whatever little inferiority complex slugs are clogging up my ears and eyes. He reminded me how I complain about television panels all the time, how they’re often comprised of a bunch of white people—usually white men—seated at a Lucite table discussing something like the Black Lives Matter movement or diversity metrics. I don’t love television news and I don’t do it often, but I figure if you want mainstream media to start paying attention to a wide variety of voices, you have to try to become one of those voices.
It was nothing I didn’t expect: Kay and Kheiriddin agreed with each other, I felt tense, my hair looked great, and after it aired, liberals agreed with me and conservatives didn’t. Nothing new.
I’m used to a certain level of online abuse so I was equipped for whatever nonsense was about to come my way. Some lunatic found me on Facebook just to tell me she thinks I’m an “idiot” (upon further inspection, she’s currently studying Human Resources Management, so, yikes). By midnight, I had one man make a blowjob joke at me and another call me a cunt and tell me to “get back in the kitchen.”
The men in my life got their backs up in my honour, messaging me asking if this was normal and what could they do. Nothing! This is indeed normal. It’s not okay, it’s not fun, it’s not fair, but it’s normal. I can handle this, because I’ve handled it before. Almost all the women I know have, too. (One of many reasons why the world does not currently function as a meritocracy, but we’re beyond that now.)
But, by this morning, a sick feeling started to set in when people started to contest my race. More than a few tweets came my way asking why the CBC was airing an all-white panel on the subject of diversity in politics. Good question, in any other context. Here’s the rub, if it’s still unclear: I am not, nor have I ever been, a white person.
When I was younger, there was never any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t a white person. It was clear. Racism was vibrant in my city and my school. I started junior high in Calgary just after 9/11 which, despite the fact that I wasn’t raised in America, seemed to have a scurrilous effect on how my classmates approached me. This, certainly, takes nothing away from people of other races, or those who are darker than me. (I get stopped at airports, sure, but I know people with darker skin than me get it worse. There’s a spectrum to these things.) Still, I’m not sure where the assumption came that I’m white.
I have a white sister-in-law, and a half-white niece, but the rest of my family (and they will tell you this for hours if you ask) is from India. Fun fact: my parents are from an Indian Brahmin community called—you’re not going to fucking believe this—Kashmiri Pandits. And the word pandit—you’re just going to die—is where the term political pundit comes from. How’s that for cultural appropriation?
After the panel, I got a lot of criticism from women of colour about how I handled the issue of racial diversity in Trudeau’s cabinet. Indeed, I hardly addressed it, which may have been why so many thought I was a white person. My only defense for not discussing race more is because I was perplexed by having to explain to two people the most basic tenants of a 50/50 gender split in government.
I could have done more. I know that. I left the studio on Sunday night feeling like I hadn’t done my best, my stomach percolating with the food poisoning I got on Friday evening. I threw up outside the CBC, and went home blubbering. I called my dad and he answered the phone with, “So did you kill anyone?” Then he recommended I have some consommé, mostly because I think he likes saying the word consommé.
The criticisms, though some were unhinged and related solely to the fact that I was not dark enough, have a valid point: showing up and being the face of women of colour is not enough. The intersection of feminism and race doesn’t mean just finding the right voices, but using the platform you’re given to actually have a full conversation.
It leaves me feeling more despairing than before: how much are women of colour expected to do and be?
There’s a Nicki Minaj clip where she talks about how women have to be multi-talented to get by. “When you’re a girl,” she says, “you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super-sweet. And you have to be sexy and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice. It’s like, I can’t be all those things at once.”
It’s true for all women, but it’s doubly true of women of colour: they have to be everything. Any failure to any particular group is tantamount to a failure on all fronts.
I could have done a better job on the panel. I am, at every point in my life, in a position where I can do better. But the more I’m put in positions where I have to defend my existence, the more I wonder why it’s on me to defend my existence. Why it’s on the shoulders of women of colour who get those few, coveted public slots to actually have their voices heard. Why is this our job and not also the responsibility of the countless white voices in the public sphere?
Even men of colour don’t get the criticism that WOC do. When Desmond Cole issued his mea culpa about not actually asking any women about Justin Trudeau’s campaign comments about misogyny, he didn’t get a fraction of the fury that WOC do when they’re perceived as not advancing the cause in the right way.
Of course I can do better. My intersectionality is not at its best, because I live in a white world dominated by white people and I lose sight of the world sometimes. I have fair skin as well, so that comes with its own set of privileges, in an out of my race. I fail, all the time. And we get upset when we see other WOC handle these few opportunities in a way we disagree with, precisely because there are so few of them to begin with. We have to fight for every one we get.
I don’t cry a lot, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried in public (drunk, drunk, drunk, hungry, drunk) but this morning I ducked into the bathroom at my office to weep quietly in a stall. I spent too much of the morning looking at Twitter, watching my feed fill with people trying to guess my race, whether I represented WOC appropriately, whether I had been crushed by the other two panelists. Not just the question of whether I did an okay job, or if I made valid points — rather, was I everything?
The need is insatiable but the options are limited. I want to do the panel and try to be the voice, but it so frequently results in coming home to attacks on my character, my race, my looks, my existence. If I don't do the panel, my existence is merely entirely ignored by the public consciousness. You suffer consequences either way.
Mamas, don’t let your Pandits grow up to be pundits.