A version of this essay was presented as “A Visitor Thinks About ‘Home'” at the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender Faculty Colloquium, at Bucknell University on December 1, 2016
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason. I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
—James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes.”
“For a writer to become an American is to subscribe of his own free will to a set of ideas and principles and to the documents that embody them in written form, all the while delightedly appreciating that the documents can and often must be revised so that the words therefore constitute, so to say, a work in progress.”
—Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
“But I proceed from the working theory that all nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them and the job of the writer is to resist this instinct.”
The prospect of reflecting upon the differences between living in Canada and living in the United States as a way of thinking about thoughts of “home” is daunting to me now in ways that I could not have imagined before having moved from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in August 2013. This occasion does, however, give me the opportunity to revisit some of my thoughts in my book, Visitor: My Life in Canada, in which I write about the experience of having lived my entire life up to that point in Canada, while at the same time never feeling truly “Canadian.”
I am restricting myself here to my experience of living in both countries as a black man, rather than trying to make some sort of definitive and necessarily foolhardy attempt to come up with definite distinctions between the two countries. For my purposes here, the main difference that informs my observations about living in the two countries may be summed up as the difference between “for better or for worse,” the more conventional expression, and “for better and for worse.”
I want to argue that the United States is a “for better and for worse” country, in a way that highlights the many trade-offs inherent in living in such a place, and Canada is a “for better or for worse” country, suggesting the availability of options that don’t really exist except at the cost of those being largely ignored by the country’s official, public life. It is easy to see how some might prefer the one over the other in both cases. With a little time, I have to recognize that my experience of having lived in a “for better or for worse” country has me coming to prefer “for better and for worse.” Not everyone will agree with this conclusion. I will return to all of this later.
For now, a more recognizable differentiation between Canadians and Americans, no matter who makes it, is the truism that Canadians are “nicer” than Americans; more polite, the saying goes. Some Canadians are nice and polite, but not necessarily because they are Canadian. Recently, I have taken to correcting people when they compliment me on what they see as my Canadian good manners, by saying I am not polite because I was born in Canada, I am polite (if I am, and at moments such as these I do not always come across that way) because I was raised by my mother and father, who insisted on a certain level of comportment, and neither of whom was born in Canada. This characterization of Canadian politeness persists—as much as anything—because of the general unfamiliarity of most Americans with Canada, and because most Canadians have not ever lived in the US.
This distinction bears one more comment. Americans don’t know much about Canada, not because “Americans” are parochial, chauvinistic, and stupid (although some are), but more compellingly because they don’t have to. Canadians are aware of much that goes on in the US because they cannot help it, even if they would prefer this not to be the case. When you move to the United States, as opposed to visiting Florida or Arizona during December or January, you become aware of inescapable differences that never would have been apparent to you if you only consumed the version of America most widely circulated in Canada.
It’s a fool’s errand to try to categorize the innumerable differences between living in Canada and living in the United States. Suffice it to say that the first thing one learns in moving from Canada to the US is that these differences are, in fact, innumerable. The nature of the fool’s errand is all the more obvious if the person doing the comparing is a recent expatriate from Canada, since the expat’s relationship to their country of origin is not dissimilar from that of a recently divorced partner talking about their ex. I’m hoping that I’ve moved past the point where at every gathering of my friends, every class or dinner party, I use any opportunity to start bad-mouthing the country of my birth. But I can’t evaluate honestly how much progress I’ve made in this regard. One recent resolution of this impulse has been my decision to refer to myself as having been “born in Canada” rather than being “Canadian.” Perhaps there will come a time when I will return to accepting that description as unproblematically as I once did. But for now, the break-up is still pretty recent.
One obvious difference between living in the two countries is how much public discussion about race takes place in the US, a circumstance that draws attention to how little (really, next to none) of a cognate public discussion takes place in Canada. And the nature of the American discussion is particularly compelling to an outsider, since much of the time I am being told by my American friends and reading in American publications about how rarely Americans talk about race, and how much more such dialogue is needed on the subject. These statements, it must be said, usually gain voice during discussions about race. In other words, Americans spend a lot of time talking to one another about how much more talking needs to be done about race. Eric Holder, as attorney general, referred to an American “cowardice” on this subject. When a sitting Canadian politician makes such a pronouncement, I’m sure someone will tell me.
I do not, in any way, intend this characterization as negative, because what such relentless discussion does is produce a pretty high general level of public discourse, or at least awareness, in the US, where the subject of race is concerned. Needless to say, this public discussion is not without its positions of bewildering stupidity and cruelty. Recently, in response to Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention—when she said that she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves—Bill O’Reilly took it upon himself to claim that the slaves were “well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” For me, this is an instance of the formulation that perhaps best describes the United States of America—for better and for worse. (I feel this expression should be printed on the money, maybe replacing “In God We Trust.”) But if the cost of getting to see the African American wife of the African American President referring to the slave provenance of the White House at a national political convention for all to hear is witnessing Bill O’Reilly demonstrate yet again how shockingly unashamed he is of the breadth of his ignorance and even more shocking lack of empathy, then this is a trade-off I am willing to accept. It is greedy to think that we can only get the results we want without acknowledging the equally real prospect that sometimes things will not go our way. But getting to witness Mrs. Obama’s speech is worth the necessary evil of occasionally being subjected to O’Reilly.
The trade-off is better than the Canadian alternative, I feel, in which this kind of discussion is relegated almost exclusively to the privacy of academic conferences, journals, and monographs, enterprises that get a few people tenure, to be sure, but do not contribute in any substantial, ongoing way to the lives of those affected by racism in Canada. If you doubt this statement, you might ask my parents how many academic talks they’ve been to that didn’t feature me. Racism is far too important for its consideration to be restricted to a small, highly educated population that comprises disproportionately, even by Canadian standards, people who are themselves not affected by racism in any way other than occasionally hearing about the experience of other people.
Among the tenured and tenure-track members of the English Department in which I now work, I am one of eight people who identify themselves as a person of colour. The department I left in 2013 was without a single person of colour for fully two years after my departure. The department I left was at a reasonably sized school in the Canadian city distinguished by having among its residents the largest historically indigenous black population in Canada. You will not find an English Department anywhere in Canada that looks like the one of which I am a member now, and we work at a small school in a small town in Central Pennsylvania, an area not renowned for the ethnocultural variety of its population. This comparison is pretty revealing.
If the expression “for better and for worse” describes the United States, then Canada might be described by the more conventional locution, “for better or for worse.” This expression encourages the illusion of choice, that we can in fact have the one without even the prospect of facing the other. Such illusions bring with them all manner of sophistry that begins to look like simple dishonesty when experienced up close.
If we’re really honest, we can agree that politeness is the very least we can do for one another. In fact, it might be argued that politeness is not really a virtue at all, but merely the absence of a vice, which is not a net gain. It is a bare minimum, and requires almost nothing from us. It’s possible that the United States elected a non-white national leader (twice) before Canada has even had such a prospect loom on its horizon because of a commitment to something more than mere politeness. Change rarely comes as a result of politeness. If anything, being polite all but guarantees the maintenance of the status quo. Change comes from at least some jostling, some moving of things around. I’m not saying Canada should unthinkingly adopt the melting pot or the salad bowl, or whatever vessel-like metaphor attempts insufficiently to describe the complexities of American life. But I am saying that it’s time to rethink the benefits of the cultural mosaic, if only because of who continues to decide what the mosaic looks like and who is being cemented in place for the benefits of others. A mosaic, after all, is a static form.
Which brings us to the more recent presidential election, the results of which I will not presume to explain. Recent events have left me pining for the good old days, when my being wrong about American politics found me declaring to my classes that the US would never elect a black president. At this political moment, though, I have to think that if a commitment to something other than politeness contributes to the emergence of a Barack Obama, then it is just as arguable that such a commitment, reapplied, contributes to the result of the most recent election. For better and for worse. Am I happy about the result of the election? Of course not. (I do not hesitate to remind people, in fact, that I was ineligible to vote.) But I recognize the very real prospect of the conditions leading to an Obama also leading, in another moment, with different factors at work within the same system, to the current President. A commitment to something more demanding than politeness involves risk. Sometimes risk turns out in ways that horrify us.
The result of the election points to something else that differentiates the two cultures. The news is sold aggressively as a commodity in the United States in ways it simply is not in Canada. And this extreme competition over something as influential, formative, and essential as the news means the citizens of the United States are often done a real disservice by a lot of the product they eventually consume. Obviously this difference draws attention to questions of how capitalism works, among other things. It also draws attention to quite probably the single most astonishing difference between the two countries—the sizes of their populations. When we remember that the population of the United States ranks third among the nations of the world, behind only China and India, we start to see why a commodity like news might come to be so hungrily fought over by some of the largest corporations in the most aggressively capitalist nation on earth. In fact, there are only six nations in the world whose populations are larger than 200 million, Indonesia, Brazil, and Pakistan being the other three. Canada’s population, for comparison, is approximately 35.4 million, which is less than the population of California.
I only mention any of this to illustrate that nations as populous as the United States are anomalies, to put it mildly. In such societies, competition becomes the rule of the day in just about any field, including news. If you are trying to sell your version of the news within such a frenetic marketplace, you might be tempted to follow the ready-made story, the story in which conflict is prepared for you and topped with an odd-looking orange-tinged comb-over. To be fair, the media soul-searching started before the election results started coming in: this example, from William Rivers Pitt, of Truthout.org, can stand in for what others in the media started to wrestle with, perhaps too late. He wrote this on October 8 of 2016, in response to the revelation of the audio recording of the President-elect’s ideas about—let’s call it—dating:
He was who the industry wanted, and they arranged to get him, and get him they did with our active assistance. Their ratings have never been higher, because we are the yeast that makes this rotten bread rise. Admit it: At some point you tuned in with the thought in your head, “I wonder what he said today.” Millions and millions have done just that. I sure did, and I accept my portion of responsibility.
Pitt’s self-serving self-flagellation does point to something important. If you want to make something salable—even if it’s the “objective” news—you may at some point feel compelled to appeal to the less-than-noble impulses of at least part of your market. It’s just surprising that it took so long for the media as a collective to realize this.
Such vicious competition in the news does not happen in Canada. As a result, the media are not given to the kinds of excesses sometimes witnessed in the US. But they are also not driven to demand more of their public officials, or of their nation as a whole. I read through parts of the New York Times every day, and continue to be amazed by how demanding this news instrument is on the subject of race. This statement includes columnists like Nicholas Kristof, who a couple of years ago took it upon himself to produce an intermittent series titled, “When Whites Don’t Get It.” In one instalment he quotes Dina, who posted the following to his Facebook page:
I am tired of the race conversation. It has exasperated me. Just stop. In so many industries, the racial ceiling has been shattered. Our president is black. From that moment on, there were no more excuses.
So, I’m not arguing that Americans don’t say stupid things about race. After all, Kristof says in the same piece, “But these conversations run into a wall: the presumption on the part of so many well-meaning white Americans that racism is a historical artifact.” What I am saying is that a lot of this happens in public venues in the US, contrary to the Canadian truism that worries that talking about race makes things worse. The American conversation exerts pressure on people like Dina, who can’t hide from these issues, even as she clearly wishes to. She also voices another prospect to explain how the most recent election turned out. Maybe some of us just haven’t been quite grateful enough to the largesse of well-meaning white Americans like Dina for voting for Obama, and now they’ve said so.
On the very rare occasion that The Globe and Mail produces something on race, it can reliably be expected that this discussion will be about race in some other country. One piece that I kept, though, demonstrates something really telling about the country in which I was born, but never felt that I was from. The article is titled, “The colour of justice,” and the subheading reads, “One in five Canadians is a visible minority, yet 98 of the past 100 judges appointed by Ottawa are white. Critics say it’s time to open up the process.” Because the statistics might suggest that they come from another time, I should mention that the date of the article is April 18, 2012. This is what a studied inexperience in talking about race can sound like. One imagines Canada having inched up to this magic number the way a stock price might, with the standing order that when the rate of judicial appointments hits 98% white, then the Globe and Mail will write its hard-hitting exposé. Or perhaps everyone was just being too polite to take notice.
Let me be clear. I would rather people be polite to one another than not. But politeness does not stand in for the necessary measures that need doing if a society is truly going to feel welcoming to all of its citizens, including those citizens whose presence and participation the larger society had not anticipated. In my 2009 book, You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University, I wrote about the fact that spousal hiring and regional representation in court appointments and university admissions are preferential practices that undermine unproblematic appeals to the meritocracy, the level playing field, and the emergence of the so-called “best” candidate, so I won’t belabor that point here. But to say no one had noticed that every judge but two appointed in the preceding 100 could have been related to every other judge as recently as one generation back suggests a blindness to something more than merely colour.
If you can get someone in Canada to acknowledge that racism exists in Canada—and that’s a big “if”—you are almost inevitably met with claims that racism in Canada (if it exists) is more subtle than racism in the US. But this rationalization misses an obvious point that someone who has never been actively affected by racism would not necessarily know. Almost all racism is subtle. The shootings of unarmed young black men, often but not exclusively by the police, are horrible, and have become the equivalent of online pornography for some. But while these episodes are traumatic and continue to horrify, they do not register statistically when juxtaposed with the slights, slurs, under-the-breath insults, second glances, not to mention the job, the apartment, the loan that you don’t get, even though you know what the decision was really based on, even though no one has said so out loud, and so you would have to make a Human Rights Tribunal complaint and give up four or more years of your life, probably to get nothing in return. And let’s not leave out the countless additional ways that racism is a real, daily question for people of color in both countries. At the end of the day, racism in Canada is not subtle at all. It’s completely recognizable. And so it must be said: if your belief that your country doesn’t have a race problem hinges on how few or how many unarmed young black men are being shot in your country, it’s time to rethink the standards upon which your national pride—not to mention your national identity—is based.
I’ve told several of my friends since the election of something that I’ve not often mentioned. I always carry my wallet with me when I leave my office. Whether I am going to the restroom, class, a meeting, I always have my wallet with me, and I do this because I never want to be unable to identify myself. And I do not, for a second, pretend that being able to say that I’m a university professor will protect me. The experiences of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Charles Blow’s son, and of the son of a friend of mine on another college campus, not to mention the countless similar incidents about which we never hear, would never allow me to be so arrogant. I am only confident that not being able to identify myself opens up a number of quite dire possibilities that I would rather not contemplate. I mention all of this because I am in my 21st year as a university professor, and I learned to carry my wallet with me in Canada, not in the United States. It’s the moment when the security guard whom you’ve called because you’ve locked yourself out of your office hesitates when he (in the case I’m recalling) encounters you in front of your office, because he’s not immediately sure that you could be a university professor. It’s a hesitation you come to recognize in people’s faces.
A friend in Lewisburg, with whom I meet for breakfast most weekends, recently arrived at the cafe where we meet, only to discover that he’d left his wallet in his office. He said, almost reflexively, something to this effect, “I should probably make sure not to do that anymore.” My friend knows, reflexively, what I know. He learned it in the US; I in Canada. He’s from North Carolina. I’m from Ontario. That’s how racism really is, almost all of the time.
This idea of subtlety has an even sharper edge, though. It enables people who don’t know anything about racism as a real thing to feel empowered to lecture those of us who spend our daily lives being subtlety insulted. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been told something wasn’t racist by someone who has never really had to know the difference. While I know that happens in the States, too, it happens an awful lot in a country where people have gotten almost no practice discussing these issues in public.
The description of Canadian racism as subtle has a further, even more insidious, effect as well. It’s easy to start doubting your own ability to interpret the world around you. You lose faith in cause and effect. After all, if racism isn’t happening in Canada, if no one is doing it, then I must be misinterpreting what is happening around me. Right? The response to my work that has stuck with me most strongly, said to me by a few strangers in emails, by audience members at a couple of book launches, is the phrase, “At least now I know I’m not crazy.” Again, subtle racism is what racism is, and its effects carry consequences that are as difficult to articulate to someone who is already inclined and encouraged not to believe you as they are to endure.
In the weeks leading up to the most recent presidential election, I started hearing left-leaning Americans saying what they were saying in 2000, in response to the prospect of a George W. Bush electoral victory. “If he wins, I’m moving to Canada.” Quite famously now, on the night of November 8, 2016, a website with information on the details of emigrating to Canada crashed from a surplus of traffic. I always found that aspirational statement about moving to Canada jarring, but didn’t put together why until very recently. The Americans who should be looking to move to Canada are not those on the left, but those more rightwardly inclined, irrespective of the White House’s occupant. I say this because that segment of the American population is missing out on the sale of the century: white supremacy for free, or at least at everyday low, low prices. The cost of white supremacy is considerably lower in Canada than in America because it is so rarely discussed in public. In Canada, you get all of the benefits of white supremacy (preferential treatment, occupying the position of the unquestioned cultural default, protection from a narrative of racial benignity in the event that you breach one of those annoying tenets of “political correctness,” standing as the “normal” identity for authority, expertise, and influence, and much, much more) without having to spend much, if any, time paying the freight for the advantages of white supremacy, because no one talks about it in public. You can’t pass a day in the US without encountering in public some consideration of the population composition and the implications for at least some sector of American society.
And, hey, if that section of the American population starts moving to Canada in great numbers …
Finally, I might be willing to differentiate the experience between being black in the United States and being black in Canada as the difference between living in a culture that routinely insults you and occasionally ignores you, and living in one that routinely ignores you and occasionally insults you. And while I recognize that being ignored is insulting and being insulted is an expression of having your humanity ignored, I find the formulation helpful nevertheless. Of course, I would rather have better choices. But limited to these two, I have come to prefer the model of the country in which I now live as opposed to the one where I was born. After all, one can be ignored politely. I have also spent a lot less time having to convince the Americans I know that racism is something other than a figment of my imagination. And remember, I’ve spent all of my adult life on university campuses.
I will also say that I much prefer feeling like a visitor living in a country in which I was not born to being made to feel like a visitor living in the country of my birth. In fact, I might even be willing to say that having grown up black in Canada helped ease the transition to living in the United States.
Four years ago, I never could have conceived of saying such a thing.
Anthony Stewart is John P. Crozer Professor of English at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He is the author of three books, Visitor: My Life in Canada, You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University, both from Fernwood Publishing, and George Orwell, Doubleness, and the Value of Decency, from Routledge.