On MLK Day, Canadian immigrants like me have a special responsibility

We have the privilege of ‘passing’ as Americans. How do we observe this holiday not just as a polite show of respect to the host – which we do so well – but a full-on recognition that implicates us in this country’s history of ethno-racial stratification?

Nicholas Boston
New York
Monday 17 January 2022 16:13
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On September 9, 2020, the New York Times published a flashy pictographic article titled “Faces of Power: 80% Are White, Even as US Becomes More Diverse.” Published amidst the feverish rash of mainstream introspection that swept the country following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the article identifies the “922 most powerful people in America,” categorized by industry and profession. One presumes these powerbrokers to all be American born and raised. But an unlikely minority sits among them: Canadians.

Looking at just the “People who Head Universities Ranked in the Top 25” category, my own profession, I’m struck by the fact that two of the presidents/chancellors in the group of 26 are Canadian: Marc-Tessier Lavigne, president of Stanford University, and Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. That’s almost 8 percent of the total.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, why does this information give me simultaneous pride and discomfort?

People don’t readily think of us Canadians living in the United States as immigrants, whether we have naturalized as American or not, but we are. At the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, we have one of those demographic distribution maps showing where holders of a nationality are clustered throughout the US. According to most recent data from the Migration Policy Institute, Canadian immigrants in the United States number around 800,000. Who knew? By comparison, there are 678,000 British nationals living in the US and everyone knows them simply by listening to them speak. Last September, the New York Post scoffed at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet that her Met Gala gown was designed by a Canadian immigrant, putting the latter word in scare quotes.

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who holds Canadian citizenship, made an interesting statement to an interviewer on the subject that always stayed with me. “I never became an American citizen, even though I’ve lived here now for 35 years, in part as a symbolic statement,” he said. “Not because I hate America, but because it is important for what I do for me to continue to think of myself as an outsider. And, so, carrying a Canadian passport is a symbol of that.”

Gladwell must wear his passport on a lanyard around his neck because, as a nationality, we Canadians “pass” in a really weird way. We are the epitome of sight unseen. My Big Fat Greek Wedding? It’s Canadian. Madonna? She had a French-Canadian mother. Drake? Okay, you know Drake is Canadian because he got out in front of that sheet to preserve his street cred. But, for the other 99.9999 percent of us, there is no outward sign that screams “Canadian!!” If we speak with French-Canadian accents, our Canadianness gets subsumed into French-from-France-ness, a recent example of which is a New Yorker magazine article in which the writer is clearly unaware of the differences between a French accent and a French-Canadian accent, and employs stereotypes of French, not French-Canadian, identity to define the Francophone character in the story.

Some – those who can – have taken the same measures as every other immigrant in history to integrate. Like changing the spelling of their names. A male friend of mine excised the “e” from the end of his first name (and ditched the accent mark) after years of receiving business emails that began, “Dear Stephanie.” Stéphane, a very common boy’s name in Quebec, doesn’t appear in American baby books that list Stephen and Steven.

Undetectable as a national group, Canadians who immigrate to the US meld into the ethnic, racial, or religious communities to which we historically belong, if any at all. If we are of Irish background, we get embraced or read as Irish-American; if we are of Jewish background, we get embraced or read as Jewish-American (with a big question mark surrounding the Sephardic, often French-speaking, Jews from Montreal, who your average American has no idea where to place ethnically); and, if we are Black, we are embraced and read as African-American. I remember passing a huge billboard towering above 125th St. – the heart of Harlem, New York City – displaying the R&B diva Deborah Cox, a Toronto native, and wondering how many observers were aware that Cox was Canadian. Furthermore, what difference it would make it they did? No truer is the title of Cox’s biggest hit: “How did you get here?”

Those of us who are Native, from the First Nations, still fight for our right to freedom of movement on ancestral lands that straddle the border. The First Nations are exempt from the opinion expressed here because, well, as everyone knows, or should know, they didn’t ask for any of us to crop up.

Now to the topic of holidays. Biggies like Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Ramadan and so forth, Canadians celebrate on the same premises as Americans. Thanksgiving throws us a bit off-kilter because we celebrate it in October, not November, and we’re not even really sure what we’re celebrating. There were no pilgrims, was no rock, and the native species of turkey was wiped out around 35 years after the country’s founding in 1867.

So, where, if anywhere, does all this leave Canadian immigrants in the US when it comes to observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day? How do we observe not just as a polite show of respect to the host – which we do so well – but a full-on recognition that implicates us, not as neutral outsiders but exalted entrants, in this country’s history of ethno-racial stratification into which every incoming group gets slotted, like it or not?

The team of sociologists who edited the book New York and Amsterdam: Immigration and the New Urban Landscape pose the question: “How has the immigrant past shaped the immigrant present?” This is certainly worth asking us Canadians. MLK Day honors Dr King’s dedication to ending all forms of racial inequality. While we Canadians can cite the legal segregation or oppression on the basis of origin, race, and religion that scarred our own past and shame us in the present – even in our most recent history, Amy Cooper, the white Central Park dog walker who called police on a Black man, is Canadian, as is Becca Brennan, the Brooklyn restaurateur whose tone-deaf décor and menu offerings drew outrage – we are far less reflective simply about the slot we’re assigned on the immigrant ladder. Not being regarded as immigrants is itself a huge step up.

On September 23, 2021, days after ghastly footage was taken of US Border Patrol agents on horseback rounding up Haitian migrants at the southern border, Rep. Cori Bush claimed in a tweet that “approximately 60,000 Canadians currently live undocumented in the USA. You don’t see the militarized presence, cops on horseback, and calls for a wall on that border. The issue has never been about immigration. It’s about anti-Blackness and racism.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning news watchdog site PolitiFact analyzed the numbers thoroughly and concluded Bush’s claim to be true.

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we Canadian immigrants should ponder how Dr King’s message speaks to us at the southern border, not our northern one.

Nicholas Boston, PhD, is associate professor of media sociology at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Follow him on Twitter at @DrNickBoston

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