Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a tiger by the toe. Like countless children before and after me, I learned this rhyme at a young age, and used it with siblings and friends to determine who was “it” in a game of hide-and-seek or, during solitary play, to divvy up treats for my stuffed animals. The summer I was four, a girl named Denise moved into the house two doors down and quickly became my best friend; she taught me a different version of the rhyme. I sat on the dun-coloured carpet in our living room with a dozen miniature porcelain animals collected from boxes of Red Rose tea: Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a N –
Out of nowhere, my mother appeared, face red, eyes cloudy with anger.
“What did you say? WHAT did you say?”
I didn’t answer. My upper lip began to twitch.
“I never, ever want to hear you say that word again. It’s a hateful, hurtful word.”
My mother turned on her heel and went back to wherever she’d been. She never explained what the word meant. I never said it again. By the time I was eight, I had a new best friend: Bonnie Lee. Bonnie was Chinese and – so it seemed to me – not-Chinese at the same time. She was born, as was I, in Toronto, and had lived all her life, as had I, in our quiet post-war subdivision in the section of Scarborough that borders the bluffs. It was Grade 4 and we were inseparable. We lent each other copies of Nancy Drew mysteries and discussed the plots in detail. We learned that our mothers used the same pet name to refer to us: “cookie.” We rode our bikes together on the curvy streets of our suburb; we told people we met that we were cousins.
On my ninth birthday, my parents took Bonnie and me to a restaurant downtown, and afterwards she slept at my house. We sat on my bed while I opened the gift she’d wrapped in shiny gold paper. It was a box containing a porcelain “china doll” dressed in traditional Chinese costume. As I ran my fingers over the doll’s delicate features and silken clothes, Bonnie said, “we thought since I’m Chinese we’d get you something …” Her voice trailed off. I didn’t know what to say—we’d never mentioned her being Chinese. I called the doll Bonnie. I have her still, on a shelf in my basement, tucked away in her original box, limbs askew, clothes disintegrating.
This moment of inarticulateness in no way epitomized my relationship with Bonnie. But looking back, it strikes me that an opportunity to talk about difference was missed because we lacked a suitable vocabulary. I wonder if, even today, we possess a nuanced enough vocabulary for such a discussion. The question I’ve been asking myself lately is, can white people speak about race without being offensive or obnoxious? Not long ago I posed this question to a friend of Indian origin, and his answer was equivocal. It’s possible, he said, but it doesn’t happen very often. His response made me realize that as a white person, I need to ask myself why I’d want to talk about race.
The answer may lie in my own family history. My mother was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Lithuania. While growing up in Toronto in the forties, she was called “dirty Jew” almost daily. When she was barely out of her teens, she escaped from her urban Jewish ghetto by marrying a “goy” and moving to an overwhelmingly WASP suburb, trading the no-holds-barred racism of her childhood for the genteel anti-Semitism of suburban Toronto. As the product of what used to be called a “mixed marriage” (from which it was assumed no good could come), I felt vaguely out of place in this suburb that was for me both cocoon and catacomb. Most of the time I “passed.” But occasionally I felt—was made to feel, by something as simple as a friend’s incredulous reaction to the news that I had not been Christened—other.
It was in high school that my ambivalent relationship to otherness came to a head. In the late seventies, following a wave of immigration from South Asia, the demographics of our part of Scarborough began to change. It was still predominantly white but now there was a sizable South Asian minority, and the virulent racism my mother had experienced found a new target. I find it odd that this history, this period of blatant racism, is so seldom talked about. It’s an era that prompted writer Clarke Blaise to comment, “Toronto has been a dark place. Vancouver has been a dark place.”
The racial epithet of choice in these dark places was “Paki,” a term applied ignorantly and indiscriminately to people of various backgrounds and skin tones. (Comedian Russell Peters has called it “my N-word.”) It’s a slur we don’t hear very often anymore, but in the late seventies and early eighties I heard it with depressing regularity. Neighbours on our tightly knit cul-de-sac complained about the Pakis who’d bought the house next door. Never mind that they turned out to be a family that had recently defected from Romania; they were olive-skinned, which meant they were Paki enough. Then there was the ubiquitous “humour.” Classmates and acquaintances joked almost daily about the malls or buses or school hallways being “Pakked.” If you objected you were a “Paki lover,” as if it were the worst conceivable insult to be portrayed as loving – or simply failing to hate – the denigrated other.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why the racism of that era affected me so deeply. After all, I was not its target, and I am not trying to make the facile claim that racism hurts us all equally. Of course it doesn’t. I do not know, and cannot adequately imagine, the pain experienced by actual targets of that particular brand of racism. I only know that as a witness, I felt implicated and complicit. I remember clearly a day in Grade 10 when university students visited our school to film a documentary about racism. They brought cameras into the halls and stopped students randomly to ask them about the school’s racial climate. They caught up with me at my locker, thrust a microphone in my face, and asked if I thought there was racism at the school. I was awkward and introverted; I didn’t want to speak, but I said, “Yes, there is racism.” Against whom? they asked. “Against Pakistanis,” I said, and then added “but they’re not really, or not all from . . . ” I stumbled over my words, rendered incoherent by the camera, and by the obviousness of the questions.
“Yes?” the cameraman prompted. “Do you have anything else to say?” I glanced at the earnest, bearded student, then buried my head back in my locker.
“No,” I said.
Today, the “P-word” has all but disappeared from the Canadian vernacular, but racism – disguised as discussions about immigration policies, overly-Asian universities, or supposed attacks on Christian holidays – has not. As a white person, do I have anything else to say? Yes, I hope so.