Windsor 2: is Windsor racist?

I had not originally intended to write about Windsor, Ontario again for a little while, but in the past couple of weeks, questions have arisen in the Canadian national and local Windsor media about race and racism. Though this has been simmering for a while in different ways, it came out more prominently after Jagmeet Singh, a member of the Ontario provincial legislature representing the Bramalea-Gore-Malton riding in the Toronto suburbs, was elected leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP). Singh is a Punjabi-Canadian and a Sikh, and often wears a bright orange turban in line with the official color scheme of the NDP. He is tall and young, and many media outlets have described him as charismatic and energetic, often mentioning his martial arts training and boxing skills. Earlier this summer, Singh had discussed growing up in Windsor, where he and his family lived for about 16 years, and stated in an interview with CBC:

“Growing up in Windsor, I was told again and again in various ways that I didn’t belong. Windsor wasn’t a place where people would just point and laugh at you. Windsor was a city where, if they didn’t like you, people would come up and just fight you.”

In a later interview with The Windsor Star, Singh elaborated on this, presenting a more complex picture of the city and his experience as a visible minority, noting that even though there “were times I had to defend myself” from racially-motivated bullying, “that kind of thing happened throughout my childhood, not just in one city.” Still, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente picked up on the point about Singh’s encounters with racism in Windsor to characterize the city as a “blue-collar” place that “hasn’t always taken kindly to foreigners and immigrants.” Wente’s October 2, 2017, column on Singh is worth reading (something I honestly never thought I’d say about any of Wente’s editorial pieces) because it oscillates wildly between the stereotypical views one might expect of a tall, bearded Sikh man wearing a turban and traditional dagger, and the hopeful aspirations of a majority white Canada that is desperate to appear progressive and multicultural, avoiding the racially-charged and xenophobic forms of populism that have re-emerged with political force in Europe and the United States. I say ‘appear’ very consciously there, because it is a struggle to meaningfully confront racial discrimination in Canada – does the majority society want to really overturn white supremacy and the long history of colonization and racism within Canadian society and politics, or do they mostly just not want to be mistaken for their American and European counterparts, who say such uncouth things?

This tension is evident in Wente’s column. She uses words such as “warrior” and “supermanly” to describe Singh, and identifies him as “an alpha” compared to current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who she considers an utter disappointment and total “beta” male. She likewise notes Singh’s political shortcomings, as he has no federal political experience, cutting his teeth in provincial politics in Ontario, and saying all the wrong things on freedom of religious expression (e.g., the lingering niqab ‘debate’ that emerged in the 2015 federal election), which will not convince Quebeckers to vote for the NDP next time around. Comparing Singh to Barack Obama, Wente summarizes Singh’s appeal in the current moment by arguing that, “Liking him makes us feel better about ourselves. He makes us feel hopeful that we really do live in a fairly just society. He also signals a generational and cultural shift that seems truly hopeful.” That is a lot for the leader of the NDP, which is historically Canada’s third-place party, and which saw its electoral fortunes dim in 2015 as the party tacked centrist under former federal leader Tom Mulcair and further away from its socialist roots.

But the NDP’s political and electoral strategies are a digression. The question I want to address here is this one of racism and place. What makes a place “racist” exactly? As I noted above, Wente conjures the specter of right wing populism from the Rust Belt ashes of an industrial town down on its luck, suggesting that working class status and xenophobia or racism naturally go hand-in-hand. Singh, based on his own experience in Windsor (and it should be noted that he also attended a private high school in suburban Detroit), states that it was the kind of place where “people would come up and just fight you” if you were different, though he made lasting friendships and appreciated the city’s diversity and the lessons he learned there. Windsor is indeed a deeply diverse city, usually promoted as the “fourth most diverse city in Canada,” with the municipal government basing this on the “over 170 ethnicities and 70 spoken languages” among the urban population. As a manufacturing center for the cross-border auto industry for the last several decades, the city drew waves of immigrants seeking jobs and economic and social mobility – thousands came to Canada and eventually to Windsor from eastern and Southern Europe, including large numbers of Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats, Greeks, and Italians. Before that, in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, French and English settlers from Europe and other parts of eastern Canada pushed indigenous groups aside to create the familiar agricultural and market town landscape of white settler colonialism. Sandwich, a town later absorbed by Windsor and which now constitutes the relatively poorer western end of the city, served as an endpoint in the Underground Railroad, and drew Afro-Canadians and freed and escaped slaves from the US South. More recently, the city has become home to new groups of immigrants from East South Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and North and East Africa. On the 2 Express bus line running across the city along Wyandotte Street toward the university, it is not uncommon to hear Arabic, Mandarin, and Italian in a 20 minute ride. A long stretch of Wyandotte just east of downtown is lined with numerous Middle Eastern (mostly but not entirely Lebanese) restaurants, bakeries, and shops. Erie Street, just a few blocks south, is styled as Windsor’s “Via Italia,” even as many of the Italian families that once lived in the neighborhood surrounding have moved on to the suburbs and out of the city’s small core. I used to live at the end of Erie Street, near a train yard, and in that particular block there were several Vietnamese families, all refugees, or the children and grandchildren of refugees, arriving in the 1970s. Meanwhile, “ethnic clubs” are found all over the city, marking out past patterns of clustering within particular neighborhoods where immigrant groups found homes or work together, preserving a sense of community while integrating into the Canadian society, though this was of course easier for some groups than for others. The Giovanni Caboto Club is the largest of these, with a massive building and sprawling parking lot on Tecumseh Street, still hosting enormous weddings and other social events, primarily booked by families of Italian heritage, and housing an excellent pizza restaurant in the basement. It does not, however, allow women to become fully fledged members of the club (there is a “Ladies Auxiliary”), which became an issue in 2014 as students and faculty in the University of Windsor Women’s Studies program withdrew their distinguished visitors speaker series from the club.

But again, what does it mean to say or imply that Windsor is a racist place? Surely the experiences of individuals feeling the brunt of racial discrimination, racialized violence, or even more quotidian forms of exclusion based on race contribute to the categorization of a place as racist. But these experiences are often unremarked, borne with great disgust but also silence, for that is part of the function of racism as a social system and tool of oppression and exclusion. It becomes normal and unremarkable to those who guard and advance it, those who benefit from it, and those who are held down and excluded by it. Normal and unremarkable do not mean accepted or embraced, but when racism becomes a feature and not a bug of social order, it becomes that much harder to make it seem abnormal, to remark on it and push back against it. To complicate this picture of Windsor, I think it is better to ask not simply is Windsor racist?, as I have in the title of this post. The answer would have to be a resounding yes, as racism exists in Windsor and has since it first appeared on the map as a place at all, built as it was on the systematic dispossession of First Nations people in the region by a white settler colonialism that hinged on ideas of racial superiority, and which framed the land as empty enough of civilization to be a blank canvas for the spread of European, and later Canadian, political, economic, and social control. I think it therefore better to instead ask, how have race and racism shaped the place, and with what consequences? Windsor is racist not just to the extent that racist acts occur there, as they do in so many places in so many forms. Recall Singh’s comment above that the kind of experiences he had as a brown kid with a turban in Windsor were replicated everywhere else he lived as well; it was not simply a function of Windsor being a “working class city” though this class dynamic surely shaped these racial differences in different ways than one would find in, for example, suburban Toronto. Windsor is racist to the extent that ideas of race and practices of racism have shaped the built environment of the city, its connections to other places, and the lived experiences and life chances of its residents. Nailing down these points in detail would require a lot more work than I have time to do at this point, so I will conclude by briefly pointing to two ongoing issues, one in Windsor, the other in nearby Amhertsburg.

First, there has been a bit of debate lately about the potential for renaming Amherstburg, a small waterfront town of about 20,000 just outside of Windsor, located where the Detroit River empties into Lake Erie. The town is the site of Fort Malden, dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and is named for General Jefferey Amherst. This debate centers of the genocidal extent of Amherst’s views of and actions toward the indigenous people of North America, including the intention to use biological warfare against rebellious natives in Pennsylvania in the 1760s through the distribution of “smallpox blankets” to them. The historical record of this is fairly detailed, but Amherst was also one of Britain’s foremost military heroes in the colonies before the American Revolution, and towns in Massachusetts and New York are named for him as well. But there is a small but active movement to challenge the naming of things after Amherst, given his well-documented disdain for Canada’s First Nations peoples and active attempts to pacify, dehumanize, and eradicate them. As my friend and colleague Jeff Noonan recently wrote in a blog post titled “Canadian History X”:

Names confer identity.  When a place is identified by its European name, the implication (if not always the explicit intention of the user) is that there was nothing of value there before colonization. When it happens in that manner, naming is a form of cultural erasure. … We used to call the islands off the coast of British Columbia the Queen Charlottes.  Today they are more properly referred to as Haida Gwaii. Half of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut in 1999.

So is Amhertsburg, at Windsor’s doorstep and a bedroom community of sorts for the larger urban hub just nearby, a racist place? It is overwhelmingly white (95 percent by the last census), but was once also a landing point for African-Americans escaping the brutality of American slavery. How does the name of the town itself mark racism on the map, in the landscape, in the lives of its residents and those who may be excluded from full and vital participation in social, political, and economic life? This requires more discussion, but the debate over renaming this small town near Windsor demonstrates the extent to which hidden or taken-for-granted histories of racism, and how they have shaped places, even places as seemingly picturesque and bucolic as Amherstburg, matter in the current moment.

Finally, a more ‘haphazard’ expression of racist sentiment has been popping up in Windsor, especially but not only on the west side of town near the university campus, the bridge to Detroit, and Sandwich neighborhood. Anti-Muslim graffiti has appeared in numerous locations – on bus shelters, on city garbage cans, on walls and overpasses – stating “Islam means surrender” and “Islam=ISIS”, often including a hashtag but with no obvious matching presence on twitter. This has been going on for a few weeks at least, and has prompted some other local residents to counter by painting over the offending slogans when found. This is not some PEGIDA-level public expression of anti-Muslim bigotry, backed by a populist movement and connected to materially important political positions or parties, but it is troubling to see these kind of statements in the urban landscape, especially near the university campus, where we have many hundreds of Muslim students and active Muslim and Palestinian student associations and clubs, and in neighborhoods home to a large number of Muslims, some of whom are refugees. The rejoinder in a thick coat of covering paint indicates the urban landscape itself is a key part of the battle over racism, xenophobia, and bigotry in Windsor. This is a crucial part of answering the questions posed above. Race and racism have and continue to shape Windsor through racialized systems of economic exploitation; through forms of political and social inclusion and exclusion based on race, religion and ethnicity; through the presence and absence of particular bodies and voices in public spaces; and through unequal access to education and affordable housing, transit, and food, all of which are strongly correlated with minority status. This is not unique to Windsor, but a deeper exploration of the history of race and racism in Windsor is needed to fully understand both the contours of racism in this place, and how this may have shaped ideas about race more broadly. That is going to take a lot more work and a lot more conversation.