Toronto writer (and former Torontoist contributor) Navneet Alang is one of the creators of a new online writing project in the city. The Ethnic Aisle is a blog with a focus on race and ethnicity, and how these are experienced in and affect Toronto; we’ve asked Navneet to tell us a bit more about the project and how it came about.
In one of those funny, symbolic bits of serendipity, it is apparently Ethnic Media Week in Toronto. It’s serendipitous because late last week, we launched the Ethnic Aisle, a blog aimed at collecting and provoking discussion about race and ethnicity in Toronto. It’s funny and symbolic because most people I know, including those organizing the blog, had precisely no idea.
It’s that kind of tokenist, swept-under-the-rug approach to ethnicity we’re trying to take on. Though we incessantly hear that Toronto’s strength is its diversity, the perspective we hear in the public sphere is too often that of an assumed mainstream.
Who are we? So far: myself, Denise Balkissoon, Jef Catapang, Rea McNamara, and Jaime Woo. [Ed. note: Jaime Woo is also a Torontoist contributor.] Though we are all writers in Toronto, that fact will change as more and more contributors from different walks of life come on board. And whether it’s silly little things like ‘exotic food’ or altogether more serious topics like the controversy over Maclean’s magazine’s “Too Asian” article, the downtown-suburb split or the tangled maze of multiculturalism, we felt it was time to hear about those issues from the “minorities” you keep hearing so much about.
It was probably the last municipal election that was the tipping point. In bars, coffee shops, and social networks across the city, the chattering classes endlessly debated the issues that came up. Yet in the handwringing that came after Ford’s decisive victory, there seemed to be little understanding of how culture, ethnicity, and race may have factored into things. And though we love them, it seems almost all of our city’s pundits and experts in urban affairs are, well, white (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
It was this trend that led writer Denise Balkissoon to decide it was time for some new voices. She got in touch with me and we set out in search of people who felt the same way. After a meeting over beers, and a few hundred emails later, last Friday we presented the site to the world. Though there were only five posts to begin with, the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere was overwhelmingly positive, and more than anything else, people simply seemed to feel it was an idea whose time was due. This, it seems, was something Toronto hungered for.
For the first round, we all, each in our own way, wrote tales of when we were, well, racist. Going forward though, you can expect a whole lot more, covering as much as our contributors possibly can, and from the outset we aim to aggregate a variety of voices rather than be home to just one or two.
Will there be rants about racism, oppression and “normative whiteness”? Sure. Why would we shy away from what needs to be said? But rather than only focus in on issues of discrimination and prejudice, we’re also aiming to simply talk about things that don’t show up enough in mainstream media, and have a bit of fun doing so. So expect to hear about the upsides of ethnic enclaves, interracial dates gone wrong (or oh so right) or how arranged marriages sometimes actually, you know, work.
Of course, the more voices the better, so we welcome those who wish to contribute to get in touch (it’s ethnicaisle-at-gmail). The only requirements are that you have something interesting to say and a place to say them, like your own blog. We look forward to hearing from you.
At the end of the day though, here’s the thing. The last few years have seen a steady uptick in local civic pride. More and more people are happy to say that they love this city. Yet, there’s something unsettling about this newfound Toronto boosterism somehow eliding issues of difference, diversity, and representation. What we hope is that the Ethnic Aisle will be a small but significant step to rectifying that—and in the process, will only help make this amazing city that much better.