Racism Is Alive and Well in Toronto
If we want to create a just and diverse society, we have to acknowledge how racism shapes this city.
Toronto isn’t Ferguson, Missouri. In some ways it’s worse.
That’s because we don’t admit there’s a racial divide in this city. We talk so much about diversity that we’re in complete denial about the fact that people of colour are hurt every day in Toronto, in big ways and small ones, and that the darker the colour of your skin, the more likely you are to be hurt.
Here’s a story.
A while back I went for a late lunch with a friend of mine. It was the first day of the World Cup and the restaurant we went to has a giant television screen in its lounge, so when they offered us a table in front of it we were delighted. It was about 2 in the afternoon and the restaurant was mostly empty.
The restaurant is part of a chain, one of those fancy-casual places where the managers have ear-sets and there are booths with enormous chairs and the same low lighting at every hour of the day and night. You can utterly forget what time it is or where in the world you are.
On this day, we ordered full meals and my friend asked for a beer alongside. His request was refused.
Here’s what you need to know about my friend: he is always beautifully dressed, wears pressed pants and ironed shirts with sleeves that are neatly rolled to the elbow in the summer and buttoned right up to his neck. They make him look older than his age, which is somewhere in his late 20s. He has short hair and he always looks like he just left a business meeting. Some people guess he’s 27 or 28; some that he’s over 30.
The server asked him for ID. She said it was restaurant policy to ask it of everyone who looks under 30.
My friend doesn’t carry ID. He does that on purpose. That’s because he doesn’t want to end up in the Toronto Police Service’s database as a victim of carding, just for walking down the street. It’s a strategy that many young black men adopt.
The server shrugged and apologized. In that case, she said, no beer.
I’m in no danger of being mistaken for a person under 30, but I regularly go out with my daughters, who are 22 and 23. The 23-year-old often gets asked for ID; the 22-year-old never does. One restaurant owner in our neighbourhood apologized to the 23-year-old. I’m sorry, he said, but it’s the law that I have to ask everyone who looks under 25. If an inspector were to see me serve you without asking, I’d lose my licence.
So, faced with the server’s refusal to bring a beer to my friend, I pushed back a little. I’d been told the inspectors require establishments to question anyone who looks under 25, I said, not under 30. After all, the point is to ensure someone is over 19. That’s the legal drinking age, not 30.
The server said she didn’t know about that, but that in this restaurant they asked everyone who could be under 30.
My friend, ever the epitome of grace, did not argue. He and I didn’t talk about the incident. We always have a lively conversation and this day was no exception. The food was delicious and we had an enjoyable lunch.
But we didn’t go back there, either. We had eaten at that restaurant many times (although that was the first time either of us had tried to order alcohol) but I was grateful when my friend suggested other places to eat after that, and the incident continued to rankle me.
So one day in late August I asked a neighbourhood friend of my daughter’s to come and have lunch with me at this same restaurant. My neighbour lives for hockey and doesn’t have much use for an iron. He has long hair. The day we went for lunch he was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt with an unbuttoned plaid shirt over top. Nobody would think he looked over 30. He’s also white and blue-eyed.
We sat at a booth in the same lounge and my neighbour ordered a Caesar. Coming right up, said the server. After that he ordered a beer. He got the same cheery service. We shared an appetizer and then asked for the bill.
But perhaps the server thought my neighbour was over 30? I asked her, after I’d paid the bill, how old she thought he was.
Hmmm, I’d say 24, she said. Absolutely right, he answered.
There had been no request for ID, and no talk about restaurant requirements to ID everyone who might be under 30.
At this point, if you’re white, you may be shrugging this story off, thinking that’s not enough evidence to label the restaurant or the manager of any of the servers racist. You may be saying to yourself: this is nonsense. Anecdotal. Hardly the kind of evidence you’d need to speak to attitudes in an entire city. Maybe you stopped reading altogether.
But when I told my friend, the one who didn’t get his drink, about all this, he shook his head and said, “That’s only a part of it. You don’t see the rest.” When you and I go to the restaurant together, he told me, they always ask whether we’d like coffee or dessert. When I go with a black male friend, they bring us the bill as quickly as possible.
Let’s be clear: this story is not about these particular servers. The first server was a woman of colour herself; the second server was as white as the hockey player and had matching blue eyes. This story is about something much, much more pervasive and frightening.
If you’re white, you can spend your whole life not seeing what goes on every day around you. You can tut-tut at the laughingstock mayor’s slurs and faux-patois faux pas and not recognize the extent to which racism in Toronto is alive and well and smiling politely right beside you. It’s in the way police do their jobs and in the way employers make their hiring decisions [PDF]. It’s in the services that are provided unequally to different neighbourhoods, in the programs that are cut where they are needed most, in the ways the justice system works differently for black teenagers than it does for white ones [PDF]. It’s in the lessons that are taught in schools and the ones that are not.
But it’s also on the bus and in the restaurant booth next to yours. And although it may be invisible to white people, it’s not invisible to people of colour, and especially not to black people. And they’re noticing, even if you’re not. If we are going to become a socially just diverse society, we have to begin by acknowledging and challenging how deeply racism shapes the world we live in—here, in Toronto.
The point of this story isn’t to name and shame the restaurant or the manager whose instructions the server was carrying out that first day of the World Cup (although it would be great if he recognized himself and undertook some serious soul-searching). The point is to understand why the manager thinks it’s okay to discourage young black men from having a beer in his restaurant, and to understand to whom he is appealing when he makes that decision.
Because the problem is much bigger than one manager or one restaurant. And it’s not going to get fixed if we keep insisting it doesn’t exist.
Rima Berns-McGown is an adjunct professor of diaspora studies at the University of Toronto and the past president of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs. She is currently spending two years at Simon Fraser University as associate director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures and Shadbolt Fellow in the Humanities.