October 20, 2014

Commentary | February 17, 2011
Intersections: immigration, activism, consumerism
Written by

Frantz Fanon observes in Black Skin, White Masks that “there is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white.” For Francis Fukuyama, The End of History bears the contours of a universal liberal democracy. Fukuyama and Fanon – prominent, scholarly, non-white products of the wealth of opportunities afforded to them by elite European educations – perceive that a trajectory of mass initiation into whiteness and European-established liberal democracy will chart our future. All quarters of the world will eventually integrate themselves into the institutional components of what have historically been wedded to white hegemony: English, a higher standard of material living, education, liberal democracy, beauty, “culture.”

Whether in the realm of beauty or intellect, what whiteness has come to emblemize is enchanting. Whitening creams and soaps are regularly advertised products in culturally-marketed beauty magazines. Once, after I shared with a friend that McGill is the “sexiest university” – as per an online student forum – she attributed this fact to our overwhelming whiteness. The blunt comment “sometimes I wish I were white,” is heard from second-generation immigrants – who are not in fact  self-hating downers, just in liminal, ambivalent cultural spaces.

In Zadie Smith’s contemporary classic White Teeth, Jamaican-English protagonist Irie Jones becomes enamoured with the English-English Chalden family, which has taken her under their wing as their cultural beneficiary. Irie “was fascinated. … No one in [her] household made jokes about Darwin, or said ‘my foot and mouth are on intimate terms’ or offered choices of tea, or let speech flow freely from child to adult, as if the channel of communication between these two tribes was untrammelled, unblocked by history, free.” This passage spoke to my upbringing that, come university, rendered me somewhat aggrieved of my parents’ apolitical pleasantry, mostly my father’s recurrent jokes about the only fruit of his Philippine agricultural degree – that he’s the Asian male Martha Stewart of plant-watering (still gets me…and he does water well).

Yet it is ineffective to chastise the widespread de-politicization of immigrants – disproportionately visible minorities – forming the lower class majority: multiple underpaid jobs render opportunities for political “acculturation” and “integration” remote, romanticized realities.

What results is a scarcity of activism within an immigrant community that would benefit tremendously from such to redress their socioeconomic grievances. Activism, however amorphous the term, typically requires the luxury – time, resources – to cultivate knowledge about your “oppressions,” then battle against them. Marching with a throng of protesters brandishing signs emblazoned with socialist axioms; joining legions of idealists in all-you-can-drinks to raise money for the drinkless; or writing an article to rebuke odious institutional practices are all exclusive forms of activity.

Ironically, “commercial activism” supplants community activism for socioeconomically marginalized immigrants. Consuming and flaunting frippery becomes the primary form of activism-on-credit when commercial “communities” replace the virtues of the gregarious and homogenous cultural community that was left behind. Not surprisingly, then, working unrelentingly during the week and spending Sundays relishing in the pseudo-communal frenzy at the mall becomes a norm for many immigrants I observe (who, in fact, appear miserable while shopping).

Cultural alienation, little money and much work are counter-productive to political consciousness and activism, and, ironically, conducive to materialism – the idea that it is the “materialessness” that makes life so miserable.

Meanwhile, our government fails at making activism more inclusive for immigrants. The Conservatives’ December decision to eliminate funding from educational, social, and employment services to newcomers aggravates their disenfranchisement. This decision compounds the negative impacts of the disposal of the long-form census last July, which threatens the existence of government services that reflect the needs of those on the margins.

Fortunately, this is not the end of history.

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