On MLK Day, immigrants like me have special responsibility - GulfToday

On MLK Day, immigrants like me have special responsibility


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Nicholas Boston, The Independent

On September 9, 2020, the New York Times published a flashy pictographic article titled “Faces of Power: 80% Are White, Even as US Becomes More Diverse.” Published amidst the feverish rash of mainstream introspection that swept the country following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the article identifies the “922 most powerful people in America,” categorised by industry and profession. One presumes these powerbrokers to all be American born and raised. But an unlikely minority sits among them: Canadians.

Looking at just the “People who Head Universities Ranked in the Top 25” category, my own profession, I’m struck by the fact that two of the presidents/chancellors in the group of 26 are Canadian: Marc-Tessier Lavigne, president of Stanford University, and Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. That’s almost 8 percent of the total.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, why does this information give me simultaneous pride and discomfort?

People don’t readily think of us Canadians living in the United States as immigrants, whether we have naturalised as American or not, but we are. At the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, we have one of those demographic distribution maps showing where holders of a nationality are clustered throughout the US.  According to most recent data from the Migration Policy Institute, Canadian immigrants in the United States number around 800,000. Who knew? By comparison, there are 678,000 British nationals living in the US and everyone knows them simply by listening to them speak. Last September, the New York Post scoffed at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet that her Met Gala gown was designed by a Canadian immigrant, putting the latter word in scare quotes.

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who holds Canadian citizenship, made an interesting statement to an interviewer on the subject that always stayed with me.

“I never became an American citizen, even though I’ve lived here now for 35 years, in part as a symbolic statement,” he said. “Not because I hate America, but because it is important for what I do for me to continue to think of myself as an outsider. And, so, carrying a Canadian passport is a symbol of that.”

Gladwell must wear his passport on a lanyard around his neck because, as a nationality, we Canadians “pass” in a really weird way. We are the epitome of sight unseen.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding? It’s Canadian. Madonna? She had a French-Canadian mother. Drake? Okay, you know Drake is Canadian because he got out in front of that sheet to preserve his street cred. But, for the other 99.9999 percent of us, there is no outward sign that screams “Canadian!!”

If we speak with French-Canadian accents, our Canadianness gets subsumed into French-from-France-ness, a recent example of which is a New Yorker magazine article in which the writer is clearly unaware of the differences between a French accent and a French-Canadian accent, and employs stereotypes of French, not French-Canadian, identity to define the Francophone character in the story.

Some — those who can — have taken the same measures as every other immigrant in history to integrate. Like changing the spelling of their names. A male friend of mine excised the “e” from the end of his first name (and ditched the accent mark) after years of receiving business emails that began, “Dear Stephanie.” Stéphane, a very common boy’s name in Quebec, doesn’t appear in American baby books that list Stephen and Steven. Undetectable as a national group, Canadians who immigrate to the US meld into the ethnic, racial, or religious communities to which we historically belong, if any at all. If we are of Irish background, we get embraced or read as Irish-American; if we are of Jewish background, we get embraced or read as Jewish-American (with a big question mark surrounding the Sephardic, often French-speaking, Jews from Montreal, who your average American has no idea where to place ethnically); and, if we are Black, we are embraced and read as African-American.

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