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Personal Essay

You Tread on My Dreams

Allow me to be unambiguous: I am no one’s BIPOC mannequin. I am a person foremost and not a skin color, and I will not be cheapened nor reduced. I am not marginalized, and I need no special treatment. I refuse your categories.”

For those of us living in the West, it all feels rather hot right now—the current tenor of race relations is, I imagine, quite similar to the temperature at the time of the 1963 March on Washington, when approximately 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial to protest racial inequality, in the searing summer heat. “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in his seminal speech, “that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Few things are as captivating as a dream, and the dream of racial diversity is one of the defining recent hallmarks of the West. My vision for racial diversity, when best practiced, involves people of various ethnicities taking part in a united cultural vision. In this view, all people are created equal, regardless of skin color, and through offering genuine value to those around them, individuals can prosper, as can the entire society.

Yet despite the many victories won in the civil rights era—such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the “basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in the United States—a mere glance at the modern-day culture wars casts doubt on whether true racial equality was ever achieved, in the United States or in the West more generally.

Media coverage is filled with stories of racial disharmony. Social interactions are laden with racial anxiety. Even decades-old institutions are shifting their guiding principles to correspond with the new frenzy surrounding race. The prevailing new perspective on race has become downright religious in the devotion it inspires. Doctrines of “equity” and “inclusivity” have now had an overwhelming effect on Western life. 

When it comes to doctrines such as these, the most striking aspect of it all is this emergent phenomenon of reorganizing people into racial-political categories. These categories are readily seen in every facet of society. In business, they are discussed constantly as companies clamor to hire people belonging to certain racial groups. A Toronto-based publication, The Ex-Puritan, states: “We are especially interested in work by LGBTQ2S+ writers, BIPOC writers, and writing from other marginalized folks.”

In government, these categories are political talking points so passionately invoked that they are akin to liturgical chants. In response to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in January of this year in Memphis, Tennessee, President Joe Biden remarked that, “It is yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.” [Capitalization original] Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has frequently stoked the flames of racial tension, condemned his chief political rival Pierre Poilievre early in the year by insinuating that Poilievre longs for an age “where men were men and white men ruled.”

At this point, the West is well acquainted with the war these categories are purported to wage—the fight against white racism. However, it takes little reflection to realize that the blame and resentment from which these categories spring is far removed from King’s message when he delivered “I Have a Dream.” Furthermore, there is a certain all-consuming manner to this racial doctrine. I have never considered myself “marginalized,” and I live with no daily “fear” or “trauma.” Still, I find myself included in the catch-all “BIPOC” category because my skin is brown. Furthermore, I am supposedly owed special treatment because of my skin color. 

Now, I have indeed had as many racist experiences as any: I have been refused service by a white bartender; I have been sworn at and derogatorily called a “Paki” by a white passerby (though I am not Pakistani); I have been improperly arrested by white police officers who believed I had harmed a woman I was trying to protect from a potential assault. However, to count these moments as proof of the “white” category’s racism—and proof of the need for the BIPOC category—ignores all the countless wonderful moments shared with white people: I have been welcomed into the homes of white people; I have been called “brother” and “family” by white people; and those white police officers were exceedingly apologetic after they learned that I should not, in fact, have been arrested. 

What, then, to make of the heavy-handedness of these racial categories? While its proponents will argue for their necessity in combatting long-entrenched inequalities, it was King who provided us with the correct insight 60 years ago: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” 

Thus, the sledgehammer-like manner of the new racial movement reveals that these racial categories are not a tool to combat white racism, but, rather, they constitute the actualization of a revenge fantasy against white people. When the words “straight,” “white,” and “male” conjure such potent acrimony in Western media, it is clear that the notion of King’s shared future is hardly the goal of these categories and their purveyors.

While the promise of racial categorization might soothe the conscience with platitudes such as “righting past wrongs” and “helping the disenfranchised,” in reality, these categories also degrade the people they claim to protect. They are reductive: To function inside of them, my entire personhood must be wedged into the “POC” subcategory, within BIPOC, of course. This is hardly liberation. Second, they assume an innate insufficiency in non-whites: Although I never asked to be saved from any ill-defined marginalization, a savior is being imposed on me. 

What the purveyors of these categories do not see—or do not want to see—is how counterproductive such racial categories are in practice. While decrying the existence of white colonialism, these purveyors manifest the colonization of language by enslaving the way people think, as well as the colonization of identity by forcing people into a classification system they did not choose. This is not unlike forcing Indigenous children into racist schools. Yet it is all deemed acceptable because these purveyors, social diplomats that they are, are willing to denounce loudly and publicly alleged malignant whiteness at every turn. 

This is racism in its purest form—specious in logic, insidious in nature, and profligate in execution. How did we get here? How did those who craft the culture in the West come to endorse such openly racist plans? And what is the solution? To such questions, I offer a solution of my own. Like King, I, too, had a dream—the dream of my childhood.

I grew up in the 1990s in a perfectly middle-class suburb of Toronto. My parents were immigrants from Trinidad, and, as a boy, I never decried the absence of other Trinidadians. Actually, we had neighbors who were already kin. Up the street lived a Haitian family. Down the street lived an Italian family. Across from us lived a Chinese family. In between were Greeks, Indians, Jamaicans, and one family whose ancestors had been in the country so long we simply called them “Canadians.”

All the boys on the street hung out together. In the winter, we played hockey on the icy roads. In the summer, we played basketball in our driveways. When we stayed out playing too late, our parents scolded us. When we talked back, we got “licks.” We all shared in a common experience, and, rarely, did skin color even enter our minds.

But as life went on and as the 1990s faded farther into the past, a shift began. People became scared of using racial descriptors once employed without a second thought. There was fear of social reprimand, fear of offense—there was just fear. And, for those of us unfazed by the notion of causing offense, there was frustration: I can recall an interaction with a black store clerk who thanked me with great relief when I referred to his co-worker as “black” instead of navigating a ridiculous labyrinth of politically-correct descriptors. 

As I reflect on my upbringing, a familiar word springs to mind: multicultural. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this word simply described the reality of living in a city like Toronto. Now, the word has been transformed into a political term, a word saturated with meaning and one that has been turned into a political applause line. 

As a boy, my family knew our neighbors as people, and they knew us as people. The many cultures of our community were integrated and human. The descriptors we used for one another—white, black, brown, and such—were terms ground in reality. The Italians on my street were white. The Haitians were black. My Trinidadian family is brown. Using these terms caused no one offense, and no one was put into a box that determined how they would be treated in society. 

In the time since the 1990s, no one approached me and asked me to join the BIPOC category; unbeknownst to me, my membership was assumed and then declared in the digital, decentralized town hall, a world very different from the Toronto of my youth. Due to the increasing amount of time we all spend online, our society has less and less need for tangible human interaction. As a result, the many cultures of our communities grew increasingly deracinated. Our understanding of race and culture has followed in tow. 

For its part, Toronto now stands as emblematic of this communal oblivion. Statistically, it is among the most multiracial cities on the planet, with a 46.6% immigrant population. Yet, with little identity outside of the diversity of its people, the bare notion of having multicultural communities—whether they exist authentically or not—is social crack for Torontonians. It is a way for us to feel cultured without having a discernible, shared culture. The root of this addiction is the very narcissism that feeds racial categorization: We want to appear flawlessly multicultural, even if that charade dissolves the very foundation of our society.  

In his 1899 poem “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” W. B. Yeats depicts the lovelorn Aedh as he contemplates the woman of his affection. Having nothing with which to win her heart, he offers instead his most precious possession: “But I, being poor, have only my dreams.” To be made real, however, dreams need to be lived out. As a boy, the dream of racial diversity was real. As a man looking back on those years, I cannot help but surmise that Yeats’ poem, for all the beauty it has brought to the world, would be passed over if it was written now, as many white writers have been because of their skin color. Yeats, you see, was not among the marginalized BIPOC folk whom publications such as The Ex-Puritan clamor to feature.

If the West is to find a better future, we must do away with tyrannical racial categories. I envision a future where we need not fumble over words in daily conversation but, instead, use them to solve shared social problems. I seek a future in which we do not assign blame but, rather, derive joy from differences in ethnic background, a future where we are comfortable with race and exist once more as parts of a shared community. Imagine no longer having to tip toe around questions of race. This might seem impossible in the heat of the present moment, but it is actually still perfectly attainable.

Allow me to be unambiguous: I am no one’s BIPOC mannequin. I am a person foremost and not a skin color, and I will not be cheapened nor reduced. I am not marginalized, and I need no special treatment. I refuse your categories.

As we seek to rediscover brotherhood and a shared national identity, we must all stand together, for a community cannot be rebuilt without commonality. Thus, to all who remain of that bygone West, and all who wish to return, I implore you: Deny this dogma of racial categorization and take up the work of living well. The dream of racial diversity is still alive, but it is once again still only a dream. I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Calan Panchoo is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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