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White flight

Caribana, cottages, and casual racism

Aaron S. Bayley

Saturday August 4th marked the 45th annual Caribana Festival in Toronto. And as thousands of foreigners flew into the city for the festivities, thousands of locals fled to their cottages or other places of escape. 

The Caribana Festival--or, to use its official corporate name, the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival--is the elephant in the room when it comes to race relations in Canada's most multicultural city. And the elephant is huge: attracting 2 million people and generating over $400 million over a two-week period, Caribana is the largest street festival in North America. By comparison, the Calgary Stampede, Alberta's longstanding spectacle of animal cruelty, generates just over $170 million for the province. Culturally and economically, Caribana is a powerhouse.

Every year, it seems, Caribana organizers are left in limbo, wondering whether they will receive funding from the federal government, leading some to label Caribana a victim of cultural racism. And the accusers have a point, based on the fact that lesser festivals--at least from an economic standpoint--receive millions of dollars in funding annually, while Caribana received just shy of $500,000 (in 2010 it received a $400,000 grant only at the 11th hour). 

But aside from the perceived cultural racism that influences what festivals do and don't merit government funding, there is another type of racism that raises its ugly head every time Caribana rolls around: casual racism. Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about. Casual racism is alive and well in Toronto. It appears every time someone laments that they will be "staying as far as possible from downtown Toronto!" during Caribana weekend, or more sarcastically, that the arrival of Caribana means "time to head for the cottage!"I have never attended Caribana, though I have been downtown in the morning and afternoon the day of Caribana on several occasions, and aside from the fleeting glimpse of a beautifully costumed girl trying to squeeze into a cab, I would never have known that anything out of the ordinary was going on. You can go downtown and avoid Caribana completely. Surely, the casual racists know this, but acknowledging it would not give them the opportunity to share their little joke. If people don't want to attend Caribana they can just stay home. Saying they're going "as far away as possible" is merely symbolic: it's a way of showing that they're culturally, racially, and economically on the other side of the spectrum, and by extension, superior. It's reminiscent of white middle-class attitudes towards racial integration in America in the 1960s.

Needless to say, the majority of these casual racists are white. For some reason, they find it necessary to "flee" the city until Caribana is over. I'm not suggesting that everyone who goes to their cottage during Caribana is racist. After all, that's what people do on long weekends. But I've heard enough conversations, seen enough frightened stares on buses and subways to know that a large majority of people see Caribana as nothing more than over a million black people descending upon their city in a hostile takeover. Their mentality is "This weekend belongs to them, so let's just get out of their way." Casual racists see themselves as the cultural norm, while people of Caribbean descent are 'othered'; the casual racist will not even think of attending the carnival because they pride themselves on distinguishing themselves from this 'other', alien culture. It's not explicitly stated, but that's why it's the elephant in the room. 

I'm not saying everyone has to be a fan of Caribana, either. I don't go because I don't like large crowds or spicy food, but I can appreciate that Caribana is rooted in the emancipation of slaves in Trinidad, that it is a celebration of Caribbean culture, and that watching half-naked women dance and preen in gorgeous and elaborate colourful costumes is different from watching Nicki Minaj's video for "Pound the Alarm." Whether parts of Caribana constitute sexual objectification is part of an ongoing debate, but those who reject the carnival's more salacious elements as a matter of principle don't mind sitting in air-conditioned theatres and watching Hollywood movies rife with sex and violence. 

Perhaps you think I'm being unfair. After all, there have been shootings at Caribana in the past, and given the recent massacre at Toronto's Eaton Centre, people are on high alert. Yet, the fact is, Toronto is still a safe city, and people who use the excuse that they won't go to Caribana for fear of being shot wouldn't go anyway. It's a way of using concerns about societal safety to veil racist attitudes. If the recent movie theatre massacre at a Dark Knight Rises screening which left 12 people dead and 58 injured happened at the AMC at Yonge and Dundas and not in Aurora, Colorado, would Torontonians stay away from the movies in droves? Hardly. 

The thing about casual racists is that they're insidious; they won't express the negative stereotypes about blacks in public (they're all lazy, they're all promiscuous, they're all thieves, they all own guns) but they sure as hell believe in them. And if Caribana is the embodiment of those stereotypes, then every time it comes around, the casual racists are buying a full tank of gas. No talk, all action.


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