Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Privileged in Toronto

In a red, folding audience chair of Studio Theatre at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre sits a white man.  He is in the wrong place.  

He is attending an event at the Canadian Writer’s Summit of 2016, titled “Grants for Writers.”  But the white man should have read the summit’s website more carefully.  If he had, he would have learned that this event is about the Ontario Arts Council.  He’s from Saskatchewan.  When he finds out, he feels dumb, but decides to stick around anyway.  

Jack Illingworth, Literary Officer for the OAC, sits at a folding table, centre-stage.  In his opening remarks, he thanks the Mississauga First Nation, on whose traditional lands downtown Toronto is built, for hosting.  This is not the first time the white man has heard these words.  Writer Lawrence Hill began his keynote address with them.  At the time, the white man thought these words were a nice concession to First Nations people.  Toronto is progressive, and the writing community is at the vanguard of The Culture of Inclusion.  

This time, however, the speech strikes the white man as meaningless.  If The Mississauga First Nation asked Jack Illingworth to vacate his house, would he be waxing this eloquent?  Would he thank them for the previous use of their ancestral homeland and pack his bags?  

Desperation rises from the audience like stink-lines.  Destitute writers itch to discover the secret of the elusive Arts Grant.  Every one of Mr. Illingworth’s ums, hesitations, and miscellaneous speech disfluencies ramp the tension.  He pauses to take questions, and hands flutter.  Complaining ensues.  Illingworth apologizes, then commiserates, saying how hard it was to write all those rejection letters.  Funding has been shrinking for decades and people who deserve grants cannot get them.  

Another writer queries Illingworth about a new OAC policy: “Is it true blind juries will be abolished for arts grants?”  The embattled Literary Officer confirms.  “Why?” asks another woman, without raising her hand.  Because, says Illingworth, blind juries overwhelmingly choose projects from privileged artists.  The crowd gasps.  Soon, the OAC will consider an artist’s background, colour, creed and culture as well as their project.    

Tired and troubled, the white man leaves the talk early.  He strides down crowded York Street to the Union Station Subway, pondering.  How can privilege penetrate a blind jury?  Are white men really that good at manipulating the system?  Is the new OAC policy fair?  Is it discrimination?  Is it legal?  Will blind juries be eliminated in Saskatchewan?  

His survival instinct stirs.  He’s a writer, and when he sells a story, he makes an average of $25, USD if he’s lucky.  That’s no way to make a living.  He needs an arts grant, and fears extra competition. 

The next morning of the summit, the white man is in the wrong place again.  The panel discussion he was most anticipating was “Writing from a Remote Area”.  His home village, on the remoteness scale, ranks somewhere between Midway Atoll and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  He cannot wait to hear some valuable tips.  Arriving late at the outdoor tent, he sits in the front row and readies his notebook.  He should have read the website more carefully.  The panel begins: in French.  Apparently, in Toronto, the word “remote” means “Quebec”.   

Disappointed and feeling stupid, he wanders until he finds a panel discussion about collaboration.  He tries to take notes, but cannot.  His mind wages civil war.  His survival instinct rages, combining with self-hatred and his sense of dislocation.  The Culture of Inclusion threatens him.  He feels: 
  1. Stupid, useless and hopeless
  2. Excluded and ignored at the prevailing culture at the summit because it threatens his survival.  It calls him privileged, when he feels he is not.  It has no interest in his stories because of who he is.  It reinforces itself with catchphrases like "European narratives" and "colonialism", and its perpetrators compete with each other to see how loud they can clap when they are mentioned.  
  3. Furious with himself for thinking a series of bigoted thoughts (which I will not publish here)
  4. Angry with truly privileged people - the ones who get all the grants.  
  5. Like he wants to go home and quit writing forever. 
  6. Like he is in the wrong place. 

The white man tells himself to shut up; these are the thoughts of a victim and a bigot.  But he cannot bottle them.  Trembling, he flees the panel during question-period and eats a sad lunch at the cafĂ© overlooking Toronto Harbour.  

Willing himself past the old power plant to the Fleck Dance Theatre, he trudges to his next event, “The First Page Challenge”.  He has anonymously submitted the first page of a short story to the organizers.  An agent, an editor and a professional writer will critique it and judge whether they would keep reading or put it down.  He dreads this event, for his self-esteem is in the toilet, and he is sure his writing will be lambasted.  He enters the dim theatre anyway.  

Two hours later, the white man emerges, transformed.  He received accolades from the onstage panel.  His writing is good.  Again he is competent and capable.  Again the universe is a place of abundance.  His survival is threatened by nobody.  

Most important, the encouragement has restored his clarity.  He remembers his list of itemized complaints against the summit, Toronto and the Culture of Inclusion, and sees that he was only a tourist in it.  Some people live that list.  Every day they struggle against privilege and feel like they are in the wrong place.  

The white man’s day at the summit concludes at a reception.  Some kind of LGBTQ awards are being presented.  He’s not sure which: he didn’t read the website that carefully.  Again the Mississauga First Nation is thanked, and again he notes overenthusiastic applause when the names of past winners are listed, but it doesn’t bother him.  It is only encouragement.  Encouragement helped him at exactly the right time.  It is the antidote to bigotry and hatred.  If he had not received it at his critical moment, he might still be thinking that white men are victims.  He joins the loud clapping.  

A man in a dress accepts his award at the podium.  The white man stifles a chuckle, not because men in dresses are funny, but because he cannot imagine this scene back home in Saskatchewan.  Yet he knows that if The Culture of Inclusion is so entrenched in Toronto, Canada’s most important city, it will be mainstream in Saskatchewan in a few years.  When that happens, it will change how writers interact with funding agencies and with government.  It may mean preferential treatment for some.  It might mean the end of blind juries for arts grants. It may be more difficult for the white man to get the money he needs to write for a living.  Even though they are privileged, men like him will feel persecuted.  

The privilege-party must be crashed, and space must be cleared at the table.  Though painful, it is necessary.  The white man vows encourage everybody he can, privileged or not, during the process.  

That evening, the white man decides to walk to his lodgings instead of taking the subway.  His route takes him across Bay Street, through the throngs of Yonge street, and along the circus that is Bloor.  He absorbs Toronto, and sees every conceivable culture, class, flag, and self-identifying gender during his stroll.  He is a lone human amongst millions, but feels inclusion in the smiles he meets on the street.  He is in the right place.