Diversity’s Final Frontier

The real schism in our society isn’t sex or race. It’s social class

• 1,334 words

Even before he won last month’s election, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians that his inaugural cabinet would feature at least as many women as men. Some opponents viewed this gender-equity pledge as a stunt aimed at female voters. But it’s entirely consistent with the progressive take on gender issues that Trudeau has exhibited since his college years.

Trudeau will be the first Canadian prime minister who came of age during the modern era of identity politics. As a young man at McGill in the early 1990s, in the wake of an infamous sex scandal at Zeta Psi fraternity, he was one of the first male outreach volunteers to enlist with the university’s Sexual Assault Centre. (One of his tasks was to visit frat houses with female team members, role-playing scenarios involving consent. That sort of training is now common, but it wasn’t back then.) On abortion, he’s tweeted that “The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone,” and took the unusual step of declaring Liberal MPs must vote pro-choice on any related bills. Earlier this year, Trudeau even spoke out against the harassment of women in the video-game industry—not the sort of issue that usually hits the radar of a major party leader.

The Trudeau years likely will witness the national mainstreaming of many of the feminist causes that have suffused youth politics for three decades—including equal representation for women and minorities. And his ascension to power marks an important moment for Canadian progressives. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the question of whether “diversity” still means the same thing in 2015 as it did when Justin Trudeau was an undergraduate. While traditional metrics of racial and gender diversity remain important considerations when building a government or professional organization, I’d argue that the most profound schism in Canadian society isn’t skin colour, gender or sexual identity. It’s social class.

As an editor, I have the privilege of working with all sorts of interesting and influential Canadians. On paper, many of these people are “diverse”—men, women, black, white, straight, gay, trans, cis, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. Yet scratch the surface, and you find a remarkable sameness to our intellectual, cultural, and political elites, no matter what words they use to self identify. In most cases, they grow up middle-class or wealthier, attend the same good schools, and join the same high-value social networks. They have nice teeth because mom and dad pay for braces, and hit a nice forehand (or three iron) because mom and dad pay for lessons. They know the best patisseries in Paris, because of that epic backpacking trip between undergrad and law school. And as ambitious young adults, they feel okay about ditching the law-firm grind for a prominent life in politics, art, journalism or activism—because a wealthy parent or spouse is paying the mortgage.

We rightly worry about how many women, or blacks, or First Nations individuals are represented in public life. Yet that concern is rarely extended to people whose marginalization cannot be reduced to tidy demographic categories.

In two decades of journalism, I have written and edited countless articles about Canada’s criminal justice system. But never once have I, or any of my close journalistic colleagues, ever spent a night in prison. I have written and edited countless articles about the Canadian military. But never once have I, or any of my close journalistic colleagues, witnessed the hell of war. Nor, to my knowledge, have I ever had a close colleague who lived in public housing; who experienced real hunger; who suffered from a serious health condition that went untreated for economic reasons; whose career or education was compromised by the need to support impoverished relatives; or who had been forced to remain in an abusive relationship for purely financial reasons. We often describe people like this as living “on the margins.” But collectively, this is a vast bulk of Canadians whose hardship and anxiety are rarely witnessed by politicians and media except through survey data and think-tank reports.

On Sunday night, after I touched on this theme during a CBC panel discussion devoted to Trudeau’s gender-equalized cabinet, I received a note from one Arlene Arlow of Keremeos, BC, summarizing some of her life experiences. I am reproducing it here, with Ms. Arlow’s permission, because it captures my argument (not to mention the complex intersection of class and gender) better than anything that I could write myself:

Thank you for your comments on The National this evening. I agree that Canada’s biggest social issue is class, not gender. My roots are extremely humble: I grew up on a mixed grain and cattle farm in Alberta, and in our community, ours was one of the families that went without anything beyond the bare essentials. My parents retired in reasonable comfort. I do not expect to retire because I don’t expect I will ever afford it. In that regard, I will not enjoy the same financial wellness of my parents. I struggle constantly to make ends meet. I have worked through mental illness and years ago I declared bankruptcy due to bad personal choices coming out of an abusive marriage. I have wealthy acquaintances, but my closest friends are at or slightly above the poverty line. Currently, I am a self-employed bookkeeper, author, part-time adult education teacher, and municipal politician. I never had kids because I sensed I would not be able to provide for them. I graduated from a one-year Secretarial Arts program at the Northern Institute of Technology in 1992 thanks to a seat made available while I was on EI. Being a female has prevented me from getting jobs over the years, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. I tried getting a Train Conductor job with CN in 1978 straight out of high school: I was told at the CN offices in Edmonton that CN doesn’t have washrooms for women on their freight trains, and that I needn’t apply. In the 1980s I tried getting a job as a labourer with a moving company: I was told they didn’t hire women because “women can flip their ovaries.” Then again, I have also had jobs that were dominated by men: roofing, construction, security, and most recently, politics, to name a few. Throughout my thirty-seven years as an independent, self-sufficient adult, a lack of money has thwarted me far more than being a woman. I presume you live well above the poverty line. Good on ya’. [Thanks for being] able to see beyond your class.

There are millions of other stories like this across Canada, describing the unsentimental reality of people who fight hard, in relative obscurity, just to keep their head above water; and who don’t have the luxury of worrying about some of the more rarefied glass-ceiling controversies that get debated on Bay Street and in Ottawa.

From a “diversity” perspective, these Canadians represent the most underrepresented group in the country. Yet they’re largely invisible: While Ms. Arlow was very generous to end her letter the way she did, the truth is that I don’t really “see” beyond my class—except on those discrete occasions when I have the opportunity to go out and report on the world outside my professional and social bubble.

The advantage of focusing on racial and gender diversity is that these are demographic features one can see and measure at a glance. Which means it’s the kind of diversity that will easily earn a politician or CEO a reputation as an enlightened thinker. On the other hand, you could pass Ms. Arlow on the street, and never know anything about the way hard luck has denied her the opportunities that my privileged peers completely take for granted. Increasingly, the most important kind of diversity is the kind you can’t measure with the naked eye.

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.

  • Barbara Kay

    This is good common sense, and it amazes me that it or the CBC appearance discussed in it could be considered controversial. I have seen many young people on TV shows like The Agenda, more young women than young men, as I suspect their presence is coveted for political reasons, and, on matters of diversity, many young women of colour. These young women are highly educated and articulate, but often their discourse is a series of mantras that are grimly predictable, as though Race and Gender Intersectionality 101 had been downloaded into their brains with no interrogation whatsoever. They themselves are leading enviable lives, but they talk as though they were regularly “radicalized” and as though their gender had been an obstacle to success, when in fact their gender and colour have obviously been a great boost to their fortunes. It is depressing that this mild and completely objective article has been made the butt of satire and criticism.

    • James Forbes

      Speaking of grimly predictable, we have your reply, exhibit “a”. You seem to know an awful lot about the people you’ve never met simply by watching them on television. You write (painfully) “when in fact their gender and colour have obviously been a great boost to their fortunes”. I’m not sure what you think the pay grade is for casual appearances on CBC, but I assure you, it’s less than it costs for a wash and set in Yorkdale. Much less. Yes, young activists use language and ideas in ways we find foolhardy, offensive, and perplexing. Such is the way of being young, and passionate. I too grew up in the lap of privilege that includes the author, Trudeau, and others referred to in the article, but I also worked with activists of every stripe during the same period, and I have come to tacitly appreciate that my experience, however rich, is not theirs. To suggest blithely that being a woman, or of colour is making people rich is absurd. You really do need to get out more.

      • Barbara Kay

        I know what the CBC pays, because I have done gigs for them. By “fortune” I did not mean money per se, but the exposure and prestige that comes from appearances on cross-Canada media. I have no problem with young people being young, but there is a difference between acknowledging that youth may explain certain excesses or foolishness and pandering to superficiality and ignorance as though it were wisdom simply because young people are expressing it. There are young people with both idealism and knowledge and humility around: I know several of the myself, but they are rarely asked to express their views on the CBC because their views are not politically correct.

        • James Forbes

          This is a fair degree more cogent than the previous post. Nonetheless, your lament must be properly contextualized with respect to the network’s content as a whole. It’s largely poorly crafted opinion with banter and pleasantries, whether we’re speaking of senior correspondents or youth guest speakers. The smattering of cultural, industrial and political guests is most often edutainment. But on this view, why single out young women, or people of colour? You might as well discuss the stream of inanities from people like the recently departed O’Leary or the insufferable fellow from ‘blue cat networks’. Even that hoary old thesaurus, Rex Murphy is more caricature than sage in the current model. Your obsession with the term ‘politically correct’ is duly noted. It is grating to have to deal with substantive social change and the sometimes ham fisted attempts to institute it, but I can truthfully say that in my lifetime, the good has far outweighed the bad. There is a haughtyness in your tone I find off putting. Given the current commercial constraints of the 24 hour news cycle and the competition, how would you like to see diversity championed and expressed by youth appearing on the ceeb? With of course the understanding that the perspectives of the establishment (myself included) are viewed as neither necessary, nor useful by a large percentage of those outside of that privilege.

    • Cara Elizabeth

      Aw, little Johnny needs mama to come and defend him. A reminder that most of those who criticise diversity as giving undeserved rewards are totally fine with their own nepotism. Thanks for reminding us that he didn’t earn his place.

  • Oberyn Martell

    Yes, and the many, many writers of colour who appear in the Walrus would never have been published unless they were black. For example: the woman and/or writer of colour who was (obviously) chosen to pen this article, telling us which prejudices “really” exist, and which are only figments of the female and/or black imagination.

    • Andrew Fleming

      You, uh, DO realize the article was written by a middle-aged white guy, don’t you? You can even see his equally white mother in the comments below.

  • Audrey Cormier

    This is true. The lack of awareness has shown up in some reporting that I’ve seen on a few topics on different news sites. The invisibility of class issues in media isn’t surprising, but it’s appalling just the same. I sometimes think that middle class people from the suburbs of large cities are the most insulated people in society. It’s been pointed out to me before, that even living in a small town will give you more exposure to social class diversity, at the very least.

    Some privileged people are content to live in an echo chamber, OTOH. I have the impression that they don’t want their preconceptions challenged by reading more about reality than they’re used to. I’ve mentioned a few realities in online forums, based on first-hand experience, and I’ve been accused of flat out just making the stuff up. Some people just don’t think things are possible if they haven’t seen it themselves. Specifically: that working poor people can grind away at low wage jobs their entire lives without ever going on EI (not rare at all), or that there are poor people who never use food banks (not every city or town has them). Some people don’t believe anything but the stereotypes they see in B-movies.

  • jojo

    So why not do the hard work of analyzing Justin Trudeau’s cabinet picks according to class background? I found this article to be lazy and poorly argued. Yes, Mr. White Man, class is important, but please do not lecture all of us on who in the world has it worse. The fact that you only hang around rich kids who have never used food banks says far more about the company you keep and the staff at the Walrus than it does about society in general.

    You know, every so often my patriotism kicks in and I feel the urge to cancel my New Yorker subscription and get the Walrus delivered. You have managed to cure me of this impulse for the forseeable future.

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  • cor

    Hello Mr. Kay. Thank you for raising the issue of class in relation to diversity. If you believe it is as important an issue as you say, what might you be planning to do about it – to address this issue beyond your rather mild scratching of the surface? How might you, with your power and access and privilege play a role in going much deeper into the issue of class representation, or lack thereof?

    I would like to challenge you to do more than simply name it without the thoughtful analysis and recommendations that are missing in your article. Admitting you have never been in jail, or known anyone who’s lived in public housing, despite writing about these issues, or that you rarely see beyond your class or social bubble is a start, but it is a feeble and useless confession if it ends there. So c’mon – where are you going to go with this? And please do look at the intersectionality of oppression and marginalization that is absolutely not divorced from “class” issues. Hmmm… why are more women, indigenous peoples and people of colour poor and not represented in our public or private institutions? And what does “class” actually mean? Seldom if ever does someone’s “marginalization…fit some tidy demographic.” Life is complex. And more often than not it is you folks in the media that put people in these “tidy demographics.”

    I have a few more things to say but I am not getting paid to write and my current socioeconomic status leaves me little time to do so. But I’m counting on you Mr. Kay to keep the dialogue going – take a walk on the wild side – hang out with and then give some of those that you don’t see included in the representation of diversity – some air time, or Walrus time or whatever time they are not getting now. Thank you.


  • boyounglee

    I understand the good intention of Mr. Kay’s proposal that social class is the next great frontier for diversity, and that gender and race are merely superficial aspects of diversity that are more visible and more self-gratifying to focus on. Unfortunately, Mr. Kay’s analysis is exceptionally uninformed in terms of the dynamics of discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. One cannot extract social class from dialogues about gender, race, and any other aspect of diversity and inclusion. Addressing gender inequality is to address social class inequality. Same for race inequality. Canadian women make $0.82 for every $1 a man makes. In 2014, working women (both full time and part time) earned just 75.3% of men doing the same work. The disparity in earning is even worse when we consider race. Social class differences are exacerbated by gender and race. Women and visible racial minorities are significantly higher to live in poverty than whites and males.

    The letter by Ms. Arlow, utilized by Mr. Kay to fortify his position, in fact completely invalidates the notion that social class is the next frontier of diversity. Ms. Arlow provides several examples of how she was discriminated for her gender thus leaving her unable to adequaltely gain employment and rise in socioeconomic stature. It was the intersection of her gender AND her social class that created great hardship for her. Her gender exacerbated her poverty and institutional sexism may have caused her economic struggle. Poverty is not the driver of a person’s inequality, it is the manifestation of inequality. The drivers of inequality are our biases towards those who are different from the white, male, straight, cisgender power hegemony – those that are female, visible racial/ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBT, transgender, and disabled. To address discrimination based on these demographics automatically ensures that we address income and class disparaty.

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