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I joined the NDP a few days ago. Hooray me!

While I signing up (You can too, if you are Canadian; membership fee is $1 per year, and you can donate extra if you feel like it) I was asked if I were any of the following categories: First Nations/Aboriginal/Metis, a woman, a member of a minority sexual orientation, a visible minority, or a person with a disability. I ticked the woman, minority sexual orientation, and disability box easily, and mentally laboured a little over whether to tick the First Nations box and decided not to, because I’m not really heavily involved in Blackfoot culture and was raised more or less assimilated. The “visible minority” box provoked a few questions in me, most notably, the one in this title, and I’ve decided to address the term.

I know it wasn’t referring to disability, but to race, and I respect the definition of “visible minority” as that. But I believe that it could indeed be applied to other areas of being visibly different from the mainstream idea of the “average” Canadian. If that sounds a bit radical and unorthodox, then I’m glad. Sometimes these exercises can be greatly liberating for discovering how our cultural vocabulary functions and serves us.

The two groups that I think the term “visible minority” could most greatly apply to outside of race are disability and native language. In terms of using it to apply to disability, it can be fairly useful: Many physically disabled people are visibly different from the rest of the population, owing to their use of a wheelchair, a cane, a scooter, a hearing aid, or a walker. I would also argue that their being markedly different means they get treated differently either, and no, it’s not always in the “always be extremely courteous to the crippled” fashion that able-bodied people imagine the lives of disabled folks are like.

I am sure at this point that all of my readers are familiar with the concept of an “invisible” disability, which is one I wholeheartedly agree with, and use to describe my disabilities on occasion. But it’s an imperfect term, because even disabilities with no physical manifestations which require no assistive equipment are not entirely invisible, particularly to trained eyes. It’s just that what is recognizeable to myself or someone who knows autism’s symptoms may mistake it as eccentricity, illness, or something else entirely. Same for PTSD, or OCD. Other disabilities like tourettes and CP may fall under this arena as well. They’re not invisible, I suppose they may just not be “immediately noticeable”.

People don’t like admitting it, but many neurotypical/able bodied people are uncomfortable around the disabled, especially mentally and cognitively disabled individuals. There’s a lovely ad campaign addressing this in BC, which I will write about later. But I’ve literally seen neurotypical people get up and change seats on the bus when visibly disabled people sit near them, seen people treat disabled workers at grocery stores, restaurants, and diners like they don’t even exist, and cross the street to avoid a group of developmentally disabled adults heading back from a trip to the swimming pool. I think that that discrimination alone is worth considering why we limit the term “visible minority” to refer to race.

Regarding language: I speak English as my first language, but I grew up speaking the Hawaiian-pidgin dialect in school and a weird mixture of English-Yiddish at home. My accent and my vocabulary immediately single me out as different when I open my mouth, but that is nothing compared to what I have seen friends who speak a language other than English in public *get dirty looks, stares, whispers, and outright insulted. Doesn’t matter the language, I’ve seen it happen for everything from Japanese to Swedish to Urdu. Having English be your second language, or even just speaking a dialect of English that’s recognizeable as being not mainstream/middle-to-upper class white North American, can set you up for being treated with discrimination and contempt.

Of course, there are arguments against labelling people who are ESL/accented and disabled as a visible minority, the most viable, I think, being the argument that it could potentially dilute the term and make it less useful in discussing the experiences of Canadians of colour. However, I think seeing whether these terms can survive beyond their usual application is highly useful in the long run, even if the terms don’t end up always sticking to new applications. That’s how we test the durability of our terminology and cultural vocabulary after all, by stretching it out. I don’t want to reach any conclusions with this post, just raise questions.

Readers who are immigrants/disabled/visible racial or ethnic minorities/speak a unique dialect of English, I am eager to hear your thoughts on this subject.

* In case you are wondering, I’ve seen people stare and glare at non-English speakers in both the United States and Canada, so don’t jump to any hasty conclusions about bigoted Americans or tolerant Canadians.