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Making diversity great again: new book looks at identity in the age of Trump

Irshad Marji is the author of Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times. (Source: IrshadManji.com)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – No doubt you’ve heard the slogan, Make America Great Again. Now, a new book aims to make diversity great again.

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times is the third and latest book from author and educator Irshad Manji. In it she challenges the notion of labeling through an imaginary conversation with her dog, Lily.

Still with me? Good.

Manji says it was Lily who taught her that labels can never accurately capture the essence of a person. “Here was this dog who would be labeled old and blind because that’s what indeed she was,” Manji explains. “But she was so much more than just old or blind and that is why if we really love diversity. We have to move beyond labels and start seeing one other as the multi-faceted individuals we are.”

She says there has been a change since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. “I’ve noticed that diversity is being practiced as labeling, namely, you white guy, me queer Muslim, somebody else Jewish, still somebody else black.”

Manji also makes a distinction between what she calls honest diversity and dishonest diversity. “[Dishonest diversity is] where we’re counting how many black people, how many LGBT people, how many women are in the room, and we basically say to ourselves, ‘Oh, do we have enough? Okay, that’s great.’”

Honest diversity seeks to go beyond the labels we give one another. “How we get past labels depends entirely on whether we, meaning you and me, are willing to do the work of listening to people, particularly those who we disagree with,” she says. “We’ve got to slow ourselves down, rather than reacting, take that deep breath, and allow yourself to then listen to the other.”

Don’t Label Me is part memoir and part how-to. Look for it wherever books are sold.

NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann spoke with Irshad Manji by phone. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

I saw you on “Real Time with Bill Maher” the other night and I did some background reading and I was happy to learn that, like me, your hometown is Richmond, B.C.!

“Yes, indeed. Now, I have to be clear. I was born in Africa but wonderful Canada accepted my family and me as refugees in 1972 at a time when practically no other country did. And the funny thing is we came to the Port of Montreal and we were all dressed for tropical weather and the immigration officers are taking pity on us because it was like almost winter and they said that the closest thing we have in Canada to tropical weather is Vancouver. And we agreed to go. And that’s how we wound up in Richmond!”

That’s fantastic! So, what what inspired you to write this particular book?

“I have been treated for most of my life as a poster child for multiculturalism and so from that position I’ve been able to sort of observe how diversity is being practiced today and over the last, I’m going to say 10 years, maybe more, I’ve noticed that diversity is being practiced as labeling. Namely, you white guy, me queer Muslim, somebody else Jewish and still somebody else black, and all this labeling is really just pigeon-holing. That worries me because it’s just the flip side of what the early North American colonists did when they looked at individuals such as black people and sliced and diced them into categories and then stuffed them into those categories, assigned a value to them, and created a hierarchy. We are reviving that mindset and I have to wonder – how does that amount to progress?”

Right. And the way you go about making your case in the book is that it’s a conversation between you and your dog, Lily. What inspired that choice?

“Many things, not the least of which is that I grew up deathly afraid of dogs. One year I had a health crisis and my then-partner, now-wife, urged me to evolve out of my fear by adopting Lily. When I did, I realized something pretty amazing. Here was this dog who would be labeled old and blind because that’s what indeed she was. But she was so much more than just old or blind. I tell you, she was the most independent being you ever had the pleasure of being around. The wind would blow one way [and] she stuck her nose up into the wind. I’d call her from the other direction and she’d walk further into the wind. She just loved life. It reminded me that no matter what the labels are, they never capture sentient beings accurately. That’s why if we really love diversity, we have to move beyond labels and start seeing one another as the multifaceted individuals that we are. And by the way, that includes seeing white guys not as a monolith but as human beings with all of their complexities.”

Speaking of white guys – one white guy in particular that comes up quite often in the book is Donald Trump and his motto, “Make America Great Again.” In your book, you aim to make diversity great again. Has diversity, and by extension multiculturalism, in your view strayed from its original path or intent?

“Yes, it has and I have to tell you, John, that I do not equate multiculturalism with diversity. Let me explain. There are two kinds of diversity that I examine in Don’t Label Me. One is this honest diversity. That’s where we’re counting how many black people, how many LGBT people, how many women are in the room. And we basically say to ourselves, ‘Oh, do we have enough? OK, that’s great.’ All we’re doing in that case is grouping people together and failing to actually ask each of these individuals, is it possible that just because some of them look like one another it’s possible that they think differently from one another? Failing to honor their individuality by slapping labels on them. That is dishonest diversity.

“Honest diversity is the kind that asks, ‘What do I not yet know about you? What is it that the labels I put on you might actually be hearing about you?’ Multiculturalism is more like dishonest diversity. By the way, when it was launched by Pierre Trudeau, multiculturalism was all about giving people the kind of self-confidence within their groups that would then allow them to explore themselves beyond those groups. But what it quickly became, as so much in this world does, was a vote-getting scheme, not by Trudeau but by his successors. Now [in legislation] it’s there to preserve and protect traditions. What about bad traditions? What about traditions that oppress women? What about traditions that are all about keeping children silent? There are so many unanswered questions when it comes to multiculturalism. In the meantime, it does encourage us to hyphenate ourselves as Canadians and it encourages us to smother one another with labels, thinking that is diversity. It’s not.”

Don’t Label Me is available from St. Martin’s Press.