Jagmeet Singh and the racial anxieties of the NDP’s leadership race

He has an impeccable sense of style and wields Instagram like the martial arts expert he is.

The media is abuzz discussing the merits of NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh. Although mostly positive, the attention reeks of deep racial anxieties as it sidesteps the point that ‘one of these candidates is not like the others,’ and if he wins, not like any other leader of a Federal party, past or present.

A few pieces have come right out at said it: Singh’s Sikh-ness is a “problem” to be overcome by the NDP, most notably in Quebec. The sense of discomfort is predictable and in line with the gentle acceptance of racial unease Canadians can expect from our mainstream news outlets. Yet, perhaps more concerning though not entirely surprising, the same tropes and anxieties are cropping up amongst the left.

In the most recent leadership debate, Niki Ashton, a progressive favourite well-liked by grassroots activists across the country (myself included), led Singh into an unfair and highly contentious trap: a textbook example of pitting racial and religious identity against sexual rights and freedoms.

Ashton accused Singh of “sounding like a conservative” and being anti-LGBTQ with regard to his position on the roll out of Ontario Sex Education Curriculum in 2015. Ashton likened Singh to the right-wing opposition by suggesting that his request for more time, or more consultation, was somehow a smoke screen for being against the proposed curriculum, and therefore against the rights of LGBTQ people. Singh, who wholeheartedly supported the curriculum, reminded Ashton that his position on supporting LGBTQ people has never wavered. He explained that he was holding Premier Kathleen Wynne accountable to her promise of a meaningful community consultation process, including properly translated materials and content, that she never fulfilled.

Ashton’s suggestion — that Singh’s push for community consultation should be seen as ‘pandering’ to a religious community — is an interesting one. It raises all sorts of questions about who we deem relevant to progressive politics and who we judge as logically outside of our discussions. Ashton effectively asked Singh to choose between the rights of LGBTQ people and people of colour: ‘us’ or ‘them’ (as though coexistence is impossible, and racialized LGBTQ people don’t exist).

That display of either/or reasoning is the left — and the NDP — at its absolute worst.

The idea that ‘progressive values’ are somehow at odds with racialized communities’ needs is a gross manipulation of a simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’ logic; ‘we’ are progressive, intelligent, rational and supportive of things like sex education and LGBTQ rights; ‘they’ are conservative, small-minded, emotional and religious over all else. We need to stand “against those that would impose their views on our society” said Ashton, sounding just like the conservative authorities with whom she accused Singh of being aligned.

As a queer-white-New Democrat watching the debate, I was embarrassed for the future of the party without Singh. A true progressive politic includes access to information, consultation and the belief in transformation; this world does not exist without building bridges and creating space for multiple and intersecting rights. This of course includes the rights of LGBTQ people, but it also includes the rights of racialized and religious communities across this country. I would much rather go as slow as it takes to get to where we are going than to decide that ‘our’ Canada doesn’t include certain voices along the way.

Let’s not forget one thing: Singh is the only person of colour in this race. And while that doesn’t mean he has ownership of all discussions about racial justice, it does mean he gets to speak about this from his lived experience of being left out of public policy, education, the legal system, etc. Just the same as Ashton gets to speak about being a woman in the sexist world of federal politics and broader Canadian society. You will note that Singh never says he has ‘better’ feminist values than Ashton, but she loves to tell him that her racial justice platform is better than his.

New Democrats have an exciting opportunity to grow and expand the party, and the left, with all of the current leadership candidates in the running. That is, if each is valued and respected for what they bring to this historically white-male-anglo-bro-fest. If we continue to question Singh for his style (how can he be a socialist if he wears bespoke suits?), his charm and charisma (we don’t like popular people!) or more substantially, his religion (how will being a religious Sikh affect his progressive politics?) we run the risk of perpetuating the idea that the true left, and the true NDP, belongs to some, but not others.

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