Humans, it seems, can never get enough of parlour games—Monopoly, Scrabble, Name the Most Successful Multicultural City in the World. My sister recently sent me a message about the latter in the form of a BBC simulcast debate between radio stations in Toronto, New York, London and Sydney. “I know it’s silly, but I can’t help it,” she wrote from New York, and I knew what she meant—we had once watched a whole episode of Judge Judy together, cackling at the rhetorical train wreck.
Before one even gets to the ‘most successful’ part, how do we measure the magnitude of the challenge? Is diversity a culture, language, religion, race, sex or class thing? If referring to immigration, does one mean the city with the largest foreign-born population, or one with a population from the greatest number of other places? Many stats, PhDs and call-ins peppered the BBC debate. But how exactly does one measure an individual’s experience with diversity? Does one have to encounter diversity in every New York neighbourhood, not just Queens, and if one sits next to diversity on the subway in Toronto, does one have to interact with it for it to count? Do we take off points for race riots, anti-diversity radio rants, the quiet trashing of a plate of exotic treats one just cannot stomach at the latest food festival? Given the lack of data (or too much of it saying nothing), we substitute in our own anecdotes: “My own Aunt Jemima came here from the South and met Uncle Ben in a lonely rice shop.” And so on.
The BBC’s verbal sparring match for diversity gold, played out with all the elegance of a beginner’s game of tennis—misdirected lobs, unintended drop shots, floppy serves—betrays our clumsy instinct for storytelling. We do this, Joan Didion once reminded us, “in order to live.” I am the first to admit that I have hurtled my opinions about Toronto’s diversity at hapless bystanders all over the world. But I am not sure I live it anymore.
I loved the cultural chaos of my upbringing in Scarborough and then Richmond Hill, where I arrived at many a bar mitzvah bearing gifts, compelling my rather economical Indian parents to cry out for mercy at the sight of another invitation. But I live in an ever-shrinking space now: work, partner, then family, if one still has time for them. It’s how most of us get things done. If I am not working towards a 9 to 5 deadline, I’m on a personal one. And so on.
One wants to ensure that our mega-cities remain diverse, and that someone keeps dancing those dances, the same way in which you hope that the colours of that musty oil painting you bought 10 years ago while backpacking through Europe don’t fade. It just won’t do for the artwork or the window to fail to stimulate, if and when you do get a chance to look up. (In this, New York may have the edge: diversity combined with discernment sustains the world’s best quick food run, callers endlessly reported.)
There are times when we do not view diversity as benignly. Recently, I had to remind myself, several times, to be a good person upon learning that the potential for a VIA Rail blockade by some First Nations protesters—a byproduct of diversity not only of culture but of conviction—meant that I would have to delay my return to those I longed to see. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, is someone whose work I generally admire, but when I read about the hypothesis of his latest tome, namely that living in racially and ethnically mixed areas in America leads to mistrust, unhappiness and isolation between and within different groups of people, I was a bit doubtful. As any good policy analyst knows, when you go looking for something, you can probably find it.
Given that Putnam apparently found that neighbours didn’t want to talk to each other regardless of background, couldn’t the culprit be our way of life, not the diversity of it? The CBC’s Heather Mallick recently expanded on what the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik first coined as “Bitterosity.” It’s that feeling that “make[s] you feel edgy, wired, uncomfortable with your fellow man. Maybe it's because we're all supposed to be successful now, and that's impossible by definition.” Somewhere in the middle of that protest rally, when you realize that you are not comfortable with the fact that your new jacket, bought on plastic, is being ruined in the rain, you begin to wonder: is this really about other people, and their ways, or about me not getting mine?
But I am digressing, and because I can’t deny my sister our shared moment of guilty indulgence, I will attempt a more direct response to the question at hand. I have, as she points out, lived in or visited all cities in question, plus two other big ones: Sao Paulo and New Delhi. (Given the latter two, I have to concur with the BBC posters who found our diversity fixation on Toronto, New York, London and Sydney rather limited.)
My stay in India exposed me to the widest array of conviction: among my companions were Iranian social activists unable to return home, professional women from Uzbekistan’s oil and gas class, young French exchange students re-enacting (largely in my own mind) sleepy Eric Rohmer plots. We gathered at the rocks on which we sat for a cup of chai under moonlight. The real talk, the kind that simmers with authenticity, eyes flickering past undoing mirrors, always turned to the personal. Love thwarted. Old arguments. Unrelenting regrets. It was very easy for me to understand, and it is something for which I will forever be grateful to Toronto.
I have spent my life swathed in diversity, but it has been that unremarkable, comfy sweater kind, the kind that can get itchy, but only rarely, on an exceptionally warm day. Diversity was just there—in a kindergarten class photo, the accents of parents mimicked around a high school lunch table, innovative wedding celebrations (our people smash things on the floor, but your people dance barefoot, hence the ER theme cake).
My own view (no doubt shared by the raucously loyal radio personalities) is that all of the world’s major cities—and increasingly, its smaller pockets—are comparably diverse, cross-hatched along many social or economic dimensions, full of beautiful interactions and ugly encounters. The thing is, diversity was not just a story I once told about Toronto. It was something I lived. And that, to my mind, is what makes the difference.
Urmi Desai is a freelance writer specializing in urban issues. She is editor of the Move Smartly blog.