I was a fan of Jian Ghomeshi even before I moved to Canada at a young age. Until a couple of years ago, Jian came up at every conversation at every one of my family gatherings in the Iranian diaspora. Canada was a multicultural country, I’d been told, and Jian came to represent that fictional value to me.
So when the news of Jian’s sexual assault allegations broke in October 2014, I initially chose to believe Jian’s version of events, where he blamed his “jilted girlfriend” for making up stories.
We were too used to seeing ourselves in the media as terrorist camel-heads; Jian, with his soothing voice and ageless smile, was a fresh face and a different representation. He was loved by so many white Canadians, and white people’s respect is not something people of colour are used to.
After filling out hundreds of forms and spending thousands of dollars on immigration, my family and many other immigrants were only too happy to be accepted as second-class citizens in this land – if we had a conventionally good-looking Iranian man hosting a popular CBC show, that was the cherry on the top.
Even after I discovered how empty the myth of Canadian inclusiveness was, I didn’t lose my deep admiration for Jian. Trying to grapple with racism as a teenage girl was no easy feat, and Jian’s success, to me, was a promise of a future that could be better. Although I somehow knew that this imaginary future that I yearned for was too far-fetched to be mine, I thought about it so much that sometimes I could believe it had already happened.
I now know too well now that holding men of colour to higher standards than white men often leads to disappointment. I also know that Jian never became a CBC host to give hope to the Iranian diaspora; we only idolized him because racism in this society was so rampant. But when the allegations surfaced, I still felt betrayed.
In the following weeks, I often stayed silent whenever somebody brought up Jian. And I noticed these conversations often tried to avoid mentioning his race. One time, a white friend mentioned Jian’s ethnicity and another white person corrected them because, “I don’t think his race is relevant to this debate. His actions do not represent his community.” My friend thought for 10 seconds, nodded and apologized. The only time that I did express my disillusionment with Jian, a white man said, “Everyone has their bad apples, right?”
It is true that there hasn’t been much explicit focus on Jian’s race, but Canadian racism has often operated in very subtle ways. Several days ago, the Globe and Mail interviewed Constance Backhouse, University of Ottawa law professor, who has worked extensively on Canadian racism. In response to the public disbelief of Jian, she pointed out that, Gerald Regan, former Nova Scotia Premier, was also accused of multiple cases of sexual assault.
“Why did Gerald Regan, a white man, not have the same public challenge to him?” she asked. Regan’s trial happened before I was even born, but it is clear to me is that if Jian had been a white man everything could have turned out differently.
In no way am I condoning the violence that Ghomeshi is accused of inflicting on these women. I believe the women, who have been attacked on the stand by Ghomeshi’s attorney, who have had their testimony torn apart, every aspect of their lives and sexualities called into question. Sexual assault trials often only involve women have on reason to lie about rape, because the criminal (in)justice system has not built in a way to respond to sexual assault.
But Jian’s race does matter, because in this society we Iranians and Muslims are all bad apples. From “random” airport screenings to the low value of our passports to being the Muslim girl teased at school for being a “camel-riding” “terrorist,” we are always reminded that our lives are worth less because of our “wrong” place of birth and our “wrong” skin tone.
Jian’s Persianness matters because an average white person probably doesn’t know any other Persian figures anyways. I have been reading an unhealthy number of articles about Jian’s trial, and while reading them I have been pausing every 10 seconds to breathe and to collect myself. As a survivor, I know what slut-shaming feels like, and I feel a deep shame that an Iranian person’s entire case is based on slut-shaming women. Apparently Jian has been greeting his mother and sister every day of the trial. I wonder if they’ve sad hello in Farsi. I wonder how his mother, probably of the generation of my grandparents, feels about the allegations. I wonder what Jian’s relatives in Iran think, if he has any left there at all.
As a women’s studies major I have sat through many lectures on intersectionality with (often white professors) teaching me that I don’t need to choose between being a woman and being a person of colour. Mainstream feminism is abuzz with “intersectionality,” yet moments like this are a chilling reminder that there is no space for women of colour to incorporate race and gender to our understanding of the world. Once again I am pressured to pick sides and allegiances.
It is a fact that, in a patriarchy, women live in a constant possibility of sexual assault. But very often it is men of colour that are painted as predators threatening white women’s fragility and pureness.
If Jian wins his trial, the criminal (in)justice system will have shamed and re-traumatized five more women for pressing charges, sending another clear message to all survivors that nobody believes them anyways. If he loses the trial, another man of colour will end up in prison, reaffirming the image of the patriarchal brown man.
I believe and support survivors but I also believe and support communities of colour, and I don’t believe that imprisonment necessarily equals justice. What Jian Ghomeshi is said to have done makes him despicable to me, but I just wish he wasn’t a person of colour, I just wish he was any other white person whose wrong actions could be addressed without any broader repercussions for their community.