Fear of a Canadian Planet

The great pianist Oscar Peterson.

According the Graeme Hamilton,  writing in the National Post, the word “Canadian” is now used as a coded ethnic slur in the American south to refer to blacks:

The bigger mystery is how “Canadian” came to be code for black. An online directory of racial slurs defines Canadian as a “masked replacement” for black.

Last August, a blogger in Cincinnati going by the name CincyBlurg reported that a black friend from the southeastern U.S. had recently discovered that she was being called a Canadian. “She told me a story of when she was working in a shop in the South and she overheard some of her customers complaining that they were always waited on by a Canadian at that place. She didn’t understand what they were talking about and assumed they must be talking about someone else,” the blogger wrote.

“After this happened several times with different patrons, she mentioned it to one of her co-workers. He told her that ‘Canadian’ was the new derogatory term that racist Southerners were using to describe persons they would have previously referred to [with the N-word.]”

This seems like a very curious usage. Canada is of course a multi-racial democracy and has many black citizens but there’s nothing particularly black about Canada as compared to the American south. Quite the reverse: the stereotypical Canadian is deracinated and tepid. But perhaps that is precisely the value of “Canadian” as a code word: you’re not likely to offend Canadians so you can mask all sorts of rancid ideas by referring to them:  “There are too many Canadians here. Canadians breed like flies. Would you want your daughter to marry a Canadian? Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are Canadians.”

The essayist and short story writer Joseph Epstein, that most genial of neo-conservatives, recorded a similarly coded deployment of “Canadian” in a tale called “Coming In with Their Hands Up” (to be found in his collection Fabulous Small Jews, a title that doesn’t use code at all):

I’m standing in line for a coke and hot dog during half-time at a Bulls-Pistons game when I can’t help eavesdropping on two guys in line ahead of me. They’re “Canadians,” as my father, in a helpful code word, used to call Jews. “Not many Canadians here tonight,” he’d say as we entered a restaurant.

5 thoughts on “Fear of a Canadian Planet

  1. I think it means “outsider.” Not part of the ‘in’ group, but trying to be delicate. “We don’t talk to ‘those’ people.” There’s also that quote “A vast Canada of the mind,” to denote emptiness.

  2. Oh it’s a codeword alright.

    Imagine the confusion when you are actually a Canadian, such as myself, working in the US and your co-workers jokingly refer to you on the phone as “the Canadian” to other people who don’t whether you are black or white (“no, really, he’s Canadian, not a Canaaaadian.”) I actally got a surprised/confused look from someone when I refered to myself as Canadian once when I was in the South.

    The value of the codeword is precisely that people wouldn’t take offense to it. If you used a common ethnic slur or even said black it slaps the ear while the word Canadian just passes by without attracting any attention.

    As an aside, Canadian also means bad tipper in the US.

  3. The note about Canadians meaning bad tipper in the US –

    My brother-in-law was in the food service industry for last ten years, and he came upon the word being used in resturants that featured mainly black diners. The wait-staff were frustrated by the lack of tips and used the phrase because using “n****r” to mean cheap black people is not accepted, even though that’s close what that word means (see merriam-webster: a member of a socially disadvantaged class of persons / real world: cheap/trashy/poor black people). Canadian is so well accepted, even black wait-staff use it to describe black diners.

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