What was it like for Malcolm Gladwell – the product of mixed-race heritage – growing up and living in Canada and the United States? Why did he leave this country to settle south of the border?
The award-winning and celebrated British-born writer answered these questions and talked about life as an immigrant while providing a sneak preview of his forthcoming book at an event recently at the Toronto Reference Library.
“An Evening with Malcolm Gladwell in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel” was organized as part of Jamaica’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations in the Greater Toronto Area.
The youngest of three boys is the son of a Jamaican-born mother and British-born father who met in England in the mid-1950s when his mom was studying at the University College London.
The author of four books which were all New York Times bestsellers, Gladwell said his mixed heritage was never an issue in Canada.
“I grew up in Elmira which is a strong Mennonite community and one of their many wonderful traits is their openness,” said the former Washington Post northeastern bureau chief. “And then I went to Trinity College at the University of Toronto which was so effortlessly diverse at that point anyway that I didn’t even remotely stand out. There were people there from every corner of the globe. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I discovered what a big deal Americans make of race. The American racial experience is so toxic and we are still dealing with the residue. You cannot imprison 10 or 15 per cent of your population for 100 years or more and expect that stain to be removed easily.”
Gladwell, who wrote for eight months for The American Spectator, a conservative magazine in Bloomington, Indiana before joining The Washington Post, said he witnessed racism regularly and experienced its sting in the United States.
“As you drive down what I describe as contested interstate highways, you realize who the police are pulling over for speeding,” he said. “When you start to pay attention, you realize it’s young Black males. Of the percentage of the American driving population, young Black men are about, let’s say, two per cent, yet on the highways, about 50 per cent get stopped. That demands an explanation and it’s those kinds of things you begin to become aware of.
“There was this one time I was walking on a street and a police car drove up on the sidewalk and three officers – two White guys and a Black woman – jumped out of their car. They held a sketch of a rapist in front of me and the two White officers were convinced I resembled the rapist, which I didn’t, even though their Black counterpart kept insisting it wasn’t me. Just because the rapist had curly hair, the White officers figured I was the person they were looking for.
“That occasion made me feel uncomfortable, but what I went through was minute in comparison to what young Black men go through in American cities. You would often hear a Black man say ‘you have no idea of what my life is like because I constantly get pulled over by police’ and part of you always says: ‘Really?’ It’s like you don’t believe it. You only start to pay attention when it happens to you.”
A staff writer for the past 16 years with The New Yorker magazine, Gladwell interned with the National Journalism Centre in Washington D.C. in 1982. He said he chose to move to the U.S. because he felt it was more welcoming to young people.
“I had been to the U.S. a couple of times during college and I felt then that that country was more open to youths,” said Gladwell who graduated with a History degree from U of T in 1984. “I had gone to Washington which is a place that’s run by 25-year-olds. Everyone is young. I didn’t feel the same way about Toronto and, at the time, I think I wasn’t wrong.”
The recipient of the University of the West Indies Luminary Award presented at the third annual Toronto fundraising gala in March, Gladwell came to Canada from England with his parents in 1969. He completed high school and university here before moving to the U.S.
He said immigrants have complex relationships to their places of origin.
“By virtue of leaving a country, an immigrant changes just not the country they come to but also the one they leave behind,” said the Order of Canada appointee who was last year bestowed with an honorary doctorate by U of T. “We always talk about how immigrants change the country they go to but we forget it’s true about their place of origin. By virtue of their actions, they leave a mark. If you think about Jamaica and who left there, we are talking about enormous numbers of middle class people, my family among them. Jamaica lost its most educated to Toronto, Miami, New York and London.
“You also have to preserve the country that you come from by leaving. Those that leave a country are those that are most unhappy with it. If the country that you are leaving is actually functional, you leave because you are unhappy with functionality and you are doing your country a favour by immigrating. By leaving for the U.S which is far more dysfunctional and therefore far more kind of welcoming to a dysfunctional person like me, I have helped to preserve that which I love about Canada by absenting myself.”
Gladwell said his fifth book is about power and the confrontations between the powerful and powerless.
“One of the things that have made New York a very safe place was the relentless harassment perfectly innocent Black men suffered at the hands of police,” said the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference which, among other things, explores why the crime rate in New York City suddenly plummeted. “So everyone who enjoys the safety of New York is in some sense morally complicit in the treatment of young Black men. It hurts.”
In 2005, Gladwell was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
By RON FANFAIR