Sunday, September 28, 2008

Electioneering: what's in a name on a sign

So we've all seen hundreds of those lawn signs that politicians put up when they run for office, right? It's a branding exercise, so it's not surprising that there are certain rules to the practice of making and displaying these signs - colors and designs that signal your party or political affiliation, and typically the big, bold display of the candidate's last name with their first name in smaller type above it.

In Canadian party politics, at least, these things are a given. (And in most American signs, too. With regard to the display of names: of the 74 signs in the first 8 Google Image search results, 8 featured only the surname, 5 sized the first and last name equally, and only 2 used a larger font for the first name.) So imagine my bemused surprise when, for the first time ever, I saw a sign for a candidate from a mainstream political party - the ruling Conservative party, in fact - that reversed that sizing convention and displayed the candidate's first name in larger type.

Which sounds pretty innocuous, right? But I don't think so. The candidate's name is Kevin Nguyen, and given the Conservative party's xenophobia - a candidate, Lee Richardson, recently suggested that most crime is committed or inspired by immigrants, and received no punishment or rebuke from the PM or the party - I would not be at all surprised if the larger "Kevin" is supposed to emphasize his Canadianness (and, implicitly, his appropriated whiteness) and distract from his last name. Unsurprisingly, then, his bio on the Conservative party website calls attention to how he appreciates Canada and its "freedom" and "opportunities." It's the sort of maudlin nationalistic sentiment that's required of someone whose connection to the country is perhaps too anxious for comfort and needs to be explicitly reinforced - especially when, as an immigrant from Vietnam, he could very well be one of those suspect folks that Lee Richardson warned us about.

I'm sure that this is too subtle for any mainstream media to pick it up, but it's not nothing. It's the only campaign sign that draws attention to the candidate's first name - Kevin signs appear alongside signs that read Sgro, Manfrini, and Capra - in one of the most non-white and poorest ridings in the country, one which has nonetheless had a counter-intuitive history of electing white candidates from the centrist Liberal party rather than people of color and/or the leftist NDP. It isn't simply blind, unmotivated racism at work in the branding of candidate Kevin - it's strategic, and it's come from someone with a very canny understanding of the racism(s) already at work within the community.

And while I'm admittedly a bit of a pessimist and already expect the worst of political parties, this just strikes me as a hopelessly and depressingly cynical way to play politics.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

My name is Kevin and I'm Vietnamese. I have to say that the "KEVIN" in the signs caught my attention, but when I got closer and noticed that this candidate is Vietnamese I thought he must be an idiot! Here is a person who's running in a heavily populated Vietnamese area of the GTA, yet he doesn't want people to know that he is Vietnamese (hint the small lastname). How can you trust someone to represent you as a minority when they can't even represent their own people?

If I have a time machine right now, I would keep him on the boat and push him right back to Vietnam.