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Mar 16 2011

If you’re surprised, then you haven’t been paying attention

We often like to delude ourselves into thinking that we have, as a society, somehow transcended racial barriers. That through sheer will-power and positive liberal vibes, we’ve managed somehow to craft the first society in the history of the world where racism is a thing of the past. Even those who reject my view of racism will point to the fact that at least we don’t see black men getting beat up for the crime of being black, right?

Right?

The people targeted in assaults in February by four men alleged to be white supremacists say the attacks were provoked by race. “I couldn’t believe something like this could happen,” one of the victims, who was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, said Wednesday. “I was upset and angry.”

The young man, who CBC has agreed not to name, was having a cigarette on the sidewalk outside a Whyte Avenue bar early on Feb. 13 when a friend was bumped by one of a group of men. “My friend looked back and he was like ‘Hey, excuse me,’ and the guy just ran towards him … I put out my hand so I would just stop them and he just punched me,” he said.

I cannot be clear enough about this point. When I say that we are all racist, I do not mean that we are all capable of doing something like this. I do not wish to imply that I look at my fellow citizens with fear and suspicion that, given the opportunity, they would assault me for being black. The very idea is nonsense – my race probably means more to my black friends than it does to my friends from other racial groups. I’d go so far as to say that 99.9% of Canadians would recoil from the idea of perpetrating physical violence against people based on their racial background. White supremacists of this type represent a vanishingly small proportion of the overall population, and can be looked upon as fringe elements that do not reflect the attitudes of the general public.

In fact, I’d imagine that even among the white supremacist community, these men are seen as outliers. They claim to be members of a white supremacist group known as Blood and Honour (link totally NSFW, and probably not safe for eyes either – bright red background), which is somewhat dubious given that B&H isn’t really known for violence. However, it’s not particularly relevant which particular supremacist group these particular assailants belong to – the point is that even among white supremacists they are a minority. White supremacists tend to exist in largely rural areas, where their extreme form of race-based hatred is considered a minority opinion.

However, a more general kind of race hatred does tend to exist in greater volume in many rural communities – a generalized intolerance and feeling that non-white people are somehow the “other” that deserves special scrutiny and attention. This is not because people who live in rural communities are bad people; I was a child in a racially-monolithic rural community, and the people there were some of the warmest, friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. All the same, my “otherness” was palpable from a very young age. The attitude within these rural communities is a concentrated version of a generalized feeling of racial normalcy that exists as a popular myth in the broader culture that says that America was founded by white people, for white people, and PoCs are here by the magnanimity of their white brethren (so don’t forget to genuflect).

So here’s the thing: each one of the subcultures I’ve mentioned here gain support and succor from the larger group they exist in. While most members of Blood and Honour would likely repudiate the violence perpetrated in their name, they would likely agree with everything else the attackers stand for. While most rural people disagree with the members of Blood and Honour, they tend to tolerate the non-violent race bigotry of their neighbours. The general sense of mistrust and non-citation-supported anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent in the rural communities gestates in the larger sea of the white Canada myth. Each level of the pyramid is supported by a larger group in an act that diffuses responsibility, and makes the act of a handful of extremists seem to come out of nowhere.

Of course those of us who have been paying attention know better than to waste our time with arch-liberal hand wringing about how this could happen in our “post racial” utopia. We know that we all bear responsibility for at least a little piece of what happened in Edmonton, and by challenging the larger societal lies we can make the acts of violence even more unlikely.

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