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Sep 21 2011

In case you were getting too comfortable

I don’t have a ‘goal’ for this blog per se. Based on feedback I occasionally get from readers I am introducing anti-racist concepts and vernacular to an audience that hadn’t encountered them much before – that’s a bonus for me. I am reasonably sure I haven’t deconverted anyone to atheism… yet. While I am unashamedly putting my ideas out there for public consumption, I don’t hold any pretense of trying to change the world or start a revolution. I’m just a guy with ideas, and some people seem to find them interesting, which makes me happy.

That being said, I am not above occasionally goosing my fellow Canadians and reminding them that while things are undoubtedly bad in other countries, we have our fair share of problems here too.

Nova Scotia’s black community outraged over Africville hire

Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation. “I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist. “Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.” (snip) The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position.

I’ll admit that even someone as outspoken and uncompromising as me had a really tough time coming down on one side of this issue. For those of you who weren’t here in February and aren’t familiar with Africville, I wrote about it during my Black History Month review of Canadian Black History. In brief, Africville was an area of Halifax that was systematically underserved and discriminated against by the citizenry of the city at large because it was inhabited primarily by black people. It was eventually bulldozed, leaving its residents largely homeless.

To head up the museum dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the history of this monument to Canadian exploitation and hatred of the white populace against black citizens, the selection committee chose a white woman. Obviously they made their selection based on her qualifications – Ms. Nixon has a certificate in black history from UofT (although I have no idea what that means). At the same time, she is not a member of the community and has no ties to its history. Beyond the simple poor optics of the choice, Ms. Nixon represents, to many of the community members, the same forces that were responsible for the debacle of Africville.

Montreal students don blackface

A frosh event at a Montreal university has come under scrutiny after students painted themselves in blackface. Students at the University of Montreal’s business school dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, with black paint covering their skin, for the event Wednesday.

Meh, so what? So a couple of frosh dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, and in order to lend their costumes a bit more realism, they ‘blacked up’ (despite the fact that there are lots of white Jamaicans). Where’s the harm, right?

One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, “Smoke more weed.” “They had reduced all of who I am and the history of Jamaica and culture of Jamaica to these negative connotations of weed smoking, black skin, rastas,” said McGill law student Anthony Morgan, who happened to be on the campus at the time and filmed the group.

Oh. Fuck.

This is something that needs to be repeated regularly, it seems – it is never okay to dress in blackface. Not ever. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being complimentary or paying homage. It doesn’t matter if you’re spoofing a movie or a television show, or a fictional character. It doesn’t matter if you get assigned “dress like an African” as some kind of bizarre theme exercise. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever you think it is, nor does it matter if you don’t mean it “that way”. The history of blackface, coupled with the way black people are portrayed in contemporary media, means that blackface is just one of those things it’s not okay to do.

It’s certainly not okay when your goal is to mock a culture that you clearly know nothing about as part of a frosh week prank, at a school where black students are underrepresented, in a province that has a major race problem. You would think that this kind of thing wouldn’t need to be explained, but of course that’s the great part about white privilege – you don’t ever have to think before you do stuff like this. All you have to do is claim afterward that you didn’t mean anything by it, and maybe everyone should just lighten up.

Miss Canada outfit bizarre misappropriation of First Nations culture (h/t Jen)

Imagine you were inspired and impressed by Canada’s aboriginal history and culture. Imagine you had a world stage with which to express your admiration, and try in your own small way to heal wounds left by generations of exploitation and oppression. Would you do perhaps just a little bit of research to make sure you’re accurately portraying the people whose culture you are paying homage to? Maybe spend some time understanding the history behind the culture, and how it affects aboriginal people today? Would you maybe try to participate in or discuss the cultural practices of the particular band/bands you were emulating?

Or would you just reach for the first handful of cheap stereotypes from a spaghetti western movie that popped into your head?

Yeah... this actually happened

This may not come as a huge shock to you, but if you chose the first option(s) then you can congratulate yourself on being smarter and more insightful than Miss Universe Canada. Well, at least this year’s entrant. Seriously, considering the fact that the way we treat our First Nations people is the great shame of our nation, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to showcase our collective national insensitivity is beyond my limited capacity to understand.

Canada likes to pride itself on being a tolerant country that is open to people of many different ethnicities and walks of life. For the most part, I think we do a good job of that. However, we should never allow ourselves to grow complacent in our quest to model such tolerance. It is far too easy to slip into the easy errors of racism than it is to maintain a constant vigilance; failing to maintain that vigilance will ultimately be our downfall.

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