Because of the way in which the conversation has been traditionally framed and understood, we face a serious reluctance to identify all but the most egregious examples of racism in common parlance. To be sure, there are those of us who make a habit of exploring the racial component of every human interaction under the sun (and what exactly do you mean by ‘under the sun’?). To discuss racism properly is to be involved in a constantly-evolving conversation that explores all angles of an issue without falling too definitively hard on any one position (at least without acknowledging the other positions).
When racist behaviour carries with it the (apparently immense) threat of being labeled ‘a racist’, the emotional stakes are quite high before a claim will be accepted as having any merit at all. Absent a fMRI and sworn testimony by a panel of psychics, people are prone to deny the racist component of any behaviour they may have exhibited, and will jump to the immediate defense of any admired person who is thus accused. On comes the search for a loophole – any loophole – that provides enough cover to escape having to confront the harm that those behaviours have.
Most people don’t have time for the kind of near-constant scrutiny and encyclopaedic historical knowledge required to identify all instances of racism. Whereas those of us in visible minority positions are made more aware of racism by the mere fact that we are more likely to experience it, I would venture to guess that within any race-based story there is a subset of even the affected minority group that says “now you’re just overreacting”. Depending on how convoluted or specific the issue, this dissenting group may encompass all minority group members except a few dedicated academics.
To take on this practice, I want to highlight two stories with racist content. One is very straightforward (trigger warning for violence):
Thunder Bay police say an investigation has been launched into an alleged race-based sexual assault against an Ontario First Nations woman who was reportedly grabbed off a city street as she walked to a store.
Belcourt [acting as a spokesperson] said the woman, who is in her mid-30s and also a single mother, was walking to a store in Thunder Bay on Thursday at about 9 p.m. when she was grabbed by two men described as Caucasian, pulled into a car and taken to a secluded wooded area.
“She was sexually assaulted, she was beaten and strangled and she was left there,” said Belcourt. “She doesn’t know where she was taken. It took her about four or five hours to walk home.”
Belcourt said the attackers made references to the ongoing protests. “It was targeted to a First Nations woman,” said Belcourt.
The other is perhaps less so:
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has apologized for saying Canada’s aboriginals need to learn the value of hard work more than they need compensation for abuse suffered in residential schools.
Poilievre, who represents the Ottawa-area riding of Nepean-Carleton, went on to question the merits of related compensation payments.
“Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask: ‘Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?’
“My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self reliance. That’s the solution in the long run — more money will not solve it.”
I doubt that there would be any dissent that the first example is clearly racist (assuming that you believe the testimony*). A woman was picked out for assault for the simple fact of her ethnic heritage – it doesn’t really get more monstrous or more unequivocal than that.
In the second case however, I’m sure that you could produce, without much effort, the typical denialist position defending Mister Poilievre from any and all accusations that he is “a racist”. Here’s my brief attempt:
This is typical liberal politically-correct garbage. It’s clear that what he is talking about is that the ultimate challenges facing Natives won’t be solved by paying them more money. They need to begin building their own economic wealth and independence, rather than relying on taxpayers to foot the bill. In order to do that, we have to stop propping them up with a failed system that only prolongs the problem!
Of course absent from the conversation is the flaw in the premise that underlies the comment: that Aboriginal people lack the values of hard work and independence, and that it is non-Aboriginals who should be the ones to ‘teach’ them. As though we are valid exemplars of those values as opposed to just really talented at selectively misremembering the history of inconvenient facts like how much land was given to early settlers (and how much of that land was not ours to give away in the first place). It is the typical face of Canadian racism**: a veneer of truth spackled onto a giant turd of bigotry.
The challenge is to recognize that there is something that links these two stories. They are not comparable in terms of their dramatic impact: it would be hyperbolic to say that any person who has heard Mr. Poilievre’s remarks will be hurt as much as the victim of the race-based assault. To be sure, every single person who derides identifying those remarks as ‘racist’ is using that first story as their exemplar of what racism looks like. To call them both ‘racist’ is to inflate intemperate political remarks to the status of rape – surely you jest!
While the details of these stories, and their impact, is going to be felt differently, they are both existentially linked by attitudes about Aboriginal people as being somehow ‘less’ than non-Aboriginals. That white men have a right to the body of an Aboriginal woman because she is Aboriginal, and that a white country has the right to lecture to a people it has systematically marginalized and abused. These paternalistic views, steeped in a long history of ignored white supremacy, perpetuate a system wherein the disadvantages fall along strictly racial lines – the sine qua non of racism.
Learning to see these behaviours for what they are, rather than simply acquiescing that all racism is intentional and dramatic, is one in many steps towards tearing down the psychological infrastructures that make Pierre Poilievre’s statement even remotely defensible.
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*I would be remiss if I failed to make this point: I am almost certain that someone is going to deny that this event happened at all. There will be endless demands for “proof” that the men were motivated by racism rather than just being random rapists (proof that would require her to have kept a running recording device in her pockets at all times, on the off chance she was raped), and multiple suggestions that she’s ‘making it up’ either to garner sympathy or to protect someone else. This is the reality that keeps much of the abuse suffered by minorities from being reported or dealt with adequately.
**To be sure, there’s a lot of this kind of ‘post-racial’ racism that comes out of the United States too.