Race is a social construct. It sounds like a pretty easy idea to wrap your head around, once you understand the meaning of what you’re saying. It’s the idea that the very concept of race itself isn’t genetically determined and isn’t quite as linear a relationship as simply contingent upon the colour of one’s skin (although this no doubt plays a significant role in racism and related constructs). Race as a social construct is a sort of discourse we pick up on, both consciously and unconsciously, throughout the course of our lives. Sometimes it’s literally hurled at us, and sometimes it’s very quietly and gradually written into (or out of) our day-to-day experiences. Race isn’t a Thing you can point at, reach out and take a sample of, and examine under a stereoscope. In my life, currently nothing is making this more clear than the public sphere of cyber activism in the Idle No More movement. The battlefields here are social media services like Twitter and YouTube, the comments section on online news articles, and blog posts. The battles being waged include re-education, de-bunking myths and stereotypes (watch for the Twitter hashtag #Ottawapiskat for a brilliant demonstration of de-bunking by inversion), and working towards inspiring others to start the work of decolonization from within. It can be and often is equally as exhausting as standing in the rain for four hours in the flesh, and it is an equally important tool in the greater repertoire of established tactics to counter racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
And that’s right about where any demarcations you may have previously believed exist very rapidly become ambiguous and murky. Race/ethnicity and (anti-)racism is complicated as all fuck.
Take for example, the Idle No More movement itself. Not only is it an uprising of indigenous peoples and their Settler allies against more than 500 years of continuous genocide, but it is a struggle to protect the very promise of a future for all our children and grandchildren, regardless of the race/ethnicity of their parents. Independent media promotes both of these messages, while being careful to keep these matters distinct and separate from Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike (which, while related and arguably a critical example of the struggles of indigenous people under a racist colonial government, is not The Cause of Idle No More). White liberal media, on the other hand, is not so careful. I’ve stated in my previous post that I’ve attended 7 rallies already, and was preparing to attend a march, rally, and flash mob later in the week (that was, until I was steamrolled by some weird and awful viral sinusitis). At every one of these rallies, speakers have acknowledged how wonderful it is to see people of all nations and all races coming together, to stand in harmony and stand for justice and respect. Funny thing, though. That never makes it onto the evening news in white liberal media, and neither does any statement to the effect of “It’s not just an Aboriginal issue, it’s an issue that effects all Canadians.” The video footage and images that do get published in white liberal news media are always entirely of indigenous peoples.
I would have reasonably expected this in the first couple of weeks, because the grassroots indigenous leaders are the people whose voices are the head of the wave and whose concerns take up the bulk of the issues being confronted. Poverty is highly racialized at the expense of indigenous communities in this country, and some of the recent legislation passed by the Canadian government is only further disadvantaging indigenous peoples. They’ve reached the point of filling the streets in protest because their very right to exist is on the line. But after the first couple of weeks, when in some cities, almost half of the people showing up to these rallies across the country are non-indigenous, isn’t it about time the white liberal news media shows their viewers that people just like them are taking action too? After more than a month of protests, flash mobs, highway blockades, traffic slow-downs, railway blockades, border crossing blockades, bridge blockades, and even round dances on the Prime Minister’s front lawn, at which Settler allies aren’t merely just passing by and joining in but actually planning to be there, the selective depiction of these actions in white liberal news media sources is sending the message that it really is just an indigenous thing. And unfortunately, even some relatively progressive independent media, which can keep the messages clear and straight, is guilty of contributing to the same problem. Just maybe less guilty, because they aren’t actively trying to undermine the movement.
Then there are the tactics being used by white liberal media outlets that have no purpose whatsoever other than to undermine the movement and send the message that it’s only a matter of time before all the “Indians” pack up and stop pestering our Prime Minister. For example, the four women who founded teach-ins to share with their communities what Bill C-45 actually means for our future generations, and who started the #IdleNoMore hashtag on Twitter, are consistently described in these white liberal news media outlets as “founders” and “leaders”. This is problematic because a grassroots movement doesn’t have founders or leaders, but also because the “Idle No More Four” don’t deny that they are founders and leaders. On their blog and in media interviews, one in particular (Jessica Gordon) regularly jockeys herself between very astute statements about what (some of) the issues are that are putting people into the streets, and her personal opinion about what tactics she thinks should or should not be used (and the “screening” process she claims to use, to enforce selective promotion of only those actions using tactics she personally supports).
And though a second (Sylvia McAdam) among the “Idle No More Four” recently got sucked into this mass media troll-feeding multiple times in a national spotlight, even after I directly engaged the subject of this tactic on the official Idle No More Facebook group (where all four women are administrators), the first has yet to concede that perhaps this tactic is a questionable one. I wound up taking the risk of publishing an open letter on my personal blog a couple days ago, to address these two women with my concerns, since I could see that providing feedback in the Facebook group (boasting more than 50,000 people at the time) was not going to be effective. But not only that, I could also sense that if two of the “Idle No More Four” (who are all lawyers) can get sucked into this, it could very well start happening all across the country. The consequences for this kind of troll-feeding could and often does include actually putting people in danger — especially those who are engaging in highly controversial tactics. I anticipated the possibility that both women would take my very limited criticism very personally, despite very extremely important political reasons for urging them to change the way they deal with media. Thus, if I published it online, I was putting my ass on the line for everyone to tear to shreds or try to learn from, but if I sent it to each of them in a private message, they would probably think I was just some whitey lecturing to them both from inside my own rectum. And if I published it online, I had little doubt no matter how few people it reaches, there will be at least three people to tell me I’ve got my head up my ass. In the end, I went the way of the cyber activist on this one.
The many, complex, and varied repercussions of this decision are another example of why race/ethnicity just isn’t a dichotomous construct. We can talk about the colonial relationship that non-indigenous people have to the lands on which we live by referring to ourselves as Settlers, as a way of acknowledging that our cultures of origin came from elsewhere. And we can talk about the relationship that indigenous people have to these same lands by referring to them as indigenous instead of using colonial labels such as Aboriginal, Native — or the worst among them — Indian. It’s easy to convince ourselves, then, that indigenous people always know what they are talking about and Settlers should defer to indigenous peoples’ wisdom at all times, in order to properly demonstrate solidarity. I know a lot of people, both Settler and indigenous, happen to think this, so when I published my white Settler criticisms of two indigenous women’s media tactics, I expected to be met with some opposition. I even expected to be called a racist, and sure enough, that’s come and gone a few times already (almost entirely by other white Settlers trying really hard to be allies). There’s another relationship that this simplistic black-and-white relationship isn’t doing justice to, however, and that’s colonialism itself.
One can be a Settler without leaking colonialism and white supremacy from every pore in their flesh package. One can even be a Settler and not actually be a white person. One can be, as I work very hard to be, a white Settler who actively challenges and resists structures of colonialism and white supremacy. Or in Crommunist’s case, a Black Settler who actively challenges and resists structures of white supremacy as often as possible, while also working towards finding ways to resist and challenge colonialism. One can even be an indigenous person who has assimilated into the colonial and white supremacist dominant culture, having lost all connection to one’s culture(s) of origin. Race/ethnicity is fucking complicated.
If you think there’s something fishy about a white male Settler telling another white Settler that offering any critique of two indigenous women mishandling their spotlight in national media is racist, you’re on the right track toward understanding the point I’m driving at. I tried to warn him that an awful lot of people of colour would be righteously infuriated to discover that this is what he thinks racism is, and he responded by claiming I’m “attacking” these two women. It’s at that point that I chose to disengage, so he started calling attention to their indigeneity again while referring to me as an #Upsettler (this is a hashtag on Twitter that is being used to critique Settlers-in-denial who claim that Reverse Racism is a Thing). So far, the only people who seem to flat-out reject my entire argument about what an enormous and dangerous waste of resources mass media troll-feeding is, are doing so entirely on the principle that I’m a white Settler (i.e., whether they admit it to themselves or not, they think that colonialism and white supremacy are synonyms).
But you know what? Despite a very insistent white Settler armed with a PhD (no, ignorance on any given subject really knows no bounds at all) who made a point of stating that she’s spent a year “working with First Nations children”, that’s not racism, not reverse racism, and not even an inversion of existing structures of racism. It’s just not. It’s individual people whose understanding of decolonization is as superficial as their understanding of race/ethnicity. It’s individual people baring their prejudice(s) against white people towards an individual white person. It is not an entire network of interdependent barriers operating simultaneously and in coordination with each other against all white people. In the case of when it’s coming from people of colour, I personally feel it’s fully justified — just look at what they’ve had to put up with, for fuck sake! It is not their job to predict whether I’m their ally or not. It’s my job to demonstrate to them that I am. But in the case of white people, it’s just a desperate plea for Anti-Racist Ally Points (whether it’s conscious or not, the effect is the same — it reinforces their white privilege while providing them with a scapegoat to avoid interrogating the same structures within themselves). I’ve taken the risk of writing about these experiences too, and when I do, I am careful to refer to the phenomenon as white-on-white anti-white racism. Of note, I have also observed other writers very persuasively argue a preference for the term cultural chauvinism (i.e., the misplaced idea that a particular culture is superior, as an attempt to “undo” white supremacy).
If you’re white, and you successfully challenge racism, white supremacy, and/or colonialism in any company at all, this is exactly what will start happening to you too. Be prepared for it and don’t feed the trolls or let them convince you that your head is up your ass when in fact, they are looking for their shaving mirror in their own. It’s what visibly racialized people have to deal with every fucking day, just for existing. And for those who can pass as white (that’s actually a Thing in case you didn’t already realize it), that is until they blurt out something that instantly exposes them as a person of colour, they get both sides of it long before any white anti-racist ally does — first they experience the unconscious white supremacist who thinks that they are talking to a white person, so it’s totally cool to just blab on and on like the most racist asshole on the face of the planet since they aren’t in mixed company; then they experience the sudden display of disgust and spewing of racial hatred directly at them (as opposed to just… next to them). If you think I’m kidding, you’ve got another thing coming.
If you’re further interested in understanding where these pesky grey areas in the race/ethnicity dialogue are messing with people whose understanding of decolonization is that it’s Just Like Ripping Off A Bandage, I strongly encourage you to take a look at this blog post I published yesterday about the role of Idle No More in decolonizing the minds of both Settlers and indigenous peoples.