Movie Friday: Picking cotton on a racist field trip

On Wednesday my girlfriend and I went to a live comedy show at a place called Falconetti’s in Vancouver. The comedian was talking about babysitting his nephew (who is of Chinese descent) and hearing his wife sing to the toddler the kid’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad“, and expressing his comical shock and dismay at the idea of singing a song about railroad construction to a Chinese child in British Columbia*.

It reminded me of a summer job I had at Toronto’s Wild Water Kingdom where the inside parks (clean-up) staff was almost entirely black. We were working during the pre-season on resurfacing the stage, a job that we were nowhere near properly-trained or equipped to perform, when the park owner decided to try out some new “island” music. One of the songs that came on was “Pick a Bale of Cotton**”. I looked around and realized I was part of an all-black work gang, doing work that usually requires skilled workers, for which we were being paid minimum wage.

I made the owner throw out the CD.

I’m not the only one who’s had this experience:

While the story is funny, it does highlight the fact that racism often happens in an entirely accidental way, borne of lazy thinking and a lack of perspective. Understanding racism therefore requires the engagement of an active and informed mind, much like we hope to do in the skeptical and atheist world. We want people to be thinking about stuff rather than just patting themselves on the back for all the times they happened not to do something racist.

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*Although the joke misses the mark a bit, since “working on the railroad” actually means working as a porter. The song has racist connotations, but for black kids more so than Chinese ones (the Wikipedia article has the original lyrics – bonus points for noticing where it was originally published).

**Interestingly, I recognized this song from singing it in choir as a kid, at my nearly-all-white school. I didn’t understand what it meant then. If I heard it today, I’d throw some shit.

Movie Friday: Black Folk Don’t… do atheism

A brand new series came to my attention a little while back called Black Folk Don’t, which confronts and discusses (but doesn’t necessarily debunk) stereotypes about the African American community. I had been meaning to throw one of them on here as a Movie Friday for a couple of weeks, but the latest version was just so squarely on the nose that I had to share it.

Some of my own thoughts below the fold.

[Read more...]

Racism? Let them eat cake!

Sometimes stuff comes up in the news and I just don’t bother going after it. There are low-hanging news stories that are so silly or frivolous that I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about them. Sometimes I file them away for a rainy day when I don’t have a lot of time or energy, or on the off chance that I’ll be able to link to it later in a more substantive piece. So when I read about Sweden’s “racist cake” incident, I figured it was worth taking a pass:

Sweden’s culture minister is facing calls to step down after she was photographed cutting a cake shaped in the form of a naked black woman. The incident involving Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth happened at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. According to Radio Sweden, the museum said the cake was supposed to highlight the issue of female circumcision. But the Association for African Swedes said it was a crude racist caricature and called for Ms Liljeroth to resign.

A few people asked me to respond, but I thought it was a waste of time. After all, it’s a very silly story about an art installation that, as is often the case, was provocative and not in the greatest ‘taste’ (sorry for the pun). Avant garde art is, by definition, ahead of public opinion and designed to shock to prove a point. The involvement of the Swedish culture minister was a regrettable move on her part, but what would you do if asked to cut into a living cake at an art gallery? Staunchly refuse and launch into a tirade against the artist? It was the result of really shitty staff work and a questionable piece of art.

But damn if that confection didn’t have staying power. I guess it’s true – chocolate just doesn’t come out! So here’s a brief issue-by-issue breakdown of my thoughts. [Read more...]

But black people had slaves too!

Those of you who read this blog regularly will be familiar with its central thesis: slavery is the only thing that matters when discussing racism, because it allows me to demonize white people. After all, even though slavery ended a thousand years ago, exploiting that part of European/American history (which, when you think about it, wasn’t really all that bad) allows me to make white people feel guilty enough to give me what I want, whether that be reparations or reverse-racism jobs. It’s the reason that I never stop bringing up the Atlantic slave trade, and why all of my posts on the topic of anti-black racism explicitly reference the fact that black people used to be slaves, and therefore white people are evil.

Of course, anyone who’s actually read this blog knows that all of the above statements are complete blinkered bullshit. Slavery is a topic that very rarely makes it into any of my discussions of racism, except when it is relevant to explaining a historical (or, in much rarer cases, contemporary) phenomenon.  A quick review of my history reveals that less than 5% of my posts even use the word slavery – that number climbs to 16% if I restrict to only those stories tagged as ‘race’. The fact is that while an honest and comprehensive understanding of slavery is helpful in understanding contemporary race relations, it is most certainly not sufficient.

Which is why I am continually baffled by people who talk about the complicity of African leaders in the trafficking of slaves. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply in the muck of a comments thread before one finds someone protesting that black people weren’t completely innocent, and therefore… I dunno, anti-black racism is their (our) fault too? I sincerely do not understand the purpose that this taking point is meant to serve. Regardless of its uselessness as a counter to anything, it manages to worm its way into the conversation over and over again, like a dandelion of stupidity bursting through the asphalt of sensibility. [Read more...]

Geraldo Rivera has a point

Right now you’re probably thinking “April Fool’s is over, dude”. I mean this in earnest: Geraldo Rivera was not completely wrong when he said that wearing a hooded sweatshirt contributed to Trayvon Martin’s murder. His thesis, that Trayvon therefore shares in some of the blame for choosing to wear a hoodie, is completely fucking wrong, but you really can’t expect someone who works for Fox News to make more than one cogent and/or accurate point in a single sitting.

I did my graduate degree at one of Canada’s most well-regarded institutions – whether or not it deserves its reputation is very much an open question, but we’ll let others delve into that. I mention it only to say that while I was there, I bought a zippered hoodie (the most versatile garment in the world, especially in spring/fall when dressing in layers is a life-saver) with the school logo emblazoned in large font on the front. The other day, I needed to run to the grocery store around the corner, so I threw on my hoodie. On my way out of the store, I noticed that it had begun to drizzle so I flipped up my hood to keep the rain off of my face.

As I bounded up the stairs to the front of my building, I caught my reflection in the glass doors and was caught momentarily off guard – I looked pretty intimidating. Despite the large block letters of the school on the front, and… y’know… the fact that it was my own reflection, even I was startled for a moment. I can certainly understand how someone might mistake my hands-in-pockets, hood-up stance as being reflective of some kind of ill intent, but I was just trying to stay dry. So was Trayvon. In fact, our missions were more or less the same. We are only separated by a few years, about 120 lbs, and a national border (and he’s quite a bit darker than I am, which is far from meaningless). [Read more...]

Can you spell ‘shackles’? I knew you could…

I am not a teacher in the scholastic sense. While I aim to make this blog an instructive environment (for you as much as it is for me), what I do is a far cry from the responsibility that is given to actual teachers at actual schools. For one, I deal almost exclusively with adults, many of whom are in fact older than I am. Nobody is entrusting the minds of the future to my care. Second, I am not (nor do I pretend to be) an authority figure in the way a teacher is. I have no power over any of you. The most drastic way in which I could punish you is by refusing to blog, which would be far more damaging to me than it would be to even the most fervent Cromrade. Third, aside from the handful of you that I know personally (or interact with in any meaningful way outside the auspices of this website), I do not exert any influence over your personal life.

All this is by way of saying that teachers have an awesome level of responsibility. Many members of my family are teachers (as well as a number of my friends), and I know how tough their jobs are. In a brutal dictatorship ruled by the iron fist of Crommunist, teaching would be a well-salaried position that people compete hard to get into, and that attracts the best and most capable candidates. Because, and we have to be honest about this, not everyone is up to the challenge and profound duty that comes with being a teacher: [Read more...]

Black History Month: looking back, looking forward

This is the fourth year in which I have formally marked black history month. Even though I went to a high school with a large black population, we were taught almost nothing about black history in school. The great shame of the whole exercise is that, unless there is someone who actually cares, the existence of a month ostensibly devoted to black history becomes little more than an excuse to gloss over the details:

Black people were slaves in Africa, but then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the back of the Underground Railroad until Abraham Lincoln emancipated them and now we have a black president so yay racism is over!

I am unsure which is actually worse: being denied any mention of black history at all, or having the rich, convoluted, deep, and fiercely interesting treasure trove that is real black history “Disney-fied” in this way. Luckily for me, I do not have to choose between these two awful alternatives. Because I have the time, motivation, and education to do so, I can do my part to scratch beyond the lacquered surface of black history and expose some of the rich truth underneath.

Black history is our history

As I tried to set out at the outset of this series, the compartmentalization of ‘black history’ is an unfortunately necessary illusion. Black history, when understood properly, is not the history of black people as an isolated alien race. Black history is and must be part of the narrative of the overall history of Canada (and, obviously, the United States). Black people have made numerous contributions to the founding and building of this nation from its very conception. Black Canadians should not be thought of as an ‘also ran’ group – people who also existed and were around while the important stuff in Canadian history was going on – they (we) were part of that history and should be recognized as such. [Read more...]

Black Canadians: outcomes, attitudes, and evidence

This morning I walked you through a crude statistical analysis of labour participation in black Canadians, showing that while the experiences of black Canadians runs parallel to that of African-Americans, it is not directly comparable. However, a more detailed look at the evidence suggests a slightly different picture – black men face a 22% wage gap for identical work when compared to their non-black counterparts, even when controlling for age, education, experience, and other potential explanatory factors.

There is an old truism within the black community (and a similar one among women) that one is expected to work twice as hard as whites to achieve identical success. While 22% is not 50%, it is still a fact that black men do not see the same results for their (our) hard work. Mensah spends a few pages going through two alternate explanations that are offered for this and other kinds of race-based disparities: the class argument and the culture argument, before arriving at his (and my) explanatory model: the race argument.

The class argument – “race is just a function of class”

Some theorists argue that when we measure race-based differences between groups, what we are actually measuring is a function of socioeconomic class. The solutions to these discrepancies, therefore, must be through programs targeted at class mobility rather than anti-racism.  This argument is unsurprisingly popular, as it allows us to maintain our illusion of a ‘post-racial’ society in which racism is the domain of a handful of bad people. However, the evidence (the above statistic included) does not support class as the primary explanatory factor driving inequalities between blacks and whites. [Read more...]

Black Canadians: Making it work

This is the fourth and final instalment in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out. You can read the first post here, and its follow-up here. The second post is here. The third post is here, and its follow-up is here.

Last week I made reference to the problems inherent in understanding Canadian black culture.The cultural juggernaut that is the United States dominates media expressions of ‘the black experience’, and because of porous cultural borders (and the comparatively small number of black Canadians)  much of black Canadian culture is defined in similar terms as those of African Americans. The problem with this approach, obviously, is that black Canadians and African Americans have very different histories (as I hope the past few weeks worth of posts have demonstrated).

Similarly, much of the racial scholarship around the realities of being black are, in fact, the realities of being African-American. The kinds of systemic racism that we see all to often in the United States may not, in fact, be reflected in the Canadian experience. After all, Canada and the United States have vastly different approaches to immigration, citizenship, and multiculturalism (encapsulated in Canada’s ‘mosaic’ model, vs. America’s ‘melting pot’ model). We know from the vast available stores of data and analysis that anti-black racism is a real economic problem in the United States. The obvious question we must ask is do the experiences of black Canadians reflect those of African Americans?

The answer seems to be “no and yes” [Read more...]

Black Canadians: who

This is the third in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out. You can read the first post here, and its follow-up here. The second post is here.

While black Canadians come principally from the Caribbean and Africa (obviously), it is important to note that these areas are far from homogeneous. The Caribbean, made up of a fleet of island countries (and my father’s mainland home), enjoys a great deal of cultural diversity. While they share the distinction of being formerly (primarily English) colonies, each island has its own distinct flavour. This is even more true of the countries of Africa – with borders drawn by colonial powers and centuries of tribal development that is unparalleled anywhere else on the planet.

Consequently, it is nearly impossible to fully or even adequately describe the full cast of characters that comprise black Canada. Indeed, even describing them (us) as a group is fallacy layered upon fallacy. However, because we make up such a small population and face certain commonalities with respect to being seen as a unified group, it is useful and reasonable to speak in these terms. That being said, there is important information to be gleaned from understanding some of black Canada’s constituent groups. [Read more...]