The threat of blackness

I was with a few friends watching an episode of a show called Just For Laughs: Gags. It’s something similar to ‘Candid Camera’, where random passers-by are placed in comical situations, caught on hidden camera. The humour of the show is watching people try to react appropriately to an implausible situation: a man’s car is ‘stolen’ after he has asked someone to watch it for him; a woman dressed as a lion tamer runs in fear past some unsuspecting person, pursued closely by a confederate dressed in a lion costume. The payoff of the show comes at the end of each segment, when the unwitting participant is shown the cameras, and everyone has a good laugh.

The recent episode I was watching presented a pair of men dressed as police officers with a WANTED poster of a thief dressed as a clown. They approach the unwitting ‘target’, who has just agreed to hold a garbage bag for a confederate as they go into a store. The police open the bag, find clown garb (including a big red nose and a rainbow wig) inside, and begin interrogating the ‘target’, dressing hir in the attire and remarking on the resemblance. Ignoring the ‘targets’ protestations of innocence, the faux police produce handcuffs and announce that the person is under arrest.

Of course, the police then point out the hidden cameras, and the ‘accused’ people share a relieved laugh with the actors. I turned to one of my friends and remarked “notice how they didn’t show any of the black people laughing”. She shot me a wry smile as we reflected on the fact that being stopped by the police and threatened with arrest for a crime you haven’t committed is no laughing matter when you live in a community where the colour of your skin makes you suspect. Indeed, I would imagine that if I had been one of the ‘targets’ on the show, this kind of thing would be very much at the front of my mind: [Read more...]

Abuse of power; power of abuse

One of the weird facets of having male, able-bodied, and a great deal of middle-class privilege (that really does border on white privilege at times, my skin colour notwithstanding) is that there are a number of evidently-common phenomena that I have simply never witnessed. I have never known someone to be raped*, I have never seen harassment more obnoxious than cat-calls or a honked horn, and as near as I can tell I have never been on the receiving end of serious discrimination either at the hands of an employer or the police. Left with only my own personal experience as a yardstick for reality, it would be trivially easy for me to fall into the seductive trap of assuming that the world is a fair place and the concerns of anti-abuse groups are very occasional and dramatic exceptions to a general trend of figurative rainbows and puppies.

But because I have made the decision to not only listen to those who have experienced those things, but to engage with their ideas and compare them to the few occasions where I have had to deal with being subjected to discrimination, I have learned to let the weight of my skepticism rest more heavily on those who say there’s no problem than those who say there is one. One recent example of a major transition I have made is my attitude toward police. I have seen too many stories of egregious and unpunished crimes committed by police all over the world to believe that these are isolated incidents that are not reflective of a larger and more disturbing trend. Despite my universally positive personal interactions with Vancouver Police (I have repeatedly noted the positive way they handled both the Occupy Vancouver presence and the post-hockey riots), in the absence of robust and meaningful civilian oversight I am obligated to view all officers with suspicion. [Read more...]

Newton’s first law of racism

Having studied a tiny bit of mechanics, I find the subject extremely useful in explaining things like privilege, racism, sexism, and many of the other concepts that are the keys to reading this blog. You simply cannot successfully solve problems in mechanics without being able to recognize all the forces at play on an object, whether it be still or in motion. Failure to account for an extant force, or adding a force that does not exist, will result in you reaching an erroneous conclusion about the behaviour of whatever body is under observation.

Similarly, one cannot look at human behaviour or the impact of institutions and systems without taking all the relevant factors into account. When we allow ourselves to succumb to our privilege (or, put another way, when we fail to account for all of the forces acting on us), we draw conclusions that are not based in reality. We make decisions based on those conclusions, and on our predictions of what consequences those decisions will have. Failure to recognize either or own privilege or the prevailing forces of racism, misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism, you name it, will result in the creation of rules and systems that have unintended results.

Sometimes those results are disastrous and tragic: [Read more...]

One Million Bottlebags

The first album I ever bought was Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. I don’t remember how old I was, but I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9. This album is a classic and sparked a wave of ‘conscious’ political hip-hop that would be nearly drowned out by the explosion of the gangsta genre and the rise of the west coast some years later. At an age that young, I didn’t really understand most of what was being said – after all, I was growing up in the mountains of British Columbia. I’d never even seen a ‘hood, let alone understood the suffering of the people who lived there. It would, therefore, take me several years to understand the track “1 million bottlebags”:

Malt liquor bull
What it is, is bullshit
Colt
45 another gun to the brain
Who’s sellin’ us pain
In the hood another up to no good
Plan that’s designed by the other man

But who drink it like water
On an’ on, till the stores reorder it
Brothers cry broke but they still affordin’ it
Sippin’ it lick drink it down, oh, no
Drinkin’ poison but they don’t know

How could I connect, at that age, under those circumstances, to the helpless rage Churck D was trying to articulate at seeing his friends literally drink themselves to death? And in true Chuck style he pulled no punches in laying the blame (and the bodies) at the feet of predatory liquor companies who flooded black neighbourhoods with advertisements, targeting young black men with their substandard and unsafe product. Combine that with the widespread poverty and accompanying ambivalence toward the suffering of black people by the American government, and it’s no wonder that Chuck was so furious. Good thing those days are over, eh? [Read more...]

#Occupy: the answer to an important question

When the ‘Occupy together’ movement started nearly a year ago, the media narrative almost immediately pivoted to bafflement (either pretended or genuine*) over what ‘the point’ was. Occupy, without a pre-determined raison d’être aside from “shit’s fucked up“, and lacking an official spokesperson to boil down the issues into bullet points that would be ready by the print deadline, actually required people to really dig in and collect the relevant facts and a cross-section of sentiment within the movement. This, incidentally, is also known as “being a fucking journalist”, but I will save you my diatribe about how terrible media organizations are** for another time.

Now Occupy is a lot of different things – a social justice movement, an experiment in anarchic self-governance, an attempt to introduce income inequality into the political mainstream discussion, an expression of contempt for the political status quo – depending on which direction you turn the direction of your analysis, you can probably come up with a lengthy list. The headless organized chaos that typifies Occupy necessarily leads to the formation of a movement that intentionally fails to resemble any of the top-down structures we’ve come to expect in human interactions (at least in this part of the world).

When I was participating in the protests in Montreal, I had a realization. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a ‘sudden’ realization, since I’ve been talking about Occupy for a minute. Whatever it was, I put the pieces together and realized that at its core, Occupy is the answer to a question. The question, and I think it’s a fundamentally important one, is this: how do we respond when those we elect betray our trust? I don’t think there are too many people who look at the political realities right now without a bit of practiced cynicism. After all, being cynical about politics is as old as the hills. But when our response starts and stops with witty rejoinders, we sell ourselves and the world short. After all, some things need to be dealt with: [Read more...]

A shooting, many questions, no answers

Shortly after midnight on Friday, July 20th, a heavily-armed man burst into a movie theatre and opened fire on the crowd, killing twelve people and wounding nearly 60. This latest act of mass violence in the United States sparked yet another national conversation about the need for gun control, and questions about what could prompt a person with an otherwise-bright future to commit such an atrocity. I lack the necessary knowledge (and the energy) to comment much further about this particular shooting other than to say that I obviously wish it hadn’t happened, and that something must be done to make such events more rare. I do not believe that more guns are the answer to the problem, but that idea appears to have some serious currency in the United States, so I guess take that for what it’s worth.

Such acts are incredibly rare here in Canada (especially compared to our southern neighbour), and yet Toronto has recently been visited by a pair of public shootings that have sparked our own national conversation. The first shooting occurred at the beginning of last month in the food court of the city’s largest shopping mall. Two people, the apparent targets of the shooter, were killed. The motivation appears to be related to gang activity. At the beginning of last week, Toronto was once again visited by the spectre of violence at the hands of armed gunmen: [Read more...]

We can’t opt out

There is a contingent of the freethinking community, and I have no idea how large it is statistically, but a contingent nonetheless that believe the conversation about social justice lies well outside the list of things we should be talking about. Science, religion, skepticism – these are clearly part of the relevant topics for us to discuss. Why do people believe crazy things? How do we get them to stop? What is the evidence? Other things like racism, feminism, sexual expression and identity issues – these sorts of crazy beliefs and evidence are obviously not relevant to our group. These folks rankle and agitate any time any of these subjects are even broached, replete with admonishments to focus on the ‘real issues’, and to claim that people are ‘overreacting’.

Of course, anyone who honestly agrees with any of that is hereby invited to fuck right off.

An animated .gif of Jeremy Piven (as Ari Gold) saying "Get the fuck out!" [Read more...]

Manufacturing the ‘other’

One of the frequent memes that emerges from racial discourse is that people of colour are expected to try extra hard to justify their existence and inclusion in American society. Nowhere was this more evident than when Congressman Peter King basically revived Joe McCarthy to investigate whether or not Muslims were ‘patriotic’ enough. It is not enough, according to Mr. King, to simply live in the United States – to be a real American, Muslims have to go above and beyond to prove that they’re not ‘too Muslimy’.

Of course, those kinds of obsessive intrusions often only serve to contribute to the general climate of xenophobia that leads to radicalization in the first place. Why on Earth would you be patriotic toward a country that uses the force of its government to peer into your personal life simply because you worship the wrong god? I alluded to this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of exclusion earlier this week:

It’s not hard, therefore, to imagine why black Americans do not see themselves reflected in the priorities of their country. It is certainly not hard to imagine that they may be less patriotic than one might expect. They see a country that seeks to lie about what it cannot hide. They see a country that seeks to erase what it cannot destroy. They see this country, and they say “god damn America”.

I would be interested to see a study investigating the causal association I believe exists between feelings of exclusion and likelihood of antisocial behaviour. We know, for example, that racial profiling by police makes members of minority communities less likely to co-operate. It’s not exactly rocket science – if you don’t believe the police are on your side, why would you work with them? What I’m curious about is whether or not that refusal to comply with social norms (i.e., recognizing authority figures) translates into a generalized contempt for other types of normative behaviours, like compliance with the law.

Or put another way, are New York’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ policies making their problems worse: [Read more...]

God Damn America

Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck brought up a pretty tragic story of a 13 year-old child who was shot and killed by a neighbour in the states while he (the boy) was taking out the garbage. The neighbour apparently (mistakenly) believed that the boy had stolen something, and that the appropriate response was murder. The conclusion Jason drew from this unbelievably horrible story is that greater gun control was needed to prevent these kinds of incidents form happening. I’m sure he’s right, but of course that’s not the whole story.

Unless you were living under a rock in 2008, you’re probably familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “god damn America” line, taken wildly out of context from a longer sermon about the need for government priorities to be in line with biblical priorities. Now even when I first saw the excerpt from the speech, I knew where he was trying to go with it. It’s no different from when a wingnut pastor calls the President the antichrist, except that when a black pastor does it, all of a sudden it’s a threat to America as we know it. Obviously, as an atheist, the whole idea of bringing the government into line with biblical principles is terrifying to me, but there was another message in that sermon that I understood quite well. [Read more...]

The worst thing in the world (Thursday edition)

Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.

When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.

My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City: [Read more...]