It don’t matter if you’re not black or white

Because we live in Canada, and because so much of the way we see ourselves is inextricably tied up with the United States, we tend to see racism issues as black and white. I don’t mean this in a philosophical dichotomy way, I mean that we tend to focus on race and racism as a black people issue and a white people issue. At the presentation I gave on October 1st, I realized after the fact that the majority of my examples of race and racism are about black people in opposition to white people. Many of my examples from the blog are about black issues in the context of the white majority.

The reality, however, is that race issues go way beyond black and white. We live in a country (and, particularly, I live in a city) that is made up of a number of different groups with distinct cultural histories that are interacting in a unique way. Each group has its own issues to resolve with every other, and the majority of these have nothing to do with white people. Kids whose parents are from India or Pakistan (or those who are born there and immigrate) have to resolve old-world issues completely out of context of shared geography. Korean kids and Chinese kids are superficially grouped into “Asian” here in North America, but there is significant conflict between the countries of China and South Korea, conflict which is compounded by the fact that most others don’t know enough to differentiate between these two groups. Native Canadians find themselves in much the same condition (at least as far as perception goes) as black people, and yet there is very little camaraderie between the two groups.

The fact is that the racial conversation is very real for groups that don’t fall into a black/white or the _______/white dichotomy. James Sweet, a blogger from Rochester, NY, recently posted a piece asking why we use the phrase “person of colour”. After all, everyone is a colour – white people aren’t actually ‘white’. Why do we cling to this ridiculous nomenclature that seems to divide the world into white and non-white?

I responded in the comments to suggest that the reason for the term is because there are issues that are relevant to non-white people as a classification, but that referring to them as “non-white” reinforces the subtle idea that white people are the “default”, whereas everyone else is a deviation from that standard. To forestall the predictable objection that ‘nobody really thinks like that’ – yes, they do. A lot. I recently had a meeting with someone who I hadn’t met before (well I had, but she didn’t remember me). When I arrived, she walked right past me. I introduced myself, and she was shocked. “I was expecting you to be short and Irish,” she said. Now far be it from me to suggest that this says anything negative about this person, she’s really very nice and quite professional. It is simply that her assumption, based partially on my name and partially on the job title I have, was that I would be a white guy. So much so that it didn’t even occur to her that the black guy waiting outside her office was her 11 o’clock.

So we use “person of colour” as a way of describing a sociocultural phenomenon of existing in contrast with a dominant political majority group, without implicitly elevating that group. It’s a subtle rebranding that helps to erode one of the subtle nuances of endemic racial bias, rather than simply being an arch-PC term to avoid hurting feelings.

However, and this is really the subject that this post is about, there are far more numerous racial dichotomies that we as PoC deal with every day that have nothing to do with white people. In this particular case, treating PoC as a homogeneous group does us a significant disservice, because it accomplishes a counterproductive elevation of non-PoC, while necessarily neglecting the fact that the group is not a group.

So why don’t I spend more time talking about these other conflicts along racial lines? If I recognize that the black/white dichotomy is an oversimplification of race and race issues, why not do my part as an anti-racist commenter (if I may be so bold as to describe myself that way) and focus on these other issues? Part of my reluctance to wade into those other conflicts is that I don’t have any connection to them. I grew up observing the black/white dialogue, since it was relevant to my life personally. Simply being a PoC doesn’t grant me some kind of magical insight into cultures that are not my own, except insofar as I recognize those elements that are common to my own history.

I regret that I wasn’t able to make this issue more explicit during my talk, because I may have seemed to grant license to treat the black/white issue as either emblematic of the totality of the race discussion; or worse – I may have suggested that only black/white racism is worth discussing. I certainly did not intend to convey that, and I’m hopeful that anyone who was at the presentation or who watched it online didn’t carry that impression away.

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  1. Amanda says

    I’d love to see your New Bright Lights talk, Ian. Is it online or going to be posted online somewhere?

    ps- And here I always thought you were short and Irish!

  2. says

    Gas station I used to work at employed two night-managers that shared the week between them.

    One was Indian (as in, from India). The other was Sri Lankan.

    I never knew about it until after I left. But I dropped in one day to have a yarn with the owner. She had a bit of a vent. Turns out that the two managers had constantly, for years, been taking snipes at one another. Manager A would, on the night before Manager B’s shift, not do the cleaning roster properly. Or whatever. Simply because one was Sri Lankan, and the other was Indian.

    I also once worked as a barman/banquet waiter at a wedding reception held for a Samoan groom and a Tongan bride. Fuck, now that was tense. The two mothers were ready to punch each other out at one point.

    Also: Recently came back from Malaysia with my (Malay) girlfriend. I was on the receiving end of a lot of positive discrimination because I’m white. Also, the relationship between Malays and the local Chinese weren’t spectacular – although that may have had a religious component as well.

    It was all seriously fucked up.

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