Race/Ethnicity Just Isn’t Simple

A post by Jamie

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.


  1. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Aside from the obvious tone troll, I’m disappointed in the commenters on your Open Letter who clearly did not read nor understand it. They offered no critique, but a mere slamming.

    A note to other readers: Reading also the Open Letter is somewhat necessary if you are unclear on the issue of media troll-feeding behind the racism discussion.

    I would also be interested in some small mention as to the nature of liberal media as it pertains to such subject matter as this in a Canadian setting. I think I get the general idea of the phrase, but I’m probably missing something. And the phrase is used in a very different manner in the States.

  2. says

    Just a quick and especially relevant update here about the still-continuing fallout from my actually very limited critique:

    Today, an absolutely mind-boggling series of blockades went up as part of a national day of action, from as early as sunrise, all across the country. The “Idle No More Four” have now sent out a mass email, to potentially tens of thousands of their “followers” (at least one of whom calls them Talking Heads), in which they declared they don’t stand by radical indigenous grassroots. This was done sometime today.

    I guess someone is just averse to learning!

  3. says

    OK, well, it’s not just liberal media, but white liberal media, that I’m talking about. So more on what I mean by white liberal media:

    Remember liberal feminism? The women’s suffrage movement, successfully winning the right of women to vote and subsequently, the legal right of women to be acknowledged in law as persons?

    Well, those rights were only extended to white women. People of colour were still legally non-persons in North America at both of these points in history. Many of those same feminists were outrageously racist themselves. And in the 50s and 60s, when white liberal feminists were demanding their right to take a space in the workplace? Well, women of colour, who were taking care of white liberal feminists’ children and scrubbing their toilets, were dropping their jaws, saying “Uhhhh… Hello?” Thus, it is now generally referred to (and critiqued) as white liberal feminism.

    The same goes for white liberal media, like CBC News and even arguably CTV News. They’ll cover stories that more conservative news media outlets won’t even touch, and they’ll do what they think they should in order to provide “fair” coverage.

    Case in point? These were the first two mainstream news media outlets in Canada, that is other than independent media, to do any coverage of Idle No More or Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike at all. But now they are failing to do their job of providing fair coverage, as both went fishing for nit-picking remarks with two of the “Idle No More Four”, and their editorial decisions promoted those very remarks to a higher degree of importance than the message that these issues impact all Canadians and not just indigenous peoples. Then there’s the photo and video problem I’ve also described, which is having an effect I don’t think they’ve considered at all.

    Is that any clearer? I never really know when I’ve been clearer unless I ask.

  4. says


    Funny thing: this is literally the first time anyone has NOT said it’s a pejorative (i.e., White Whine) in response to my writing. lol, I must be making progress!

  5. says

    But now they are failing to do their job of providing fair coverage, as both went fishing for nit-picking remarks with two of the “Idle No More Four”, and their editorial decisions promoted those very remarks to a higher degree of importance than the message that these issues impact all Canadians and not just indigenous peoples.

    And to ward off the hyper-skeptics, I’m going to provide an example that I found a couple days ago from the CBC — where I’ve been assured by other white liberals that there are still some good liberal journalists hiding somewhere in the back rooms where they can escape Kevin O’Leary’s verbal abuse and Andrew Coyne’s condescending head-patting.

    Idle No More co-founder uneasy with Chief Spence

    of course, the bit I’m talking about has nothing to do with Chief Spence; indeed, it’s completely out of place (and somewhat nonsensical):

    Blockades a concern

    McAdam also questioned the actions of some First Nations planning blockades at border crossings and rail lines.

    “I think those portray a message of aggressiveness,” McAdam said. “That’s not peaceful.

    “We have to be careful with Idle No More that we don’t go into areas where we’re saying, ‘Save the gophers,'” she added. “There has to be a purpose behind it.”

    She said she is worried about the movement’s core message, about protecting land and water in Canada and promoting indigenous sovereignty.

    It’s little things like this that make me not trust the mainstream media at all; I’ll just read the headlines and blurbs as they come up on Twitter or FB then find something about it from independent media. Unless, of course, I’m in criticism mode, which I am right now.

    One slightly overlooked bit, though: the colonial/’white liberal’ (I just include CTV and CBC in the colonial media, because I think that their highly slanted punditocracy overrides their willingness to report things; in terms of BC specifically we seem to have our own little “Beltway” of CTV, CBC, Global, the Province and the Vancouver Sun that define the ‘acceptable’ political landscape, which is conveniently very right-slanted) media also tends to downplay the protests themselves, by working within the confines of plausible deniability to make the number look smaller or the protest less serious. Take the march through downtown on Monday: there were at least a thousand people, but News 1130 said ‘300’, Metro ‘400’ and the Vancouver Sun could only muster ‘hundreds’; the rest of the major outlets lifted a Canadian Press story that was good on the numbers but claimed that the protesters “chanted ‘No Pipelines’ for a short time and then moved on” which was dead wrong considering that there were almost two hours’ worth of speakers before I arrived at Victory Square (just in time for the march) and 100-150 people were still there at 9 when the hearings ended.

    Worse, though, is when white liberals start making up excuses for the colonial media, when the colonial media is probably the largest barrier in terms of getting the message out. Canada seriously needs something like Media Matters or FAIR that is dedicated to unraveling our media’s amazingly large pro-corporate bias; if anything, we need it more than the US where there actually exist reasonable people on mainstream news (even if Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry are all on the same network).

    It’s only going to get worse, though. Harper’s given us the media circus non-meeting, now all the pesky protesters just need to shut up and petition the appropriate colonial institutions according to the people in wonderfully respectable suits and ties. I wonder if we’re going to end up with a Red River Rebellion-esque scenario eventually…

  6. says

    Yeah, I was hoping no one would mention Sun Media at all, given that indigenous resistance groups are calling for a complete boycott of them all together on account of Ezra Levant.

    Smart management of the media spotlight could have avoided some of the problems I’m critiquing the media for. When you don’t feed the trolls, they can’t really cite “leaders” and “founders” within the movement who share the dominant public opinion at the expense of their own movement. You would think four lawyers could have figured out what was going on after the first interview.

    Now that it’s too late for that, I’m actually impressed to say that CTV BC seems to be responding directly to the subversive wordplay on Twitter, as well as reports people are sharing about events like a pick-up truck driver who attempted to drive right through a highway blockade in Calgary. APTN’s constant reporting is helping get the message out, too.

    It’s like trying to hammer a nail down into water.

  7. says

    Um, small quibble: the Vancouver Sun is, unlike every other ‘Sun’ paper in Canada, not owned by Sun Media. It and the Province are both owned by Postmedia, which owns the National Post.

    Of course, the result of that is that we don’t need Sun Media because we already have the Province to do the job of being awful.

  8. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    @ HaifischGeweint

    Yes, thanks, that certainly helps me to be sure I understand what you mean. I figured it was something like that, but I didnt want to just assume and be ignorant.

    In the States, liberal media is a cry of the right, referring to any news outlet that doesn’t cover what they want in the manner they want. If one is far enough to the right, then even Fox News is “liberal media”. (Although I’ve only run across a few of this sort.)

  9. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    White liberal media (and White liberals):

    Racialized stereotypes about normative black and Latino gender roles also place trans youth at high risk, both on the streets and in schools. The brutal 2008 murder of gender non-conforming teen Lawrence King by a male student at an Oxnard middle school shone a national spotlight on transphobia and violence. But the fact that King was a working class boy of color, possibly grappling with racist cultural misperceptions about what his “rightful” gender identity should be, was not examined in mainstream discussions about the tragedy. The 2009 suicides of Carl Walker Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, eleven year old boys of color who had been harassed at school because they were suspected of being gay, did not make headlines. At the same time, bullying-related suicides involving white gay youth were more widely publicized and seized on as national calls to action.[xiv] These cases were highlighted in magazines and on cable TV and network news.

    Sikivu Hutchinson

  10. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Headdesk: I had the URL for the comment rather than the Article linked via Sikivu Hutchinson’s name there.

    Bad bad, stupid. Sorry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *