I’m flabbergasted

It’s not every day something shocks me in a good way, but I was floored when I read this:

It’s typical bullshit. So I’m responding in my own way. Because, you see, I am a racist. I’m not proud of that fact – but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can’t avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege.

Mark Chu-Caroll is a blogger and computer scientist for Google. I am subscribing to my own set of prejudicial stereotypes here, but I have known very few computer programmers who are so socially aware as to recognize what are fairly black-belt-level concepts like systemic racism and privilege. He lists 10 reasons why he calls himself a racist:

  1. I am a racist – because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
  2. I am a racist – because even after learning about the unearned privileges that I recieve (sic), I still don’t notice them.
  3. I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
  4. I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
  5. I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
  6. I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and talented than I am never had the chances that I did to be successful, because of the color of their skin.
  7. I am a racist – because I am a white man who has directly benefited from the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
  8. I am a racist – because every day, I benefit from the denial of basic privileges to other people.
  9. I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people who are different from me.
  10. I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over others.
  11. I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied to people of different races and backgrounds, I don’t speak up.

I’ve said this from essentially day 1, but we are all racists. We were born into a system (with global reach) that has racial prejudice built into it. Some of us benefit from this system; others are on the losing end. The “secret” to changing this pattern is to recognize it exists, and to stay constantly vigilant in attempting to reduce its influence.

Mark hits the nail on the head when he says:

“People like me think of ourselves as the default – as “normal” people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to be normal, unremarkable. We don’t notice just how much we benefit from that assumption of our own normality – the benefits we receive fade into invisibility. We don’t even notice that they exist. And then when someone who doesn’t get those benefits has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we are.”

I encourage you to read the article in its entirety – it’s a raw, honest and heartfelt exploration of one white man’s experience of race and racial prejudice. I think more people should be willing to speak up and throw their own stories into the mix.

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It’s a good day for Kenya

More good news!

Kenya has adopted a new constitution, more than three weeks after it was overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum… The document provides for greater checks on presidential powers and more regional devolution. It also recognises the UN human rights charter and creates a second parliamentary chamber – the senate.

It may seem a little unusual for me to provide commentary on a purely political story on this blog, which is purportedly about race, free speech, and religion (although somehow gay shit keeps creeping in… paging Dr. Freud). I’ve been following this story for a number of months now without commenting on it, but I can tell you that it’s highly appropriate.

First, there is a fundamental (and racist) misunderstanding we have in North America about Africa. The first thing to consider is the fact that Africa is not a country. You didn’t have to look much farther than the promotion of the World Cup to see that Europe and North America seem to consider Africa to be a homogeneous entity, but it is peopled by vastly different cultures and histories. There are modern democracies like Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria; there are corrupt dictatorships like Zimbabwe and the Congo; and there are dictatorial theocracies like Sudan and Somalia (the latter without a central government of any kind). Much of the strife plaguing the continent can be traced back to exploitation by colonial powers who used (and continue to use) the countries of Africa as a source of material wealth without building up the infrastructure needed to make the countries self-sufficient. Without the ability to harness their own natural wealth, the people of Africa are at the mercy of warlord-like governments who are largely controlled by foreign corporate regimes.

By ratifying a constitution, one that decentralizes the powers of the presidency and creates both a bill of rights and a second branch of government (ah, checks and balances), Kenya has taken a step towards true independence and freedom for its people. Such protections allow Kenya to (eventually) become a player on the international stage, much as Uganda and Ethiopia once were, and challenge the prevailing winds of prejudice against the continent.

Second, the ratification of this document was plagued by violent opposition, hate speech accusations, and (of course) religious conflict:

Church leaders who organised Sunday’s rally have also accused the government of being behind the grenade attack which led to a stampede. At least 20 people were injured in Sunday’s blast. Many Kenyans doubt the Church leaders’ claim that the government could be behind the blasts, especially as it seems most people are already backing the “Yes” campaign, says the BBC’s Will Ross in Nairobi… Sunday’s rally was organised by Christian groups opposed to a draft constitution because it retains recognition of existing Islamic courts and includes a clause on abortion.

But despite the obstacles, and despite Kenya’s entrenched religiousness (see? more gay shit!), the measure passed with a healthy 2/3 majority. This is the right step for Kenya, the right step for Africa, and the right step for the rest of the world.

“Doctor Laura” at the Michael Richards/Mel Gibson school of etiquette

The really frustrating thing about blogging is that sometimes a week will go by where a million bloggable things happen, and I’m left with the choice of either commenting on them 2 weeks late, or flooding you with Facebook/Twitter updates every 5 minutes. As a result, I am writing about this story right after it happens, but you’re not going to read this until today:

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the talk show host who recently apologized for saying the N-word 11 times to a caller on the air, said Tuesday she plans to give up her radio show when her contract is up the end of this year.

For those of you who don’t follow talk radio (and Science bless you for that), Laura Schlessinger is a PhD in physiology who hosts a radio show in which she verbally abuses people who call in for help. Why anyone would care what a physiologist has to say about religion (she is, big surprise, a fundamentalist Christian) or relationships, or anything besides physiology, is beyond my understanding. But they do, for whatever reason, and she hands out bad advice.

On the show in question, a woman called in to ask Dr. Laura what she should do about her husband’s friends. It seems that the husband and his friends think that they have license, by virtue of the woman’s race, to make racist comments. It’s the whole “I married a black woman, and therefore I am not racist, and therefore I can say racist things and you’re not allowed to be offended” argument. The caller was looking for the proper way to broach the subject with her spouse.

In a fit of… I really don’t know what, Dr. Laura decided instead to accuse the woman of being “too sensitive”.

“Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

I’d laugh, but I’ve heard this same stupid argument from my own friends. It’s either that, or saying that it’s okay to say it because it’s in a song lyric, or that somehow “nigg-a” is different from “nigg-er“. These are all profoundly stupid arguments, and all I hear when someone says them is “I want the license to say things that I know to be racist and hurtful, and it’s your fault if you’re offended.” Congratulations, you are making the same argument as those brave freedom-fighters from Courtenay, and also rapists.

I’ve talked about the meaning and history of this word before. In essence, the word has no proper context that makes it not unbelievably offensive. It is rooted in the idea that Africans are not human, and that the sub-human treatment they received at the hands of their slave owners was justifiable. In my opinion, nobody should get to say it outside a discussion of its historical and/or sociological significance. Dr. Laura pretends as though there’s never been a good reason offered for why it’s ‘okay’ for black people to use the word, and that it’s a mystery why white people (and especially white people) aren’t allowed to say it.

I read a bunch of coverage about this issue, which I’m not going to link to because they mostly said the same thing. There was one commentary that I thought was interesting and worth sharing. A blogger mentioned the similarity between black people and the dynamic of a family. I have issues with my family, as we all do, particularly with my father. Because I was raised in a single-parent household, my dad and I frequently quarreled over pretty much everything. This, I gather, is normal parent/child stuff (incidentally, for those curious, things between my father and I are now better than they’ve been since I was a small child – growing up will do that). I used to fantasize about telling him off in front of a large crowd of his friends, perhaps at his funeral. Let’s stop this here, and simply conclude that I am not a daddy’s boy. That being said, I will not tolerate anyone speaking ill of him, even my other family members.

There are things we can say to and about our family members that sound (and may be) incredibly hurtful. But let someone from outside the family come in and try saying the same things, and sparks fly. Someone who is not in full possession of all of the facts, and who is not part of the dynamic, has no license to say things they may have heard just because someone else says them. In the same way, it’s highly inappropriate for any non-black person to use the word nigger, even if many black people think it’s appropriate to use with each other. Those who pretend that they don’t understand why this is so, and belligerently go out of their way to say it anyway, have suspect motives for doing so.

So am I saying Dr. Laura is racist? Let me answer that in this way…


I hope that clears up any ambiguity you may have at what I think of Dr. Laura.

Interestingly, she stumbled into another wheelhouse of mine when she said that she was quitting to restore her First Amendment rights:

“I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart, and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry — some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and sponsors,” she said.

Here’s the text of the First Amendent:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also, you can spread racist speech, and private citizens are not allowed to be upset, or protest against your stupidity in legal ways.”

Can you figure out what part I added?

Oh good, Canada still uses slave labour

I don’t even know what to say about this one:

The B.C. government has terminated a contract with a Surrey forestry company after 25 workers – many of them immigrants from the Congo – were found living in substandard conditions near Golden in late July.

That’s not even the bad part; this is:

Most of the 25 workers had travelled from eastern Canada for jobs clearing brush near Golden. They were living in a bush camp and complained of a lack of food and inadequate facilities, a church worker in Golden told The Vancouver Sun. And the workers told government officials they were not fully paid and on the job seven days a week.

Slavery makes good economic sense. It’s even practicable – get people who have few options, take them away from any resource they’d have to achieve alternate employment, then bully and threaten them into accepting low wages (or no wages). When they have no other options, they’ll take whatever they can get. It’s the ultimate victory of free-market capitalism: get as much as you can for as little expenditure as possible.

But then of course, there’s the whole thing about being evil. Inconvenient, eh?

I try to make these posts have a bit more relevance than simply linking you to news items I find in the paper. There’s an underlying theme here that I think is interesting, but most of you probably won’t like. There’s a hip-hop artist called Ras Kass who released an amazing album back in 1996 featuring a song entitled The Nature of the Threat.

Warning: language and content advisory

Nature of the Threat is an interpretation of history whose thesis is essentially that white people are inherently evil – highlighting the atrocities perpetrated by whites throughout history. It’s quite a task to separate the fact from the fiction in the song, but there are a number of points that deserve exploration and discussion (Euro-centric teaching of history, the legacy of systemic racial discrimination at the hands of Europeans). I like the song, even though I disagree with many of the components, and doubt the validity of the thesis. The above story makes me think that slavery has nothing to do with the colour of people’s skin, merely a desire for power and the opportunity to exploit others. It is an unfortunate coincidence that many of the workers are black Africans, but the business owners are not white:

Khaira owner Khalid Bajwa said he has been treated unfairly by the ministry, who didn’t give him an opportunity to correct any camp deficiencies. “I don’t know why they are complaining. We never had problem with our camps. It is a bush camp. It is not a tourist camp,” he said. “We were setting up the camp. We had just moved there.”

Of course Mr. Bajwa’s story paints only part of the picture:

Quesnel native Christine Barker, 24, had worked in the woods for other companies for five years without incident. The single mother said Tuesday she has never dealt with abuse like what she experienced at Khaira…

“When we started the work refusal, that’s when the camp conditions got even worse – showers were denied. … We were refused food because we weren’t working for him at that time.” She said she witnessed a supervisor threaten to kill one of her Congolese co-workers and throw a knife at him.

Sounds like slavery to me.

The point is that while we can blame white Europeans for a lot of the problems in the world, we can’t do so based on the colour of their skin. There’s nothing genetically cruel or inhumane about white people, just as there is nothing genetically lazy or stupid about Africans. People are people, and given the right set of circumstances and motivations, they will commit the same atrocities, or acts of kindness, or feats of inspired genius. The situation we have now is merely a product of how things shook out in the world. We cannot rely on the inherent goodness or evilness of people, we must realize that the situation determines out behaviour better than we suspect, ensure that all people have equal access to protections under the law, and then work to ameliorate those situations that lead to destructive or oppressive behaviour.

I feel motivated at this point to make an unequivocal statement that I don’t have any particular animosity toward white people. As a sometimes student of history, I recognize that the story of our world has been filtered through a European lens, and that my white friends and family members are victims of the same system that I’ve been speaking out against. Those of you who know me personally will be able to attest to this. For those of you who don’t, you may read through the rest of my writings (particularly last Monday’s post) if you doubt my sincerity. If I have caused offense, please accept my apology (and tell me so in the comments).

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Tim Wise – not just a name

I’m floored.

I’m stunned.

Flabbergasted am I.

Over the past couple of days, a debate has popped up on the comment thread of this Monday’s think-piece about my strategies to combat racism. In brief, I stated three concrete approaches that I think will, over time, markedly improve racial dialogue and equality. A commenter expressed his feeling that while he thought my overall outline was good, that the philosophy underpinning it was false and counter-productive:

“But when we have 3 generations of emotional, white guilt laden liberals dominating the debate with no end in sight, sadly this will never happen. The systemic views of those who believe we live in a hugely unjust world will not allow it.”

The commenter was very adamant in his position that the reason for racial disparities was the fault of liberal policies and the mindset that non-white people face systematic discrimination the puts them immediately behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

“Once you realize that most Conservatives couldn’t give a damn about what race you are, and dont see things through the blinders of race/gender/class, the sooner you’ll realize that we could be closer to a society with completely marginalized racism.”

Ah yes, the old “just ignore race and it will go away” canard that I’ve been railing against since I first started posting about race. Well aside from the fact that conservatives do give a damn (take a trip to any conservative-voting part of the country, you’ll see what I mean), even if they didn’t it wouldn’t matter. Racial prejudice is real, and it’s neither enlightened nor noble to pretend as though it’s not.

Why am I so surprised? Because that’s exactly what Tim Wise thinks:

After all, to deny that people of color face unequal opportunities in America—due either to the legacy of past racism, the persistence of racism today, or some other set of structural barriers—is to leave explanations for racial achievement gaps that are racist by definition. If black folks really do have equal opportunity and yet still don’t achieve at levels equal to their white counterparts, then there must be something wrong with them as black people. Either genetically or culturally they must be inferior to whites. There is no other possible explanation.

I can’t recommend to you enough that you take the time and read this article. If you have enjoyed reading any of my previous discussions on race and race issues, this guy hits all of the high points.

But lest you and I on the left feel too smugly superior, Tim follows up with an absolutely brilliant examination of liberal racism (or what I term “polite racism”)

Beyond the personal biases that exist to some extent within all of us (including those who are progressive), liberals and those on the left operate within institutional spaces and even in our political activism in ways that contribute to systemic racial inequity. This we do through four primary mechanisms. The first is a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness. The second is an equally destructive colormuteness. These mean, quite literally, a tendency among many on the white liberal-left to neither see nor give voice to race and racism as central issues in our communities and the institutions where we operate, or their connection to and interrelationship with other issues. Both liberal/left colorblindness and colormuteness perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and their concerns, in the larger society and within progressive formations for social change.

Tim expresses everything in these two articles that I’ll try to flesh out over the next however many years I can keep blogging. This is required reading, folks. If you’ve ever said “I want racism to go away” and meant it, these two articles are a great place to start. But of course… you should keep reading here too 😛

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CFI Vancouver presents Dr. Christopher DiCarlo: We Are All African

It was another big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. We hosted Dr. Christopher DiCarlo for a discussion of human origins in Africa, and we once again handed out flyers at a reading by self-proclaimed ‘psychic medium’ John Edward.

On Friday, August 13th 2010, Centre for Inquiry Vancouver hosted a talk by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo entitled “We Are All African”. In the presentation, Dr. DiCarlo discussed the anthropological evidence for speciation of homo sapiens in Africa, and some of the potential implications this knowledge might have.

Of course I was thrilled to attend this talk – African origin of humanity has long been a given to me, but I’d never really examined the evidence. Being both recently descended from Africa and interested in racial issues, this presentation was right up my alley. I will not do a full writeup of the talk, since this is not a science blog, but I thought I would share a small portion of the presentation that particularly resonated with me. As before with Dr. PZ Myers, I am declining to post the entire lecture, but I will put up this one slice. CFI will post the videos soon (having decentralized the process, so now we can work on them here and post to the CFI YouTube channel), and when they are up, I will link you.

Dr. DiCarlo hits my absolute favourite point at the :50 mark – the idea of in-group and out-group biases (the heckler is his wife, incidentally apparently a random drunk roaming through UBC campus – my bad :P). Regular readers will remember that I talked about this type of bias as the defining feature of racism, and that when we re-draw our tribal maps, we eliminate the “us vs. them” kind of mentality. Dr. DiCarlo suggests that perhaps the fact of common African ancestry could become a way of ultimately doing away with the arbitrary borders we draw around our groups.

We went out for beers after the talk, and I got a chance to chat briefly with our speaker. He had told us a story about how he lost was denied a tenured position at Wilfred Laurier University, seemingly due to complaints from students that his teachings were religiously insensitive. After inviting an Aboriginal student (in his critical thinking class) who had expressed her incredulity at the accuracy of the science to present her own evidence, so as to spark class discussion:

The tone was not sarcastic but, rather, a sincere attempt to perform the function for which the University employs him — to teach students about critical thinking. The woman never returned to his classroom. Instead, she complained to the University, along with two other students who were opposed to his “religiously insensitive” position on evolution. The objections apparently focused on Dr diCarlo’s comments on religion and evolution, but also indicated concern about fair grading and “talking about sex in class.”

While this is an incredibly unfortunate incident, it reveals that some people are not willing to accept those facts that conflict with their world view. A group particularly ill-suited to receive the implications of this kind of information is evangelical/fundamentalist Christian groups (though conservative Muslim or Jewish groups would be similarly resistant). I suggested to Dr. DiCarlo that it might be an interesting experiment to present these findings to black evangelical Christian churches, of which there are a number in the Toronto area. My thinking was that for a group of people who already buy in to the idea of African origin, these people would have a unique perspective, and it may be a way of introducing the idea of evolution as a positive thing, rather than a subject to be resisted at all costs.

All in all I enjoyed both the talk and the reception immensely. Once the video is up, you’ll have the chance to check it out, and I highly recommend that you do.

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Three steps towards ending black-white racism

Feeling like I had been picking on religion a bit too much, I decided to re-post a series of notes I wrote during Black History Month in February, 2010. This is the 6th and final installment of that series. Next week I will go back to frothing at the mouth about how stupid everyone who disagrees with my outlook on religion is.

This post originally appeared on Facebook on Friday, February 19th, 2010.

Racism is still alive and well, as I established in previous posts. We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to discussions about race and the role that it plays in our society. However, I think we’ve been going about it the wrong way. As I said earlier, it used to be child’s play to identify the racists in our society. They were burning crosses (and apparently still are in Nova Scotia), they were using racist language, they were actively discriminating against black people. Those days are, thankfully, over. Aside from a few incidents that bubble up from time to time, black people don’t face the kinds of brutal treatment they did just decades ago.

But racism’s not done. Like a herpes infection, just because it’s been fought down to sub-symptomatic levels doesn’t mean it can’t come back with a vengeance. As I outlined previously, we can still see some residual effects of racism apparent in the makeup of our economic and political leaders, job discrimination – both as unregulated restrictions by individual employers and in the form of well-intentioned, necessary, but ultimately fundamentally racist programs like Affirmative Action – and our portrayal in popular media. Behaving as though racism is no longer a problem only allows the infection to persist and become more deeply entrenched.

In order to completely eradicate racism, important steps need to be taken. In my mind, these steps fall into three main categories. The first is that black people need to move into prominent positions of power and authority. The second is that we take some ownership of our society, including the negative parts, and realize that racism is everyone’s problem, not just white people’s. Finally, white people need to start talking about race, racism, and their own fears and concerns without fear of reprisal. I will elaborate on each of these in order.

First, I think it’s of primary importance that black people be highly visible in positive, influential places. Stereotypes about what “blackness” is stem not only from old-time racism, but from the perpetuation of those same roles in popular media. BET and other music stations are prime culprits, FOX News is about as guilty as an organization can get before donning a white hood, but we’re doing it to ourselves too. The next step, I believe, is to change the connotative understanding of what it is to be “black”. It’s hard to say “black people are lazy criminals” when you work next to, or for, an intelligent black person. It’s even harder when most of the black people you know are strong and successful in your own field. I’ve tried my best, and continue to try, to enact this in my own field where there aren’t very many black people (although, hilariously, my manager and one of the senior scientists on the 9-person team here are also black).

Part of this movement has to be being competent and intelligent, definitely, but a similarly important component is that we have to be visible. Not just present in photographs, or around at meetings, but we have to wear our blackness on our sleeves, forcing those around us to confront the cognitive dissonance that, ultimately, destroys stereotypes. Barack Obama, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, and Will Smith are three examples that readily come to mind of people who don’t hide their race and are anti-stereotypical and prominent in their respective fields. This step will have the unintended benefit of providing positive role modeling to black kids who otherwise wouldn’t have examples to look to in their own communities.

Second, I think it’s time to drop the adversarial “us versus them” mindset. A lot of things are legitimately the fault of racism, or oppression by a majority group. The more we circle the wagons and cry “racism wolf” every time there’s an issue, we dilute real complaints. It’s similar to comparisons to Nazi-ism. There are real honest-to-spaghetti-monster Nazis out there in the world. Every time we draw a Hitler mustache on a picture of Bush, or give a police officer who tells you to pour out your beer the Fascist salute, we move a serious problem further away from the shock and outrage it deserves, and indirectly make serious threats seem less scary.

More important than that, however, is that we need to start recognizing that we are part of the system just as much as any white person is. We perpetuate our own stereotypes by conforming to racial roles, we ostracize those who behave like an outsider. Instead, we need to embrace the idea that our distinctiveness is part of the larger culture. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point – it’s harder to hate someone who is an active part of your own in-group. I am not, by any means, saying that we stop being different, but instead that we put the difference in context of those things we have in common with other groups of people.

Finally, and this is the only one that I haven’t heard other people say a thousand times before me, we need to let white people come to the table. White people are, understandably, scared and unsure about how to approach the topic of racism. For generations, white people ran this country. Gradually, however, more and more non-white faces began popping up in the landscape. While some reacted with open hostility, the rest were left with the uneasy feeling of watching as their power and influence slowly melted away. For an illustration of this, cruise the Craigslist “Rants and Raves” section for Vancouver. There are some REALLY angry white people on that forum, and the majority of them are saying the same thing: “this is our turf, stop taking away our power.” Of course they’re factually incorrect about whose land this is and who built this country, but the fact remains that being white doesn’t carry as much currency as it used to. Couple that with accusations of racism, bigotry and malicious ignorance every time you make any statement about race, and you are suddenly made to feel guilty and responsible for the existence of a system that you were born into without any idea of how to make it better.

Someone needs to start speaking up on behalf of white people. They are victims of the same system, regardless of the fact that it was largely the responsibility of their ancestors. So what? They hurt too. They are made to feel as though they have sinned, but are given few, if any, workable options of how to ameliorate the situation. I’d imagine that most white people hate racism just as much as black people do, even though they are rarely the victims. Not only that, but white people have legitimate beefs and concerns of their own related to race. Let’s remember that even MLK always made a point of acknowledging the role that white brothers and sisters played in the civil rights movement. Conversely, white people have no MLK or Malcolm or Jesse Jackson. Right now the only people speaking on behalf of white people’s issues are demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and far-right militant movements like the KKK and other White Power groups, which puts even legitimate criticism of the treatment of whites in the same category as white supremacy (not only that, but if they’re the only ones speaking for me, then I’m perhaps inclined to agree with them on a few other things). This is not to say that the races are “equal” in political standing, economic influence, or even how we think of them colloquially. However, if we are going to move forward together it’s important that we all have a voice in the progress.

So, like Al Gore at the end of An Inconvenient Truth I’m trying to lay out a concrete map of how to take ourselves back from the brink of crisis and move into a better, brighter future for all people. First, we need to redefine “black” – pushing it out, in a positive way, into the limelight by having prominent and well-placed black people talk about race. Second, we need to take an active part in the society at large, taking ownership of our important role in shaping the culture. Third, white people need to start talking about race, and non-white people need to start listening and discussing. Done properly, these steps will ensure that we can actually have a “post-racial” world, rather than just sticking our heads in the sand and pretending.

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Vancouver doesn’t have a race problem

You had to know I’d bring this all back home, right? I’ve talked before about Canada’s issues with race, and more specifically Vancouver’s, and as I’ve pointed out these aren’t isolated incidents – the issues continue:

Two men were caught on camera writing racially inflammatory graffiti aimed at people of Chinese origin, as well as derogatory comments toward police, on the wall of the Empire Centre parkade in Richmond.

Those of you not from the area may not know that Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, has a large Chinese population that has exploded in recent years. It is perhaps more famous for housing the Olympic speed skating oval. There has been historical tension in the region between white Canadians and Canadians of Chinese descent. It comes certainly as no surprise to me that incidents like this are happening.

Police were able to identify and arrest one of the vandals, and will likely have found the other by the time this makes its way up online. It’s good that the police are able to catch the perpetrators, but that’s not a solution to the underlying problem of racial tension. By no means am I suggesting that arresting criminals is futile, but it is not a method that approaches crime prevention.

Nor is beefing up security:

Two Jewish religious institutions in Vancouver that have been targets of hate crimes have been given federal money to increase security around their buildings. On Thursday Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the Schara Tzedeck synagogue and the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel would receive $20,000 from the Communities at Risk: Security Infrastructure Pilot Program.

Again, far be it from me to suggest that it’s a waste of time or money to try and secure the safety and property of people who are being actively persecuted by hate groups. It’s every person’s right to be able to protect him/herself from violence. Hate-based violence affects the entire community, both those who are the targets of hate and those who are merely empathetic and humanistic people. We should do what we can to secure our safety, and punish those who break the law…

…but we shouldn’t for a second think that approach is sufficient.

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Arizona doesn’t have a race problem

While I have mentioned it tangentially, I haven’t devoted an entire post to what is probably the biggest racial civil rights struggle since the 1960s: Arizona’s new immigration law. In brief, the law requires police officers to detain anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. If a suspected person cannot prove they aren’t an illegal immigrant, they can be arrested and put in jail. When I say that the law requires police to do this, I mean just that – a component of the bill is that if an officer fails to interrogate someone, and a citizen notices it, the officer can be found in dereliction of his/her duty. Basically, the reins of law are turned over to the most paranoid and least informed members of the populace of Arizona.

The reflexive question that everyone immediately asks is “how do you tell if someone looks like an illegal immigrant?” Good question: let’s ask the governor who signed the bill

Huh… even she doesn’t know. Not to worry though, she says. People will have their civil rights protected, as it says in the bill:

“This act shall be implemented in a manner consistent with federal laws regulating immigration, protecting the civil rights of all persons and respecting the privileges and immunities of United States citizens.”

Handy! What about this right?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

If the law respects the right to be innocent until proven guilty, and the constitution outlaws unreasonable seizure, then the immigration bill is pretty clearly meaningless. After all, if you cannot prove that someone is illegal (which is the standard of innocent until proven guilty), you cannot compel them to prove they are illegal (that pesky 5th Amendment) and you’re not allowed to arrest them arbitrarily, then the bill is moot.

Well, the federal government didn’t argue that case, but still managed to block the bill’s enforcement, arguing instead that immigration policy is the purview of the federal government and that the law went outside the state’s jurisdiction. Of course, Arizona plans to appeal:

Lawyers for Republican governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona government filed their appeal at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday. “I have also asked the 9th Court to expedite the briefing schedule and its ruling, since Congress and the president have once again failed to act,” Ms Brewer said in a statement.

I want to take a moment to talk about the people of Arizona. While I think they’ve made a frighteningly poor decision and are wearing their entrenched racism out on their sleeves, I am loath to condemn them outright. Arizona has major economic problems (which this bill will only make worse, but we’re not dealing with rational people here), and as I’ve said before, racism will bubble up from beneath the surface whenever there is economic hardship. Illegal immigrants are a convenient scapegoat in times of crisis, especially if they are brown-skinned. While people affirm up and down that this isn’t a race issue, it strains credulity to think that the cops are going to be on the hunt for illegal French and German immigrants.

Especially with this guy in charge…

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South Africa doesn’t have a race problem

I was watching The Daily Show a few weeks ago, during the coverage of the World Cup. John Oliver was talking about race relations in South Africa – to people on the street, to a hard-line racist activist, and to a government minister in charge of racial relations. The most poignant part of the interview for me was when the minister looked John in the eye and told him flat out that South Africa doesn’t have a race problem. I’m glad I wasn’t drinking milk at the time, because it most assuredly would have flown out of my nose as I laughed derisively.

I feel compelled at this point to re-state a maxim that I’ve danced around many times at this blog. It is a central tenet of my approach to race and improving the climate of racial discourse in Canada (and other countries, of course). It is not… It is notIT IS NOT POSSIBLE to simply wish racism away. It is not possible to declare that there is no race problem simply by asserting it and hoping to high heaven that it comes true. Racial issues are deeply entrenched in our society, in our history, and there is some evidence to suggest that elements of it are present in our very human nature. The first step toward progress is recognizing the subtle effect that non-obvious racism has on our day-to-day lives.

Hence my scoffing and incredulity when presented with the statement that “South Africa doesn’t have a race problem”. As though hundreds of years of colonialization, coupled with an absolutist and brutal apartheid regime that existed within my own living memory could somehow be erased by good will and warm, fuzzy feelings. It was times like that I wished I had a roommate, and that the roommate was a bit slow – I would have made a bet. “Within a month of this statement,” I would have said “we’re going to hear about some major race issue out of South Africa.”

I would have won some money.

Four white South Africans have been convicted of humiliating five black university domestic staff after a video of the incident was posted online. The video showed the five staff being made to kneel and forced to eat food which had apparently been urinated on by one of the students.

I don’t speak Africaans (and neither do you, likely) so I can’t translate the video for you, but the actions are pretty clear. The ‘urinating’ in the food is simulated by a water bottle, but wow does that ever not matter. The former students (those rapscallions) claim that they didn’t intend for the video to be humiliating, and that they never would have done it if they had known what the outcome would be. That’s cold comfort for the millions of black South Africans who see the barely-retreated spectre of apartheid – where being black meant that you were legally at the bottom rung of society and had no legal protections – rearing its head in the form of these students forcing hostel workers to eat contaminated food for their entertainment.

But hey, at least justice was done:

The four – RC Malherbe, Johnny Roberts, Schalk van der Merwe and Danie Grobler – were also given six-month prison terms, suspended for five years on condition they are not found guilty of discrimination during that period. The fines of 20,000 rand (~$2,700) were higher than that requested by the prosecution.

“It sends a strong message to potential offenders of similar crimes,” said magistrate Mziwonke Hinxa in the mainly white town of Bloemfontein.

It does send a strong message – if you’re white and have enough money, you can get away with pissing on the rights and dignity (and food) of black people in South Africa.

In a statement read out by their lawyer, the men said the video had been made to demonstrate the traditions of their hall of residence and to protest at plans to make the university more racially mixed.

Well you’ve essentially taken care of that, boys. Why any black person would want to attend the University of the Free State (someone’s been reading George Orwell) is incomprehensible to me.

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