“Polite” Racism

Feeling like I’ve been picking on religion too much in my Monday morning think pieces, I’ve decided to re-publish some essays I wrote during Black History Month in February, 2010. This post, which originally appeared on Facebook on Monday, February 15th, 2010, is part 5 of a 6-part series on race and racial issues.

This will probably be everyone’s least favourite post in this series, but it’s a topic that I find the most fascinating and most dangerous – Canadian racism, or racism in the “post-racial” utopia we supposedly have. I say least favourite because it makes everyone uncomfortable, particularly white people in my generation (my own friends included). Nobody likes to be accused of being racist, and I would imagine that most people honestly believe they aren’t, and harbor no active anti-racial sentiments or prejudices. You won’t have to look very hard to find someone who will say that racism isn’t a serious problem in Canada, or find someone who makes the statement “we don’t have racism in Canada” – a patently absurd claim.

The nature of racism has changed a great deal in the past handful of decades. The face of racism, as we’re used to seeing it, comes in the form of hooded Klansmen, burning crosses, police with dogs and hoses turning on angry crowds, lynch mobs, the whole nine yards. We’re used to seeing a system where people actively and overtly discriminate against other people based on their skin colour or ethnic heritage. After a prolonged fight (much less rancorous here in Canada than in the States), we have overthrown that kind of racism. Even within my lifetime, I’ve seen a difference in the tenor of public discourse.

So does that mean that racism is over? Have we finally reached that level playing field? Can we please stop talking about racism and racial issues?

Not on your life.

We may not have police dogs, we may not have lynchings, we might not call people racial slurs (at least to their faces) anymore, but we have not solved the racism problem. We’ve just cleaned it up. We gave people language to avoid offending people, we passed laws to make it harder to discriminate based on race, we went out of our way to put non-white people in prominent, visible positions. All of these have been seen as important, positive steps toward a bias-free society. I see things a little differently.

Imagine if medical science progressed to a point where we could develop such effective anti-sneeze, anti-cough, decongestant, muscle stimulant medications so that the common cold would be completely invisible. A person with a cold would simply pop a handful of pills and be completely symptom free. In fact, taking them prophylactically would ensure that symptoms would never develop. He’d be able to go about his life as though he wasn’t sick. As long as he kept taking the pills, he’d never have to see the effects of illness. However, the reality would be that there’s a serious problem happening inside his body; a problem that doesn’t go away just because it can’t be seen. This person wouldn’t even be aware that he was sick, would take no corrective actions in his life to deal with the susceptibility to illness that made him sick in the first place, and might even go so far as to deny the existence of illness in his body.

By successfully attacking the symptoms of racism – the hate groups, the discriminatory hiring laws, the violence – we have lulled ourselves into thinking that we have solved the underlying problems of racial discrimination and injustice. A friend on comments in another post (on Facebook) actually pulled the “but there’s a black president now” card. As though one black man getting elected to one high office is evidence that justice has been done and everyone should just get over their racial issues and hold hands under a rainbow.

Racism is still alive and well. We still don’t have proportional representation in political life. The poorest people living in the worst conditions are, even in Canada, predominantly dark-skinned. Our history of treatment of Native peoples and our continued discrimination against them is still happening every day. If ability is evenly distributed among the human population, then opportunity should be as well. What we should see if this is the case is a meritocracy in which power is held by those who are the most able. Such a system would look far more multi-cultural (and gender balanced) than the one we have today. One doesn’t have to look too far beyond our own senate and parliament to see that we just ain’t there yet.

Furthermore, by denying the existence of the problem, we grow up unable to see the evidence in front of our own eyes. We become unable to distinguish racial prejudice from bad luck, or circumstance, or a real lack of ability. I was stunned recently to hear someone say “well maybe there just aren’t enough qualified people from minority groups to run for high office.” This little gem is one of the oldest in the book, cited frequently when discussing Affirmative Action laws in the United States. If innate ability is evenly distributed throughout the population, but achievement is not, then we have a racist system. On an even playing field, success will be based on innate ability and hard work, and the best and brightest will move to the front of the line. Again, we’d see a much different distribution of power/race. The fact that we don’t means that either a) the playing field isn’t as even as we’d like to think it is, or b) ability is not distributed evenly throughout the population. Looking at the world, I’m more inclined to believe A over B, but if you honestly think it’s B I’d really like to see some evidence of that.

If we move back for a moment to the analogy of the man with the medicated cold, one would expect occasional flare-ups of sickness when compliance with the drug regimen slips. Our sick man forgets to take his pills one day, and the next day he’s got a runny nose, sneezing, etc. He quickly bombards his system with more pharmaceuticals and the illness subsides until the next time he forgets.

Enter Michael Richards’ tirade; enter Don Imus’ nappy headed ‘hos; enter Mitt Romney’s invocation of Baja Men; enter George Bush’s reaction to Katrina. These are high-profile (and recent) examples of what happens when symptoms are suppressed but the underlying problems aren’t dealt with. It doesn’t take a lot of scratching of the surface to unearth the racial problem. As I said, the problem is far worse in the United States than in Canada, but it’s still happening here.

Reading this, one might get the impression that I think the problem is as bad as it’s ever been. That is not my feeling. We are far better now than we were in my father’s time. I can work where I want, get access to the same government services as anyone else, marry whom I choose, vote, protest, and exploit my human rights. 50 years ago this was inconceivable for many people (both black and white). We’ve absolutely come a long way. However, we haven’t fixed the problem, and our denial and refusal to discuss it has only forced it underground to a place where it’s so subtle, we don’t even know it’s influencing our decisions. As far as we’ve come, we still have miles more to go.

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Movie Friday – What up, Ninja?

Seeing as the topic came up on Monday, I thought it would be fun to play this video

I really liked this video. While I’m not sure if the authors “get it”, they do expose some of the risible and arbitrary rules around the use of a word, and explore it using humour. Even if it was offensive, it’s funny enough to be excused.

My favourite part is the last scene, where they seem to have a quick debate to see if the non-eastern Asian guy can use the term without offence. “He counts,” apparently. Hilarious.


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Our own home-grown racism

I read my post yesterday, and something in it made me cringe. I wrote that the United States has a serious race problem. The reason I cringe is not because it isn’t true, but because it suggests to the casual reader that Canada is somehow better than the USA in terms of racism. Our country has a very different racial history than our southern neighbours. Canada, as part of the British Empire, abolished African slavery in the early 19th century, more than 50 years before Confederation. African slavery had been curtailed for many years before the official abolition, and as a result there were comparatively few Africans living in Canada following the abolition of slavery. The majority of Canada’s black citizens are immigrants from the Caribbean, and more recently directly from Africa (this being largely due to changes in immigration policy and what countries immigrants were allowed to be from). It is fair, therefore, to say that Canada was not built on the backs of African slaves – the immigrant labour here was largely accomplished by East and South Asian people, as well as many white eastern Europeans and Irish.

The United States, as a contrast, did not officially abolish slavery until 1863, following a civil war fought over the very issue (admittedly among other factors). Slavery was an integral part of America’s ability to exploit its natural resources; exploitation which resulted in their emergence as a major economic power. America was built upon the whipped backs of African slaves, and had a slavery system of unparalleled cruelty. Following the official emancipation of African slaves, the black population of the United States was held in unofficial slavery for generations more (and, it can be argued, still is with racial profiling, discriminatory drug laws, school funding shortages, social program erosion, the list goes on). Black people did not become full citizens in the entire United States until 1964, an entire century after they were supposedly “freed” from slavery. The race problem we see today in the US is definitely part of its history of brutal racist oppression.

But before we Canucks start patting ourselves on the backs for being such enlightened and decent folk, we have to remember something important: black people aren’t the only targets of racism. Canada has its own history of systemic, brutal, racist oppression to deal with – that of its Native peoples. Our track record in the treatment of Aboriginal people is horrible, and still rears its ugly and ignorant head:

All Lori Flinders wanted was to build a group home for displaced native youth in the town of Alberton, Ont. What she encountered was a wave of local resistance that, to her, provided a lesson in reflexive racism. A director with Weechi-it-te-win Family Services – a child welfare agency for 10 First Nations communities in in Northwestern Ontario – Ms. Flinders says a racist smear campaign and a town council swayed by a “lynch-mob mentality” recently trounced plans to build the home.

I’ve lived in cities almost my entire life. It’s easy to become beguiled living in places like Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, and Vancouver, into thinking that Canada is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Drive an hour outside the city limits of any of those cities and you’ll find a picture of Canada that is very different. Canada is still very much a white country, with people living in many places that do not subscribe to the philosophy of multiculturalism. Far be it from me to suggest that there is anything more sinister than simple ignorance at play, but there can be a serious shortage of the kind of tolerance we like to think is part of our national identity outside of major cities. This case is an illustration of this phenomenon.

After applying to build a children’s group home outside the town of Appleton, ON, Ms. Flinders was besieged by angry citizens distorting facts and expressing extreme hostility to having Native kids near their homes:

“They said the most awful things,” Ms. Friesen recalled. “They said they’d have to lock their doors now. One person said, ‘I have native friends but this is going too far.’ Another person brought an article about a murder around an Alberta group home. So all of a sudden this youth centre is being equated with violence and murder.”

Of course, while the town denies that race plays a part in the decision, it is pretty clear from the nature of the reaction that the people of Alberton are not concerned about the preservation of zoning bylaws or the appropriateness of the property for children – they don’t want no stinkin’ redskins in their town.

To Ms. Flinders, the council meeting inspired a personal epiphany. “I’d never experienced racism like I did there,” she said. “I grew up in this area and never realized the kind of harsh feelings that lay just below the surface. In a way, it was a gift.”

And another person finally gets it. Racism is inherent in the system. It’s not a problem that’s been solved, it’s a disease that has been bandaged over. Let’s hope the people of Alberton are able to examine this incident and get in touch with their own racial prejudices. I’m not going to be holding my breath though.

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The consequence of misunderstanding racism

It seems I’ve been having this fight more and more since I started blogging about it: people don’t particularly like my definition of racism. Some argue that it is too broad, and that acts that are not maleficent should not be branded as ‘racist’. Others argue that using the word in this way strips it of its power – that ‘racist’ should be a term that shuts down conversation. I do not recognize the validity of either of these arguments, for reasons I have explained in my definition post. Briefly, an act does not have to be distinctly negative to be racist, and as a direct consequence the word should never be used to shut down conversation; rather, it should be used to accurately label those things that are motivated by an ideology that a member of an individual group is representative of the entire group.

Despite all the pretty talk about the so-called “post-racial” America, the United States has a serious race problem:

Mrs (Shirley) Sherrod was videoed giving a speech in March at a dinner of a Georgia chapter of the NAACP, a prominent civil rights group. The clip was picked up on by conservatives as evidence of anti-white racism in President Barack Obama’s government and within the NAACP, an organisation seen as Democratic-leaning.

The remarks in question were part of a story Mrs. Sherrod was telling about being reluctant to help a white farmer gain government assistance because of her history with white people. The offending clip can be seen here:

Pretty bad, right? Racist, in fact! A government employee discriminating against someone based on their race! It’s perfectly right to fire her, isn’t it?

The entire speech is 44 minutes long, and it was distilled into a 90-second clip by Fox News. Your bullshit radar should immediately go off. But of course, you’re a reasoning, thinking adult. You know whose bullshit radar didn’t go off?

Mrs Sherrod was promptly sacked, her remarks condemned by the administration and the NAACP.

That’s right, the NAACP (who, by the way, hosted the event, and heard her remarks in context) and her boss, Secretary Tom Vilsack, leaped into the fray with both feet before examining any of the evidence. Here’s the full speech, with the remarks in context (start watching at about 17:30):

Taken in context, this is a story about how this woman was able to realize that the black/white issue she had been taught was in have a rich/poor issue. She saw the man being mistreated at the hands of other white people, and realized the issue was about haves vs. have-nots, with race being a coincidental heuristic. It’s a positive story about learning to put racial history and animosity aside, and to deal with things as fact.

(@21:20)”Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who haven’t. They could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realise then that I needed to help poor people – those who don’t have access the way others have.”

So why was such a snap judgment made? Why did this woman get fired immediately without having an opportunity to tell her side of the story? Why did the White House have to intervene and backtrack from a hasty and stupid decision? Because the word ‘racism’ was thrown into the conversation. As soon as that word comes up, conversation shuts down. Brains shut down. In order to avoid even the appearance of complicity with racism, we make stupid and hasty decisions. All this because we are so paranoid over talking about race and racial issues. Well the conversation is happening now.

It sends a chill down my spine whenever Glenn Beck gets something right:

But in this case, the blind squirrel finds a nut of truth.

“The N Word”

I’ve been concentrating too hard on religion with my think pieces, and have decided to take a break from that to focus some attention on race issues. I am re-posting some notes I wrote last February for Black History Month on my Facebook.

This post originally appeared on February 8th, 2010

This is the only circumstance under which you will hear me use the word “nigger”. I thought I would get it out of the way immediately, so we can dispense with the tired euphemism “the N word.” Here goes… (deep breath)

Nigger nigger nigger, nigger nigger. Nigger? Nigger nigger nigger.

There. It’s out there in black and white (pun fully intended). I make jokes, but there’s really nothing particularly funny about this word. In fact, repeating it over and over didn’t make its impact any less meaningful, like it does for other words. Nigger is perhaps the least-understood word in the common lexicon, although thankfully it is far less common than it was 20 years ago (or indeed, 60 years ago), and continues to baffle people to this day. It’s a word that cannot be fully comprehended without knowing its history.

First off, I want to dispel a myth. Nigger is not a “bad word for black person” or simply “a racial epithet.” It isn’t a naughty word, or a mean name, or something you shouldn’t say when there are black folks around but joke about in the privacy of your country club. The word “nigger” is a bastardization of the word “negro”, the original European terminology for a person with dark skin from trans-Saharan Africa. As organized slavery became the engine for the economy of the United States, “negro” became “nigger” in the same way that “you all” became “y’all”. In that respect, I suppose, it was a fairly innocuous moniker, since one could argue that “negro” is not, in and of itself, a derogatory term.

However, slavery in the United States became a much different animal from slavery as it had been practiced throughout history. Historically, slaves were people of no noble birth or who had been captured in war who were sold to citizens, and who could, eventually, buy or otherwise earn their way (or the ways of their children) into freedom. African slaves in the United States were not captured in war, they were kidnapped, poached basically, by agents of the American government. They were shipped, inspected, branded and sold in exactly the same way one would sell livestock (this, while horrible, is actually not very different from standard slavery practice… or modern-day prostitution). What made American slavery so unique, however, is that the slaves were treated, and thought of, as animals. “Nigger” was a term used to dehumanize African slaves to reduce them to the level of farm equipment. “Nigger” wasn’t a term for a black person, it was a word specifically designed to remove African slaves’ personhood. Niggers weren’t people, they weren’t even merely slaves – they were an entirely sub-human species of animal.

Nigger was actually a scientific term for a while. Because African slaves had been sufficiently dehumanized, scientists of the day felt comfortable making all kinds of wild, unfounded claims about the nature, physical characteristics, intelligence, and even moral rectitude of “the nigger”. These completely unscientific, evidenceless assertions made their way quickly into the common consciousness; the effect of them was felt centuries later when black people were being denied the vote. Black people, it was said, were not intelligent, trustworthy or hard-working enough to deserve full rights under the law. This was backed up with bogus scientific claims from racist doctors, and was the reigning official understanding for quite a while.

This is what the word “nigger” means. The meaning of some words changes over the years, as their connotation shifts due to common vulgar usage. The word “vulgar”, for example, denotes the common, everyday vernacular, but it has connotatively come to mean rude and inappropriate (obviously I meant it denotatively, not connotatively). However, since nigger dropped out of common usage before it lost its sting and association to history, its meaning has not changed. In other words, it’s inaccurate to say “well that’s not what I meant when I said it.”

More recently, the word was re-bastardized into the more commonplace “nigga.” I personally have mixed feelings about this usage. The idea was to take the word “nigger” and re-purpose it to reduce its impact and take ownership of it. However, while I might sympathize with the aim, I don’t think it has accomplished its goal. It requires general knowledge of the difference between the two words, including the full history of “nigger” to make such a re-purposing genuine. For the vast majority of people in North America, the history is not well-known, thus the difference between nigga and nigger becomes nebulous, inscrutable, and largely ignored.

So what about rappers, comedians, and other celebrities who use the word “nigga” as part of their language? Are they wrong to do so? In a rare moment for me, I am going to equivocate rather than pronouncing what the “right” thing to do is. Considering the history this word has, I myself can’t imagine why anyone would want to use it, even in its diluted form. It is a word so foul as to preclude any reasonable use except to discuss it as a literary term. Every time it is uttered, it stirs up the ghosts of 400+ years of black exploitation and systematic oppression. Without the proper forum and tools in which to discuss it, those ghosts can never be laid to rest. I think there is next to no justification for its use whatsoever.

However, the word does force discussion of the issues that I have been raising in these posts. Putting it out in the forefront of media means that the world cannot rest on its laurels, and must discuss the glaring race problem that still persists in our society. The rapper Nas composed an absolutely brilliant album, originally titledNigger (due to pressure from various groups, the album went untitled), which touches on all these topics and more. The title was intentionally designed to generate just such a discussion. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you should. That such high-minded debate is being championed by someone who is on the level of the common man (or as close as you can get to that level without drinking the Krunk Juice) suggests that maybe we are more ready to have this conversation than I thought.

It’s not my place to make decrees that govern a community that I, admittedly, am not a big part of. The sociopolitical standing of black people in the United States is very different from that of black people in Canada; and while I feel sympathy and a sense of camaraderie, I am more like a non-voting member of the community – I can take part in the discussion but don’t have any official powers. To put it plainly, I’m not going to tell Nas what he can and cannot call himself, but I will never call anyone a nigga.

Re-Update: Courtenay BC men found guilty of assault

I’m a big fan of being wrong. It’s incredibly reassuring to me when I make predictions and they turn out to be incorrect, or when someone can demonstrate to me a flaw or incompleteness in my reasoning. It helps me to know two things: 1) that I still have lots more to learn, and 2) that I am at least partly shielded from accusations of arrogance and closed-mindedness.

Back on the 13th of July, I predicted that the 3 men who viciously attacked a black man in Courtenay, BC while screaming racial slurs at him would walk free. Their lawyer was arguing that he (the victim of the assault) consented to it and that it was his own fault. Racism that strong doesn’t usually happen in isolation, and I feared that the community would use that explanation as a scapegoat to free the attackers.

Once again, and I say this with as much enthusiasm as I can muster… I WAS WRONG!

Judge Peter Doherty delivered a guilty verdict Thursday against all three men accused of assaulting a lone man last July in Courtenay. The judge ruled in Supreme Court in Courtenay that David Samuel White, 19, Adam David Huber and Robert William Rogers, both 25, were each guilty of assault, although Doherty declined to add additional racially motivated penalties.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ruling. The three men were found guilty of the crime they committed, and the waters weren’t muddied by adding race-based penalties. I realize that this second part might seem counter-intuitive to what one would expect a black man in BC to be happy about, but I’ll try to explain my reasoning.

A crime is a crime. If you do harm to someone, you should be punished. However, to say that some crimes are special because they are perpetrated against groups we like, and that additional punishment is merited in certain circumstances is philosophically dicey ground. The same reasoning was used by lynch mobs in the southern United States, when black men were hanged for raping (which in many cases was simply the act of holding hands with, or looking at) a white woman. Should this event be recorded as a hate crime? Absolutely. It was, by definition, a hate crime, and calling it what it is highlights an underlying problem in the community. I can’t sit comfortably, however, with the idea that special punishment should be merited for acts by a specific group against a ‘favoured’ group. Counselling and community service may be appropriate remedial actions to take for perpetrators of hate crimes (which is different from punishment because it ostensibly lowers the likelihood of repeat attacks), but not longer prison sentences.

From a pragmatic standpoint, I’m also glad because it gives the defense fewer options for an appeal to reduce the sentence.

Anyway, I am happy with the ruling, and I hope that Jay Phillips is too. This story is not over, but at least this part of it has reached a satisfying conclusion.

What is “black”? – Part 3: my working definition

This is part 3 of my 6-part discussion of race and race issues that was originally written in February, 2010 for Black History Month. This post originally appeared on Facebook on Friday, February 5th, 2010.

Hopefully, if I have been persuasive enough, you agree with my premise that “blackness” is not merely a description of someone’s skin colour or heritage; nor is it simply the group with which someone identifies most strongly. Neither one of these methods is completely up to the task of encompassing and describing the phenomenon of blackness that, at first brush, seems almost simplistic in its… well… simplicity.

As a side note: if you’re confused right now about what it is to be black, congratulations. You’re now one step closer to knowing how it feels like to be black.

So we’ve got two methods, both of them wrong. Is the truth somewhere in the middle? Is there some sort of interaction between these two factors that, when properly looked at, produces “black”? The short answer to this question is both yes and no (you can start beating your head against the wall now. I’ll wait). Yes, blackness can be seen as a combination of how others see you and how you see yourself; however, no this is not a sufficient or reasonable end-point.

Let’s start with the good news. In my Chris Matthews post (author’s note: this was a short essay I wrote about my reaction to Chris Matthew’s moronic comments during Obama’s first State of the Union) I tried to provide a quick one-sentence definition of what “black” means. I said something along the lines of it being a sociological pattern that is ascribed to black people, which is about as circular a definition as you’ll find outside of theology. This is because it can’t be fully discussed until we are in this head-bangingly frustrating position of having rejected both “defined by others” and “defined by self” as plausible definitions. So the good news is that we can finally start fleshing out this definition a bit, to a place where it is at least workable.

“Black”, in my mind, is an externally-attributed label. It is what happens when someone looks at your skin and your features and pronounces you something. Obviously this is not a formal proclamation or even an overt statement of fact, it’s merely a reflection of the accumulated views of other people in a racial context. As my dad said to me when I was very young “you can talk about half-this and half-that as much as you want – doesn’t change the fact that when they look at you, they see a black person.” “Black” carries with it a whole host of associated stigma, which is a topic for a subsequent post, but it is definitely a label that is applied to someone, based mostly on the colour of their skin and heritage.

The second feature of this definition is that at some point a black person must self-identify as such. There must be, in many cases, a deliberate reach for (perhaps “connect with” is a better approximation) blackness. The further removed you are from the black community (in my case, in my friend’s case, in countless others), the more difficult this reach becomes. Some people, like Tiger Woods, deny this reach and instead self-identify somewhere else. This is where their self-identity comes up against their identity as prescribed by society; they are told that they aren’t what they think they are, and that the decision has already been made for them. It’s undeniably cruel and un-enlightened, but it’s really just like any other form of self-identity. Even though the idea of “true self” would maintain that the only thing that matters one’s own definition of who he is, the more pragmatic approach recognizes that it is influenced by his interactions with society. Racial identity is no different.

Lawrence Hill, author of a few novels on race including, most famously, The Book of Negroes illustrates this very well in his book Black Berry, Sweet Juice. In it, he talks about the role of “minority” in places that are not white-dominated. Briefly, he argues that in places like Nairobi, Kenya – or indeed any circumstance in which there are few white people around – people don’t self-identify as “black”. They are merely “people”, or, more precisely, they self-identify in ways that do not include a black/white distinction. Basically, there are almost no “black” people in rural Africa. One becomes a member of a racial grouping only when defined in contrast to another, just as (for the most part) you and I don’t self-identify as “mammals” except in the context of comparison to non-mammalian species.

Most of you should have, by now, recognized that this is the shittiest definition of anything ever. It’s full of circular arguments, unsupported assertions, and so many exceptions as to make the rule virtually moot. For example, what if a person who is 1/8th black is raised as a black person, though to all appearances he is white? Technically speaking this person has just as great a claim to blackness as anyone else once he has established his pedigree. This isn’t just a hypothetical – Sean Daley, better known by the rap alias “Slug” is half of the hip-hop group Atmosphere, and is exactly as described. How does the definition apply to someone like him, especially since he engages in a “stereotypically black” pursuit?

The reason why the best definition I can think of is such a terrible one is because “race”, as we know it, is not a scientific entity. There’s no more rigour to racial studies than there is to old-style taxonomy – classifying things based on what they look like, rather than their genetic heritage. Sure, it might apply 80-or-so percent of the time, but when it becomes necessary to apply it systematically, it quickly falls apart. Think of it like the sky. The sky is not a real thing. There’s no point at which you fly upwards and encounter the part of the atmosphere that is “the sky”. It’s simply a colloquial phrase used to describe a visual phenomenon that is, by and large, useful for crude description. Race isn’t based on anything we’d call science, it’s simply a carry-over from a time when we lacked the sophistication and enlightened ideals we try to apply today.

I want to point out at this point that this does not mean “race isn’t real”. Race is “real” just like the wind is “real”. Sure, it’s just a descriptive phrase used to crudely describe an underlying phenomenon, but tell that to the guy that just lost his house in a hurricane. Race, while not a scientific concept, is nonetheless experienced by people on both sides of an act of racism – for them it is very “real”.

So when we try to apply a systematic technique to the question “what is blackness” we come up woefully, and predictably, short. Blackness is defined simultaneously externally and internally. This may prompt us to ask “wherefore, then, black history?” If “black people” aren’t a homogeneous group, isn’t the classification of “black” history completely arbitrary? Predictably, perhaps, the answer is “yes and no”. Black people in North America (and indeed, most parts of the world) have a partially-shared cultural heritage insofar as we are all treated as “black people”. We face similar struggles, we rise and fall similarly with each other’s successes and failures, even when there is no familial or social connection between us. For the moment it can be useful to think of, focus on, and learn about our shared history and identity until such time as we have, as society, been able to resolve what it means to be anything.

What is “black”? – Part 2: self-identity

I have allowed myself to become too focussed on religion, and so I am posting some essays on race and race issues that I wrote for Black History Month in February, 2010. This is part 2 of a 6-part discussion of what I see as significant questions in the discussion of race. This post originally appeared on Facebook on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010.

Now that we have done away with (hopefully to your satisfaction) the idea of blackness, or indeed any racial identity, as being based on skin colour (or other characteristics) or heritage as being the sole explanatory factor for what black means, there’s another idea of black identity that I’d like to discuss. Namely, this is the idea that being black is simply a matter of self-identification – that if you think you’re black, then you are black.

I’ve mentioned the idea of people “self-identifying as black” a number of times, particularly in my previous post. This speaks to the idea that what someone calls him/herself speaks more to her (gender non-specific, I’m just tired of him/her… too cumbersome) “real” racial identity than arbitrary taxonomic classifications based largely on trying to quantify someone’s non-whiteness. But does that mean that what someone calls herself is all it takes? Are we all just whatever we say we are?

We’ve all heard the phrase “wigger” – a white person who appears, by all counts, to self-identify as black. They walk black, talk black, engage in stereotypically black activities, listen to black music, etc. etc. Assuming for just a moment that it is possible in any measurable way to walk, talk, or live “black”, as though black people were some homogeneous group, would a wigger’s self-identification qualify them for “black status”? Is a black person who works as an actuary or the head of the air and space museum or is a worldwide polka champion really just a white person with black skin?

It is fairly clear that the self-identification criterion is, on its own, insufficient to categorize people. It lacks what is known in the sciences as face validity – the extent to which something appears to make logical, rational sense. Some things that lack face validity – quantum physics for example, are saved by the fact that they have real internal validity – that is, they are based on observable scientific phenomena that, despite being hard to fathom, are in fact real descriptions of what is going on. Since racial/ethnic identity is not based on these underlying scientific principles (fun fact, there’s more genetic diversity in people of African descent – black people – than in those of European descent – white people), the lack of face validity is enough to reject this idea out-of-hand.

To summarize the above paragraph: if you don’t look black, you ain’t black.

Tiger Woods is perhaps the best-known example of the self-identification paradigm. Tiger Woods was raised by his Thai father (edit: thanks to Adrian Anantawan for pointing out that his mother is Thai, and his father is black), which is where he got his unusual name. Tiger self-identifies as Thai, and has said so in interviews. Little problem: Tiger Woods is a black guy. His self-identification is not sufficient in this case to be a practical measure of his blackness, whether he likes it or not. I’m coming precipitously close to tipping my hand on my final definition of blackness, which is a topic for my next post, so I’m going to stop here.

New Westminster gets it EXACTLY right

Here’s a rarity: a bit of good news on the racial front right here at home:

John Stark, the city’s senior social planner, said the Chinese reconciliation process undertaken by the City of New Westminster is the first such process taken by a municipality in Canada. He said research done by staff confirmed that city council acted in a discriminatory matter, particularly by restricting employment opportunities and by asking senior governments to pass discriminatory laws.

I was a bit dumbfounded, to be honest, when I read the rest of the article. Usually, apologies like this are simple declarations that the problem existed, and that the current office-holders are sorry that it happened. While those kinds of apologies do have some merit, at the end of the day there’s very little concrete difference in the lives of those affected. New Westminster has taken an extra (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) step of rolling out an ambitious agenda of a way to make recompense to the community, including the establishment of a cultural monument and earmarking funds to document and incorporate the contribution of the Chinese community into the history of the city. That’s a real apology (are you paying attention, Catholic Church?)

I spoke in a previous post about the merit of acknowledging the mistakes of the past, but I didn’t really get to put a very fine point on it. There is a common refrain that comes from people who are ignorant of or ambivalent toward race issues when things like this make it into the news: “Why dwell on the past? We have to move forward, and separating people by race only makes things worse.” While I’m sure their hearts are in the right place, this argument is largely nonsense. It’s essentially a re-hashing of the “colour blind” argument that I debunked two months ago. Briefly, the reason why colour blindness doesn’t work as a strategy to improve race relations is because it requires all people to be blind to race, particularly those for whom their race exposes them to discrimination. It is an attempt to paint over rust – it might make things look better but it fails to address the underlying problem and allows it to get worse.

The problem with the “why dwell on the past” argument is that we have buried or otherwise distorted what the past actually is. Immigrant groups (Chinese, African, South-Asian, Irish, eastern European, the list goes on) built this country in just as real a way as English and French immigrants did. First Nations Canadians made real contributions to the foundation of the country before it was even a country. All of these groups suffered systemic and ongoing discrimination for centuries in this country – many of them continue to experience it. Ignoring that legacy isn’t a step forward toward racial harmony, it’s another step along the line of having those types of discrimination become endemic in the social fabric. While it might make some people feel less guilty to have to acknowledge our country’s history of racism, the recognition that we are all a part of that history is a real opportunity to move forward.

Until we acknowledge and accept the real history of prejudice and racism in Canada, as New Westminster has done, we will continue to founder in our attempts to build a nation of equal Canadians. I applaud the city council of New Westminster for taking this step, and I hope it is so successful that other municipalities cannot help but take notice.

To kill a classic novel

I guess I have some re-reading to do:

I refuse to go along with this week’s warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee’s novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It’s also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in high school. It was during a glut of classic literature in which I devoured as many ‘must-read’ books as I could. No part of the book resonated with me whatsoever, and I put it down feeling a little mystified as to what the big deal was. Perhaps if I had read it and considered the context of what was happening at the time of its publication, it would have meant more to me.

Macon D. is clearly not a fan:

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist — it allows, indeed encourages, today’s well-meaning white people to think that “America is a very different place” than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

I must admit, my initial reaction to reading this article was to disagree. “It speaks to its time – the anti-racism movement in its contemporary form wasn’t even on the horizon.” While this may be true, we’re still teaching it in schools today as an exemplar of anti-racist fiction. It is most certainly not anti-racist fiction for reasons that Macon outlines:

1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.

2. The novel’s noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.

3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.

Highlighting To Kill a Mockingbird as anti-racist is like calling Tess of the D’Urbervilles* a triumph of feminism (yeah, I made a Thomas Hardy reference – deal with it!). By the time I got to the end of the article, I was firmly in agreement with the conclusion, albeit with one caveat, which I will present here.

Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, each of them a stunning example of “aw shucks” racism, should be taught. They should be taught as what they are – signposts on the road to establishing equality. Each of them is a missive from the past that tells us where we once were. They should be taught in their modern context. The racism that Macon (rightly) attributes to the book is not necessarily a fault of the book it’s self. Rather, it is the product of the day in which it was written, and its failings need to be discussed. To Kill a Mockingbird is not the example of racial empowerment I want exemplified – all the power is still held by Atticus Finch and the white judge. Highlight the failings of the book, and where we have to go still now that lynchings aren’t commonplace.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting and deserved re-posting. Read it!

*For those of you who aren’t up on the latest classics of the romantic period, I’ll give you a brief summary. Tess is a peasant. She meets a rich guy. He buys her. She resists his ‘charms’, so he rapes her(?). She gets pregnant, and delivers. The baby dies. She becomes a milkmaid, meets a seemingly nice guy who says he’s in love with her. She tells him what happened. He disowns her. She goes back to the rapist, eventually stabs him, then slinks off and dies. Nobody learns anything. I’m not a big fan of this book either, clearly 😛