Update of Courtenay, BC attack: he was asking for it!

If anyone knows a decent orthopaedic surgeon, I did some serious damage to my wrist. Reading this article caused me to facepalm so hard, I may have fractured something:

In his closing submissions, defence lawyer Doug Marion said Mr. Phillips “consented” to a three-on-one fight with the men and “could have walked away from this fight if he wanted to. You can see him in the video, he’s backing away but his arms are open and he’s screaming ‘come on!’ and then pointing to his chest,” Mr. Marion said. “The reality is, that is consent.”

I feel a bit bad for Mr. Marion, having to defend clients who are the cowardly scum of the Earth. This desperate grabbing at straws defense is about as feeble as the fighting skills of his clients. I wonder what would happen to Mr. Marion if he was accosted by three people on racial grounds, and forced to defend himself. Would he have walked away from the fight? Better question – would he have dared to turn his back on three drunk rednecks who were trying to hit him and screaming racial obscenities at him? The fact is that when you look at the video, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. Far from egging his attackers on, Mr. Phillips is doing pretty much the same thing a cat does when threatened – making himself appear larger.

Mr. Phillips says that he refused to allow the verbal assault to go on without reaction, since lack of dissent was, in his mind assent. He saw himself as standing up for other members of the black community who face similar discrimination but don’t speak up. I’m inclined to believe Phillips’ account, given that racism of the type evinced by his attackers rarely happens in a vacuum – there’s always something going on in the community that feeds that. Of course, there is always more to the story. Jay Phillips is no saint, having had run-ins with the law in his past; however, that doesn’t matter one bit. There is no excusing the actions of three cowards who shouted racial epithets at a person on the street, then stopped their truck and engaged in a three-on-one beating.

My sympathies for Mr. Marion are somewhat blunted by the fact that he’s going to the same default excuse that accused rapists like to use: “look at what she was doing – she was asking for it!” There is a fantastic article about this issue on a feminist blog called The Curvature. The subject matter is different, but the take-home message is the same: nobody ever asks to be assaulted, regardless of what twisted interpretation of their actions you might be able to produce.

My concern in all this is that as stupid as this defense obviously is, it might work. Racism of the type that seems to be endemic in Courtenay means that the members of the jury may be swayed by the argument. Either subconsciously or consciously, they may want to find a reason to excuse the actions of these pea-brained thugs and may seize upon this flimsy argument as sufficient grounds for acquittal. I hope I’m wrong about this.

What is “black”? – part 1: skin colour

I’ve been picking on religion too much with my Monday ‘think-piece’ notes, and neglecting the other part of this blog: discussions of race and race issues. In February, 2010 I participated in my yearly tradition of observing Black History Month by doing something scholarly. I decided to share some of my thoughts and findings, which was part of the impetus for starting this blog. For the next six weeks, my Monday posts will be specifically about race and race issues. I’ll then get back to writing about whatever I feel like.

This post originally appeared on Facebook on Monday, Feb 1st, 2010.

This will be perhaps the most difficult, most contentious, and least comprehensible of my posts on race so far, but it underpins all of the subsequent ones, so I am going to do my level best to present it first.

I want to be clear from the outset that this is, by no means, an authoritative or “official” answer to the question of blackness. Like all of my notes it represents my opinion only. I try to base my opinions on careful thought and consideration and, when I can, reading the opinions of scholars. Black means many things to many people, and each person’s experience of black-ness is individual to them. It’s like trying to define what art is: each person’s experience is different, but it is important to attempt to find some common features among the several definitions.

I will first discuss what black isn’t along some common misconceptions: black as skin colour, and black as social code.

Anyone who asks knows that I consider myself to be “black”; not “mixed” or “half-black”; while those are technically true and I have used them to describe myself in specific circumstances, they are not how I self-identify. It seems rather elementary that if I have one black parent and one white parent, that makes me half-black – fractions don’t lie. I had this said to me, in so many words, by a black guy I worked with at a summer co-op program at UofT medicine back in summer, 2001, who told me that to qualify as “black” one needed to have two black parents. I asked him if he was “pure black” (his words, not mine), a question to which he responded, somewhat irritatedly, that he indeed was. I asked him then why a) we had the same skin colour; and b) why he had freckles. “Black people don’t have freckles,” I told him “that’s a white people thing.” Indeed, it turned out, that some of his relatives were white on his mother’s side.

So he and I were left with a fundamental conundrum: his parents were both “black”, and yet he had white ancestry. Mulling this over, we came to the conclusion that blackness was not simply a question of heritage, although that certainly played a role in it. The idea of being “pure” black was summarily dismissed as frankly ridiculous (and indeed, a little insulting) since black people don’t all come from the same place (except insofar as all people come from the same place). We needed to establish a new standard for blackness that went beyond simple arithmetic.

A second illustrative example came from that same co-op program. I met a girl named Aza at this same conference. She is of Somali decent, and is about as dark-skinned as a person gets. She also has long, wavy hair (naturally, not due to relaxer), a small nose and delicate features – in other words she doesn’t “look black”. These were the words she used to characterize the reactions of other black people to her, saying that because she didn’t have an afro, big lips and a big nose, she clearly was some alien species, heretofore unknown on the Earth. Until she came to Canada, in fact, Aza didn’t know she wasn’t black. It took the combined, learned wisdom of a bunch of Caribbean kids to tell her that even though she was from Africa, she wasn’t “black-black” (again, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried).

Another example: a close friend of mine self-identifies as black. Like me, she is technically “mixed” and I am not sure if she sees her race in the same rigid fashion that I do, but I digress. Her father is a white man from Scotland, and her mother is a black woman. What makes this a particularly fascinating story is that my friend’s mother, for the longest time, did not self-identify as black. The reason for this, as was related to me, is that the mother was adopted and raised by white parents. Doing the best they could in the times in which they lived, my friend’s mother was raised to regard herself as white, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. This was certainly no mean feat, as it creates a strong cognitive dissonance. At the time the phenomenon was known as “passing”, which is a phrase that has dropped from the common lexicon in the past 20 or so years. She (the mother) had children with a(nother) white person, who were, according to the progeny theory, one quarter black (or some fraction thereof).

First of all, being one quarter black means that you are 75% white, which means that unless you are rounding in an extremely conservative manner, you’re ostensibly a white person. However, a cursory glance at either one of the children (both smokin’ hotties, incidentally) shows that clearly these girls aren’t “pure white”, even though mathematically they are. In fact, nobody would mistake them for a “white person”, instead asking every mixed kid’s favourite question “what are you?” My friend struggled with the issue that while she was clearly at least part black, she had two “white” parents. It took many years for her to work out in her own mind what her racial identity was and meant.

The idea of blackness as the colour of one’s skin or one’s parental makeup is insufficient as a definitive criterion for identity. There are many shades of blackness – everyone has probably heard of “light-skinned black” versus “dark-skinned black”. In antiquity, people of mixed heritage were all described as “black” – indeed, all people who were non-white: East-Asian, South-Asian, Native, Polynesian, etc. were all termed “black”. Blackness was, in that time, a departure from the natural state of being for humans, which was (of course) white skin. The discovery that humankind descends from black people was still a couple of centuries away. In the United States, a convoluted taxonomical system was invented to classify people of mixed heritage – Google the word “octoroon” for an example of the thinking at the time. In South Africa in the 1980s under apartheid, the “non-white” definition was especially prevalent, with people being socially ranked according to the lightness of their skin.

So as I explore the idea of what it is to be “black”, the first step has to be to throw out what is the most intuitive definition – that black is measured by the colour of a person’s skin, or by their genetic heritage. According to a definition set down by Mendelian genetics, there’s no such thing as “pure” black, and any attempts to classify “parts” of blackness are therefore absurd. Similarly, we are all happy calling both Will Smith and Eddie Murphy “black”, although they have remarkably different skin colouration. A more comprehensive definition is clearly needed. In next Monday’s post, I will discuss the idea of “blackness” as a purely self-identified phenomenon – that if someone calls him/herself “black”, then he/she is, regardless of the colour of his/her skin.

Sexism? Only if you… y’know… LOOK for it

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper article that made my heart hurt:

A young black woman working in the medical imaging department at Toronto Western Hospital was sexually harassed and the object of racial taunts in what a hospital investigation concluded was a “poisoned work environment.”

There are three things you should know to put this story in context. The first is that Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in Canada, and one of the most in the world (more so than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City), having a black population of about 350,000 people (7% of the total metro population). The second is that members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented at the lower levels of health care hierarchy (orderlies, custodial workers, nursing assistants) but are underrepresented at the higher levels (doctors, RNs, managers). The third is that while women far and away receive more undergraduate degrees in health-related professions than men do, this trend all but disappears at the graduate and professional level (while this seems to be changing, it is depressingly going in the favour of the opposite gender gap, which is no better). This information is relevant because a black woman who had the education and drive to gain the training required to be a medical imaging technologist is both remarkable and significantly important to a hospital in Toronto.

Instead of recognizing this, Toronto Western Hospital subjected Stacey Walker to months of both racial and sexual harassment, then ignored her complaints for 16 months.

I am sensitive to the fact that there is a significant grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable banter in the workplace. I received a text message joke from a friend, and as I was sharing it with the guy I share my desk with, I realized how incredibly sexist it was. Most of the people I work with are women, and my voice isn’t exactly quiet. While it wasn’t an overt kind of sexism, it was still not cool (although it was pretty funny). It can be tough to know where the line is. It is for that reason that there are procedures in place at any workplace to report incidents of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity – they protect both the (hopefully naive) perpetrators and the victims. However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism. The managers may not do it, but they tolerate it.

Of course, the immediate reaction is to blame the victim:

According to the report, the senior technologist admitted to conduct the investigators deemed was sexual harassment. The technologist is quoted in the report describing Walker as a “very troubled, insecure individual” who has “mental issues.”

‘Well sure, I did it, but it was that bitch’s fault for being so crazy!’ It doesn’t matter if she has “mental issues” (read: a uterus) or not, you violated policy, ignored warnings, and behaved not only inappropriately, but in such a way as to compromise her job performance and the safety of her patients. The fact that this kind of effect isn’t obvious to this man is strongly indicative of the power imbalance present in the hospital – it is not just an isolated incident.

As I’ve said before, when a culture of racism (or sexism, in this case) is allowed to propagate by simply masking it and pretending it isn’t there, there will be periodic incidents that are indicative of the real underlying problem. You can’t substitute cologne for bathing, and you can’t substitute “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist” for actual progress.

There’s a group of women in India who seem to have the right idea:

Scores of young girls and women applaud the display, and then learn for themselves how to fight back against “eve-teasing” — the south Asian term for sexual harassment in public places. Women across India are often victims of provocative remarks, aggressive male posturing and even physical assaults such as groping on the street and in crowded buses and trains.

In an attempt to combat both the perpetrators of harassment and the underlying culture that seems to permit men to objectify and systematically exploit women, Radha Sharma is instructing women in self-defense. The offshoot of knowing how to fight back is that you internalize the idea that you can fight back, and that it is not all right to allow bullies to have their way. Considering a recent case in which the suicide of a Bangladeshi girl was directly linked to this “Eve teasing” (what a disgustingly euphemistic term for such a horrible practice), such an approach is timely. It’s somewhat more socially effective than a rape-deterring program in South Africa, in which women wear condoms with spiked teeth inside their vaginas (sort of like the “bait car” idea except it maims your penis).

The way to combat sexism and racism is exactly what these Indian women and Ms. Walker have done – talk about it. Don’t stop talking about it until changes are made. Don’t stop fighting until the problem is solved. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, or accept vague promises in lieu of action. Don’t buy the lie that since most people are good, we should pat ourselves on the back and pretend the problem isn’t there. It takes consistent and assertive action to make social changes, but it is definitely possible.

Movie Friday: Louis CK

More standup for you today. This time it’s from perhaps my all-time favourite comedian, Louis CK. He’s been on Parks and Recreation, and was in The Invention of Lying as well (movie with a great concept but poor execution). Listening to him is like hearing my own brain talk to me, but it’s way funnier than I am.

Here’s Louis on white privilege:

On the difference between girls and women:

And one of his perhaps best-known bits, on why everything is amazing, but nobody is happy:

I’m pumped that he’s finally getting another shot at getting his own show on FX. He had one on HBO, which was amazing, but got canceled because HBO doesn’t really like laugh-track comedies. If you ever want to know what I think about something, but you want it to be much funnier than I could ever make it, ask Louis.

Roger Ebert gets it EXACTLY right

Some day, if I keep at this writing thing, and work really hard, I may become as good a writer as Roger Ebert is:

How would I feel if I were a brown student at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona? A mural was created to depict some of the actual students in the school.

Roger is, of course, talking about a recent event in which a mural depicting a brown-skinned child in Arizona was “lightened” because his skin tone was deemed “too dark”. The justification for the decision was that the shading needed to be fixed, so it would look like the child was “coming into the light.” Of course, that brilliant explanation was somewhat at odds with the reports of people driving by the mural in their cars and screaming racial obscenities at it.

Dear people of Arizona: paint cannot hear you, but the children working on the mural can.

Of course this all happens in the wake of an unguardedly racist immigration bill, giving police the power (and, in fact, obligating them) to demand documentation from any person on the street who “seems” like an illegal immigrant. If the suspect doesn’t have proof of legal status on them, they are arrested. Besides being in direct violation of the 4th Amendment (the one banning illegal search and seizure; we have a similar statute in Canada), it is essentially de facto racial profiling – requiring people who don’t “look American” to carry documentation, while those who do “look American” are fine. I don’t imagine it’s a huge stretch to imagine who will and won’t get arrested. For more reaction to the bill, I’d suggest you check out CLS’s blog. This post is about Roger.

Mr. Ebert pivots this story into a recounting of his own experiences growing up with race and racism in the United States:

This is not a record of my reading but of my understanding. I don’t know if you can understand what it was like in those days. Racism was ingrained in daily life. It wasn’t the overt racism of the South, but more like the pervading background against which which we lived. We were here and they were there and, well, we wished them well, but that was how it was.

I’ve made my stance on this pretty clear before, but any time anyone says to me “I’m not a racist” I immediately roll my eyes and brace myself for a veritable storm of racist ignorance. The phrase “I am not a racist” means only one thing: I am completely unaware of the history and pervasive nature of racism in society, and I believe that by simple force of will, I can undo hundreds of years of racialization. Those who fail to recognize the role that racism plays in our every day lives are the ones who will be the first to say or do something completely racially insensitive (well, maybe the second ones, after the handful of overt racists out there).

Mr. Ebert does nothing of the kind; he recognizes that race existed for him, and had the insight to recognize how it changed for him over the years. He talks about his wife, expressing his experience of her race:

…when I looked at her I saw Chaz. Chaz. A fact. A person of enormous importance to me. Chaz. A history. Memories. Love. Passion. Laughter. Her Chaz-ness filled my field of vision. Yes, I see that she is black, and she sees that I am white, but how sad it would be if that were in the foreground.

This perfectly echoes the sentiment expressed by John Legend, which I talked about some weeks ago. It’s not a crime to see race; the problem lies in how large racial identity looms in your mind when forming opinions about someone else. Roger and Chaz don’t love each other despite their racial difference, it just doesn’t play an important role in their relationship.

Finally, Mr. Ebert arrives at his original subject matter:

What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life? Were you raised as a racist, or become one on your own?

It’s here where I step off Mr. Ebert’s track. Race and racism aren’t mysteries, they aren’t baffling quirks of humanity that have no explanation. Racism is ingrained in our culture, so much so that we don’t see it. We’re doubly-cursed because we are told that we’re not allowed to talk about it. As a result, we don’t know what racism actually is, except when it’s too obvious to ignore. Then we distance ourselves from “those people” and comfort ourselves by saying “well I’m not a racist, because I would never scream obscenities at children.” It’s a dangerous downward comparison that shields us from having to address the issues in our own lives, rather than admitting our own faults and areas where we can improve.

If you haven’t clicked on the link and read the whole article, I urge you to do so. It’s an amazingly poignant relation of a white person’s experience of race and racism in a modern context, and provides a rich historical context. I wish more people had the courage to do what Roger has done – talk about race in an open, honest, and vulnerable way. I can only hope that some day I will reach his level of Word-Fu.

Reaction to the G8/G20 summit

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. It’s interesting to get a perspective (albeit a fictional one) on what happens in the halls of government, to see how the sausage gets made. One of my favourite episodes involves a meeting by the Director of Communications with a group of youth protesting the World Trade Organization. Toby wryly observes that it’s like “protest summer camp”, as the protesters are poorly-organized, lack a coherent message, and do not seem capable of dealing with someone in a position to actually do something. He mocks them both under his breath and openly to their faces. At the end of the episode, he confides to one of his fellow senior-level staffers that if he wasn’t working for the White House, he’d be out on the picket lines with them.

That’s how I feel about this weekend’s G8/G20 clusterfuck.

First off I want to say that, and I absolutely cannot stress this enough, VIOLENCE IS NOT SPEECH. The Charter protects the right of citizens to free expression. The goal of free speech is to have all ideas out in the open air, where they can be debated. The virtue of this approach is that ideas that are not necessarily popular cannot simply be shut down by the capricious whim of either the majority, or whoever happens to be in power at that moment. Of all of the rights that we have in this country, free speech/free expression is, in my mind, the most important one. It is what separates us from theocratic countries that use the power of the state to shut down political opposition and legitimate citizen movements.

Donning a black mask, running through the streets, smashing windows and setting fires, then abandoning those masks to avoid capture by police is the complete opposite of the idea of free speech. It is a violation of everything that is good about free speech protections. It is the face of a mass of cowardice and stupidity, and is an abject abuse of my rights as a citizen. If you think that smashing a window is a viable form of protest, then smash the shit out of the window – but stand by your actions. Smashing a window and then running tells the world nothing except that you are a selfish asshole who disregards the rights of others because it’s fun. Burning a cop car and then running tells the world that you are in no way willing to work with others to solve problems in society, you are just out for yourself in your infantile tantrum. Spraypainting “bomb the banks” and then running tells the world that you are a mindless anti-corporate bandwagon jumper who absolutely cannot be counted on to help make the world a better place.

I wish I was a better writer so that I could adequately express the complete and utter contempt in which I hold someone who hides behind a black mask and a gang in order to get away with trashing personal property. I am not a violent person, and I abhor the use of force to solve interpersonal problems, but if I was presented with a Black Bloc member and the opportunity to do so, I would beat the living snot out of the little over-entitled, pseudo-punk shits who ran like children when faced with the consequences of their actions. They are beneath contempt. Violent revolt is sometimes necessary in the development of a society, but it has to mean something. The violence this weekend was meaningless. It was a bunch of assholes who saw an opportunity for cheap laughs by burning property and assaulting people.

There are two great tragedies of this weekend’s events (aside from the abrogation of the rights of law-abiding citizens who were caught in police sweeps, having committed no crimes, which is an absolute tragedy in and of itself). The first is the fact that there were a number of people there who had legitimate cause to protest. They were exercising their rights as free citizens to voice opposition, and raise issues on the world stage. The acts of the black-clad assholes buried the efforts of legitimate protesters who were trying to make a positive difference in society. I may not agree with any number of the issues that the protesters wanted to bring up, but they were interested in presenting a principled stand and were willing to confront authority openly and courageously. The assholes ruined this opportunity, ensuring that nobody will ever hear the voice of the constructive. I commend Toronto mayor David Miller for accurately distinguishing between the protesters and the “thugs” (although I prefer the term assholes, he’s a politician and has to be a bit less colourful).

The second tragedy is one that is a bit more germane to the second topic of this blog: race. I took a look through photo galleries of the assholes, and played a game I like to play sometimes called “spot the black people”. The best part of the game is that among groups of people who are supposedly demonstrating on behalf of the poorest and most disenfranchised people on the planet, you’ll never spot those people among the group. You can’t talk about the victims of globalization and the global economy without talking about Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Look at the pictures – I challenge you to find a non-white face among the crowd. As difficult as it is to spot income, the group did not strike me as poorly-fed and impoverished people rising up against authority – they resembled a group of middle-class hypocrites who wear the trappings of poverty for street cred, while living off the largess of their parents. Here’s a hint: if you joined up with the Black Bloc because you got a Twitter Alert on your iPhone while you were serving cappuccinos at Starbucks, you aren’t fighting against the man. You’re just as responsible for the suffering of the poor as those who you claim to be demonstrating against – you are part of the system.

As Toronto recovers from this event, I cannot help but recall my own experience during the Vancouver Olympics this past February. I made a poor choice to walk down Georgia street on my way home, and was blocked by a massive protest march. For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, that would be like marching at Bay/Bloor. The streets were absolutely jammed with people shouting slogans and carrying signs. I immediately noticed the actions of police officers – they were there to ensure the safety of the marchers. They did not jeer, or harass/assault people who were exercising their rights to speech, even when it shut down the core of the city. Even when the protesters arrived at the blockades around the stadium, both sides kept their cool. It wasn’t until the next day when the assholes showed up and smashed the windows of the Bay at Georgia/Granville that any arrests or assaults took place. Vancouver had its own G8/G20 protest here this weekend. No arrests, no injuries, no problems. The few assholes who showed up to cause trouble were detained and identified, but no formal charges were laid (which is regrettable, but the cops don’t work for me).

I am deeply saddened and enraged by the actions of a cowardly bunch of callow fucks. There are real issues in the world to protest, real problems that need to be solved. If you want to fight against the forces of oppression, you have to be willing to stand up for your beliefs. Being a citizen comes with responsibilities, and when you smash shit with a mask on, not only do you abdicate those responsibilities, but you simultaneously abdicate any claim to the legitimacy of your position among reasonable people.

Racism is alive and well in Canada

I want to re-iterate something off the top of this post: I love my country. I love how we have managed to find a way to safeguard individual freedoms without sacrificing our sense of mutual custodianship to each other. I love the fact that we pride ourselves on separating religion from politics, and are, for the most part, very willing (perhaps sometimes too willing) to accommodate the cultural practices of others. I love that things like guns and gay marriage and abortion, things that are currently tearing the United States apart, are relatively foregone conclusions here – not to minimize the struggles of the past to get things this way, but they were much shorter and less divisive.

I love my country… and I fear for it.

I fear for it simply because we are happy to close our eyes and pretend that racism is not an issue here. I was all pumped to write a short post about a news item I saw in the paper:

Hate crimes increased 35% between 2007 and 2008, according to a report from Statistics Canada released on Monday, with Jewish and black people the most targeted groups for attacks. The data shows hate crimes are on the rise in each motivation grouping: race and ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

I was going to say that we’re clearly not out of the woods, and that even though much of the rise may be attributable to an increase in the number of reported cases as people become more willing to call a hate crime ‘a hate crime’, a 35% jump is not something to sweep under the carpet, as it may represent a real increase. I was particularly chilled by the fact that Vancouver, my home, was the city with the highest rate of attacks (I immediately thought of Courtenay, BC). It was just going to be a quick piece, reminding us not to be complacent.

Then I read this truly execrable word salad of an opinion column written by Mindelle Jacobs, a woman who, if she got paid anything for writing this piece, was grossly overpaid:

If you look under enough rocks, you’ll find the slimy underbelly of discrimination. But let’s not blow this study out of proportion. After all, this is not Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds of minority Uzbeks have been killed.

The vast majority of Canadians embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy, partly because Canada is wealthy, stable and rooted in inclusive Judeo-Christian principles and the rule of law and partly because we are a nation of immigrants fashioning a comparatively new country.

Gah! So much wrong in only two sentences (I count the first paragraph as one sentence – those periods are inappropriately placed). Let’s see, right off the top we’ve got a brainless downward comparison (oh goody! We’re not as bad as a genocidal country! Calloo Callay!), and an appeal to that shiny old lie that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Finally, after relating a completely off-topic story about a friend who wears a Star of David and fears being discriminated against, she ends with this gem:

Hate crimes constitute less than 1% of all our crimes. Yes, we have a few bigoted lunatics. But we have a powerful counter force — millions of Canadians without a discriminatory bone in their bodies.

“Don’t worry,” Ms. Jacobs says “everything is okay! You don’t have to worry about it! Only 1% of all crimes are hate crimes! And it’s only done by ‘those people’, not by good-hearted Canadians like you and me!”

Here’s a hint for Ms. Jacobs: if you’re going to write an article about race and race issues in Canada, it might help if you do… let’s say 5 minutes of reading on the topic before you publish an opinion piece with national circulation. This idiotic scribbling was picked up by dailies all over the country, spreading the pablum of “everything’s okay, we don’t have to make any changes because we’re not Kyrgyztan” to Canadians everywhere.

So this post is going to be just a little longer than it was supposed to be. Since we’ve already talked about Nova Scotia, both present and past, and of course Courtenay making the news, the particular challenges Canada faces with regard to race, and a number of recent examples of cultures clashing here, I thought I’d bring one more thing to the table.

Isn’t it great when, while the rest of the world is coming together to play soccer and set aside their differences, we here in Canada are happily tossing racist epithets at children? Yes Ms. Jacobs, there’s no race problem in Canada; well, unless you ask someone who isn’t white. This poor girl was not only the victim of comments from the other kids on the field, but by their parents as well. What kind of person do you have to be to insult a child… regardless of the nature of the insult. Hatred of Natives is widespread pretty much everywhere across Canada, and this incident is merely an obvious example of it. People here in Vancouver like to make insulting comments about Native people to my face, as though it’s okay to be racist against some people, because I’m not part of that group. I can only make assumptions about what kinds of things they say about black people when I’m not in the room.

So we’ve got racism coast to coast, and a columnist who seems to think it’s just a handful of isolated incidents. Ms. Jacobs asks if Edmonton and Calgary are hotbeds of racism, pooh-poohing the idea. This means that she has spent zero time talking to any black or Native people who live in these cities. She’s never bothered to look across the prairies and see how South Asians and Natives are treated by the communities there. She’s never seen the race divide and ghettoization of immigrants in Southern Ontario. She’s clearly never been to Surrey, or any Native reserve where white Canadians are distrusted and hated. No, Mindelle Jacobs clearly doesn’t know anything about race in Canada, happy to stick with the lies instead of poking her head out and seeing anything that challenges her rose-tinted view that Canada is a happy, Christian place where “only” 1% of our crimes are based on hate. I’d much rather live in the real Canada, which has its flaws, but where real progress can be made.

The World Cup – South Africa struggles to modernize

I’m not a soccer fan. I’m not a sports fan in general, but I’d much rather watch hockey or basketball than soccer. When the Olympics came to Vancouver, I didn’t pay much attention except to the overall medal count. There is one thing about sport that I think is absolutely fantastic though – it’s the only thing the world seems to agree on. I watched the opening ceremonies with friends, and I was dumbstruck when during the entrance of the athletes, the Israeli team was immediately followed by the Iranian team. The leadership of the country of Iran thinks that Israel should be destroyed and swept into the sea. The leadership of Israel regularly kills Arabs, to the continued outrage of the Muslim world. And yet, the two teams were able to compete in friendly and spirited competition without letting politics and bullshit get in the way.

I feel the same way about the World Cup. Because soccer is such a low-tech sport (requiring only a kickable object and a designated goal area), it’s played all over the world. The United Nations is constantly fractures on important issues, but that doesn’t matter to FIFA – if you can play, you can compete. I think it’s a really powerful statement.

South Africa is the host of the 2010 World Cup. This country has probably the most fractured and storied history of racial violence, intolerance and systemic oppression out of any country in the world (including the USA). Even in 2010 there have been race-related murders and violence – South Africa has not grown out of its history. It’s a pretty powerful juxtaposition to have the entire world – people from all different cultures – come together in a place rife with violence and hatred, to put aside their differences in a way that isn’t possible under any other circumstance.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

“It [the World Cup] will create an emotional bond among South Africans, but it will not end the divisions caused by more than three centuries of apartheid and colonialism,” [political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi] says.

The article provides a bit of colour and context to my description above. While the race divide in South Africa continues, there is more mobility as black South Africans begin to move into “white” sports like rugby. As I keep saying, the key to reducing racial division is to make race-identity secondary to more unifying identities, like secular national identity, or in this case team affiliation. It won’t simply happen by diffusion, or just existing side by side, there needs to be a force that unites formerly disparate groups into a larger sense of in-group. Sport has the power to do that.

Again, it’s not possible to talk about racial equality without disturbing the ground of women’s rights and gay rights, so this story about a lesbian soccer team made me smile ruefully:

To be poor, and black, and a lesbian in South Africa is to live in danger. “Corrective rapes”, beatings and murders are disturbingly common in conservative communities where homophobia remains deeply entrenched.

Don’t get it twisted, folks, South Africa is still a horrible place filled with violence, crippling poverty, ignorance and hate. Being on a lesbian football team, like the women in this article, is harnessing the same power of sport to unify people and take a stand against homophobia and violence. In a country where rape is seen as a way to “fix” gayness, it takes an enormous set of lady-balls to stand up and say “I’m here.” This is why we have a gay pride parade, incidentally, because we’re celebrating living in a country where people have the right to be openly gay and happy – it’s not about shoving it in people’s faces. And considering that there are still major problems even in so-called “modern” countries like Australia, we can’t ever relax our stance on ensuring equality for all people. I’m encouraged by things like the World Cup, and I hope you are too.

Of course, because I write these well before posting them, it’s easy to get scooped. If you liked this summary, you should read CLS’s much more informative article about this same issue.

Racist beating of black man in Courtenay, BC

This doesn’t exactly fill me with a feeling of safety:

A swarming attack on a black man in this Vancouver Island community began when one of the accused hurled a racial slur, a court heard on Thursday.

Three men riding home in a truck (way to buck the stereotype there, guys) came across a black man walking home from the gym. One of the guys in the truck called out, audibly, “there’s a nigger” as they drove past (you know, like anyone would in that situation). Understandably, the victim of the verbal assault (Jay Phillips) was angered by the word and threw his water bottle at the truck.

So the three men turned around, got out of the truck, and tried to beat Phillips up.

So Nova Scotia, you’re temporarily off the hook. Courtenay, BC is now (apparently) the most blatantly racist place in the country. Congrats, Courtenay. I’m sure that’s a legacy you’re proud of.

Hilariously, the whole thing was caught and posted on Youtube:

The high-kick that the one asshole throws made me laugh. The rest of the video just made me sad.

Once again, while I am deeply saddened (and frankly, more than a little frightened) by this event, I am not surprised in the least. As much as we like to go on and on about how racism is a thing of the past, it’s still alive and well. Of course the most bizarre thing about this particular story is that British Columbia (and certainly Courtenay, BC) doesn’t have a history of conflict with black Africans or African Americans. Black people coming to BC were more likely to be working-class or middle-class, and that exodus came much later than settlements like Chatham, Ontario or Africville in Halifax, NS. Maybe not so bizarre, if you consider the fact that these guys had probably never seen a black person before, except on television. They probably don’t know what the word “nigger” even means, or have any particularly well-organized hatred of blacks.

While this in no way excuses their unbelievably horrendous actions, this attack is a symptom of a larger problem – we live in a racist society. The assholes in the truck are undoubtedly bigots, and the fact that they mobbed and beat a guy based on their racism suggests they’re probably not the kind of guys you’d want to have around, but they’re an extreme reflection of an underlying cultural narrative that says that race is meaningful when judging a person’s worth. While it’s completely appropriate to notice that someone is from a different cultural background, and important to think about how that impacts their day-to-day life, it’s not the most important thing about them. It’s definitely not a cause of verbally and physically assault them.

I don’t live near Courtenay (it’s on Vancouver Island), so it’s unlikely I’ll be called for jury duty in this case or any that are connected to it. It’s too bad though, because I’ve been working on my Samuel L. Jackson impression:

Who am I to talk about race?

I had a conversation with a friend recently who said something to the effect that the reason people don’t object to my discussions about race and race issues is because I am black. Specifically, they don’t want to express any disagreement they may have with me because my status as a minority means I get to set the rules, and disagreement would look like racism. While I don’t think his/her statement was accurate in the specific case of people who read this blog (who are, for the moment, predominantly personal friends of mine or people who get here from comments I leave around the internet that link here), he/she may have a point for the population in general. It may be that nobody wants to disagree with a black guy about racial stuff because they don’t want to look hateful.

I would honestly hope that isn’t the case for me. I have been trying my best to lay out the reasons for why I think what I do, and provide evidence (wherever possible, or at least corroborating opinions) to back my beliefs up. As I do with my discussions of free speech, religion, and other important topics, I try to lay out a case for where my opinions come from. I provide and encourage a forum for people to disagree with me, and engage in robust discussion.

Be that as it may, there may still be people who disagree with me, but won’t say anything. I want to take this opportunity to explain where I’m coming from in all of this, and what my “qualifications” are to talk about race.

1. Being black doesn’t make you an expert on race

I grew up in mostly white communities. I went to a Catholic elementary school in which I was the only black kid in the class, of 2 in my grade. I went to a high school in a program where there weren’t a lot of black kids in my classes. I went to university in Waterloo, Ontario and did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario – neither town is exactly known for its large population of black folks. I now live in Vancouver, BC – again, not a bustling African Diaspora metropolis. My life and upbringing are about as far from the stereotypical black experience (at least the one that makes it into popular media) as you can get. There are white and Asian kids who know far more than I ever will about growing up in the “black” parts of the city – “growing up black”. I self-identify as a black person, despite this upbringing. Being black does not mean being “urban” – there are countless different “black experiences” that are all equally valid.

2. I don’t have an academic background in race, psychology, or anthropology

I took a handful of courses in undergrad, mostly for personal interest, in psych. I did a lot of private reading about philosophy and books with black characters. I’ve seen Roots a bunch of times. I don’t have what you would call a robust academic background. If pressed for specifics, I would be quickly overrun by anyone who is 2 years into a bachelor’s degree in social psych, or anyone who’s been to a historically black college for just about any subject. Nothing in my academic history makes me any kind of expert.

3. I can’t claim to speak for black people

My upbringing does not give me some magical authority to speak on behalf of all black people. I don’t know a lot of black people, to be honest. As noted earlier, I didn’t grow up around a lot of black kids. Most of the black kids I do know had childhoods similar to mine. Even now as an adult I am not deeply entrenched in “the black community”, which I say in quotations because it’s entirely mythical. Black people, like tall people, or Greek people, or people born in the 80s, do not have “a community” except insofar as we recognize when issues affect us all. People group themselves by any number of arbitrary (or non-arbitrary) characteristics. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to point to any one person and say “(s)he represents what we all think.” I cannot, nor will I, claim to be able to speak on behalf of anyone except myself, and perhaps a few of my friends.

So what the hell am I talking for?

There are two main factors that make me at least somewhat qualified to speak about these issues, and that make my opinions at least worth listening to.

The first of these is my racial heritage. While I self-identify as black, it is more mathematically accurate to say I am half black and half white. Of course the whole idea of anyone being half of something implies that it is possible to be pure something, and that idea is as unscientific as it is offensive. As I said above, I spent most of my life as a self-identifying black person among white people. When I got older and went out of my way to make black friends, I found myself feeling “not black enough”, or at least not as black as those who had been around other black people their whole lives. This experience gave me a unique perspective: I can look at race from an entirely outside perspective, having a foot in either camp but a home in neither. I will never know what it is like to be a non-black person, and I won’t even pretend to be able to speak on behalf of white people, but I have spent most of my life in white company, and have shared some very interesting and revealing conversations with my white friends about race.

The second factor in my qualifications is that I am happy and eager to talk about race and racial issues. I relish robust discussion. While I am constantly worried that I will get something horribly wrong and my position might get twisted to suggest that I want racial supremacy or segregation or something of the sort, I am willing to deal with that fear. I find often, in my conversations with all kinds of people, that as soon as racial issues come up, people immediately shut down and refuse to speak for fear of being misconstrued. I might not like hearing ignorance, but I won’t condemn someone for saying what’s on their mind. It’s only through open, honest and vigorous discussion that important issues become resolved. Ignoring them is not helping.

What my whole history has made me is the kind of person you want talking about race. From a black perspective I have at least somewhat informed ideas, and can get in touch intuitively with those things that resonate with the general population of black people. From a non-black perspective I am someone who understands a bit what it’s like to look at racial groups from an outsider’s perspective, and so won’t immediately get my back up whenever someone says something impolitic. From both sides I am a skeptic and a scientific observer whose criterion for the value of an idea or theory is results rather than whatever makes people feel good.

This kind of reads like a self-congratulatory piece, and it is not intended in that way. In any issue, there needs to be a number of different voices articulating different sides. I like to think that my role in this is to give people the vocabulary and the tools which allow them the courage to speak about their perspective on race and racial issues.

A number of people have said to me that they’re glad to see someone talking about this, since they don’t feel qualified to do so themselves. That’s nice to hear, but you’d have to work pretty hard to be less qualified than me, and it won’t take that much effort to surpass me. Everyone has a position or an opinion about race, even if it’s just to say “racial issues don’t play much of a role in my day-to-day life.” We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, and if my essays help spur a discussion, then I’m happy to continue to write them. As I’ve consistently said (and will continue to say), the issues of racial disparity and conflict will not merely dissipate with time. Like any major social issue, it must be discussed openly and without fear. It is only through such fearless and robust debate that progress can be made, and I am trying my best to get the conversation started.