Showing posts with label activisim. Show all posts
Showing posts with label activisim. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s talk about race

This is going to be a long, and sometimes hard, one. I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about race and racism lately, all of them great and all of them by women of colour. In particular I’ve been reading Mochamomma’s blog in which she’s discussed the unicorn cake debacle, and the “ask a black girl” phenomenon.

One of the things that has come up again and again is how rare it is for white women to blog about race and racism. I go.

Race and racism have been at the front of my mind for most of my life. As a white girl who grew up in rural Ontario the only people of colour I knew as a child were the Japanese boy in my class and the Trinidadian fruit pickers who worked on a nearby farm.

But, I also grew up with a Quaker hippie mom (of the social justice and political action variety rather than the pot smoking free love variety). I had a strong awareness of the existence of racial bigotry but had yet to witness it.

All of that changed when I was thirteen and spending my summers in St. Catharines with my best friend.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not I would tell the whole truth here. I realize that I am opening myself up to some serious judgment and anger. All I can say is, I was thirteen and I only had one friend so where she went, I went.

This is what you need to know about St. Catharines in the 80’s and 90’s: It was a breeding ground for neo-nazi skinheads. The teenagers were all neatly divided into their little boxes, especially the freaks. You had boneheads (distinct from the anti-racist skinheads), mods, hippies and punks. I was none of the above but I was definitely a freak. I also had no idea how to meet new people on my own. My best friend, however was a striking mod chick much admired by many . When she started dating a nazi punk I wound up spending a lot of time around him and his friends. I hated it but I didn’t know how to avoid it without alienating someone who meant so much to me (to her credit, the boyfriend in question gave up his Nazi ways in the time they were together).

For the most part I left the room any time they started talking their bullshit. Occasionally I took them to task only to be dazzled by the bizarre twists of “logic” they offered in defence of their views.

Eventually I was able to make other friends and stop spending time in the company of boneheads. But, honestly, I can’t say I regret that time because it taught me something about hate and hate groups that I don’t think I would have otherwise understood. Sometimes it’s good to spend some time behind enemy lines.

One thing I learned from that experience was that these people are people, they’re not monsters. Making them monsters makes it too easy to distance our selves and society from their beliefs and their actions. When we recognize that they are people we have to also examine how they came to be that way, because they sure as hell didn’t just spring from the head of Ernst Zundel like Athena from Zeus.

When I was sixteen I left home and moved to St. Catharines to finish high school. There were still plenty of boneheads but my new friends were very vocal anti-racists who had had the shit kicked out of them more than once by boneheads. I saw how ineffective it was to piss them off and I felt the fear of being chased by them. I even had them move in next door to me. After that my best friend (a different one by this time) who was Filipino refused to come to my apartment, and who can blame her? If that’s what they do to white people, what might the do to her? I had to call the cops one night because one them was pounding on my door screaming “Fucking faggot!!” at my friend who was visiting.

Most people’s experience of racism is not so dramatic. It’s the systemic racism of the criminal justice system or the unfair hiring practices of a workplace. It’s the subtle shifts in attitude when a person of colour walks into the room. It’s the throw away comments that people don’t think twice about. It’s the luxury of “not seeing race” because you can’t “see” your whiteness. It’s the wilful blindness of white people when they talk about how inspiring and heart-warming the latest edition of the white saviour trope was.

I still come to tears when I remember how volatile it was back then. How much a fabric of our daily lives it was that one of us could get beaten down at any time. I was there when my friend was attacked by five guys in steel toe boots and I was there to watch him get twisted into his own brand of hate, indiscriminately accusing people of being nazis, and even terrorizing their families.

I learned what unfettered hate looks like. And I understood that this was a natural consequence of the much subtler and more pernicious kind of racism that was a part of the very fabric of our culture. And aren’t those radical neo-nazis a perfect distraction from the much more insidious racism that affects people of colour on a daily basis?

You know what? I can identify a nazi skinhead in my sleep. I know how to tell a nazi punk from the rest of ‘em, no problem. You know what that means? It means I know where I fucking stand. It means that when I see those white laces and the iron cross on your jacket I know not to make eye contact and steer clear.

But when my coiffed middle class (white) boss at my minimum wage job starts talking about “chinamen” that’s a hole other bag of shit. That’s a blind side from someone in a position of authority and I am left speechless, because I need this job.

And when my university professor says “us” in reference to white people and “them” in reference to any people of colour – even when there are people of colour in the class – he is not only contributing to the othering of POC, he is effectively erasing those who are in the room.

One of my favourite profs in University was Andrew Winston whose research focuses on the role that social science and science have played in perpetuating racial stereotypes and racist policies (that’s a simplification but you get the gist). In intro psych we were assigned a book called “The Race Gallery” by Marek Kohn which outlined the history and the flawed science of race based research, particularly in the area of racial classification and intelligence. My take away from that book was that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact. However, and this is the important part, just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Race is real because it affects the identities and realities of everyone. Not just people of colour, everyone. Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender. The issue, for any thinking white person, is how do you inhabit and experience your whiteness? What does it mean to you to hold a racial identity that comes with so much privilege? What can you do to recognize your privilege and address it in a meaningful way? And if you answer that question with anything that sounds like, “Well I’m X so I’m oppressed too” you’re missing the point. Identity is a complicated and ever shifting thing. If you engage in the “more oppressed than thou” game everyone loses. The point is to think consciously and openly about what kind of privilege you benefit from and what that means.

Talking about race is hard, for everybody. But the difference is that white folk have the luxury, or shall we say privilege, of not thinking or talking about it. If you, as a white person, don’t notice that everyone in the room/film/book is white it’s not because you’re so progressive that you’re colour blind, it’s because you’re simply blind to the ways in which people of colour are simultaneously erased and problematically defined by those representations. If everyone in the room is white, why is that? How does that change the nature of the discussion? How does that affect the way people behave to one another? All too often an all or mostly white space is seen as a safe space to say ignorant or flat out hateful things.

So this is me, talking about race in the only way that I can, through the lens of my experience. I actually like talking about race and racism, just as I like talking about gender and sexism and homophobia and every other element of the kyriarchy (still getting used to that word). I most like talking about race with people of colour because talking about it with a bunch of white people is like talking in a vacuum and frankly, I’m more afraid of hearing some racist crap come out of another white persons mouth than I am of being called out by a black friend.

Update: I've since written a follow up post on why it matters that white people talk about racism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

White trash my ass (or why Roseanne Connor was my hero)

I miss the show Roseanne.  I miss that, for a little while, we were reminded that being poor and white did not mean you were an ignorant, racist shit.  Poor white people are no more racist than the anyone else, they just haven’t been trained in the subtle art of talking out of both sides of their mouths.  Here’s another difference, they don’t have the power to enact systemic racism.  Bob from the parts plant may have some choice epithets, but Geoff at head office sets the corporate climate that prevents people of colour from advancing.

And lets talk about language for a minute.  I’m not going to talk about how important our word choice is here, that’s been talked to death.  And while I generally agree, I have seen too many privileged, educated women use their book learnin’ to silence women who are using the only words they’ve got.  Rather than hearing what she is saying they are like heat seeking missiles waiting for her to ‘slip up’ with the wrong word choice.  Perhaps we should give some credit where credit is due.  Why not give some voice to the woman whose criticism of the kyriarchy comes from her gut, without the benefit of a degree in women’s studies.

I watched my friend who was working for shit wages in a garment factory get driven out of a feminist collective because they treated her like a moron.  This while she deals with the reality of being paid half as much as the men at the factory up the road and gets forced to do overtime by her union rep.

So what does all of this mean?  Poor white people are an easy target.  Instead of engaging in some meaningful dialogue, and finding ways to include them in all levels of discourse, we dismiss them out of hand because they have bad grammar.  How many times have you, or someone you know, dismissed an online comment because of a spelling or grammar mistake?  I come from a family of grammar nuts but that? That is classism my friends.  This is why the Tories and Republicans do so well when they talk about intellectual elitism. 

So maybe before we go off assuming that being poor and white means you’re racist and ignorant we should recognize all the ways in which we exclude them from the conversation and the movement.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The end of the world is nigh, and I forgot my gas mask

vi·o·lence adj.
1. Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing: crimes of violence.
2. The act or an instance of violent action or behavior.

I have been dreading the G20.  For the last week or so I've been listening to news coverage of all the security measures they've been putting in place downtown.  On one hand I was worried about overzealous riot cops geared up to "show those activists a thing or two" and on the other hand I was dreading the inevitable reports about violent protesters.  Ten years ago I would have been worried about the media exaggerating the violence of the protesters and  invalidating the very real issues at hand.  Now, with this new(ish)wave of anti-globalization activism it seems we can't get through an international summit without some faction of the protesters getting belligerent, offensive and flat out violent.  This pisses me off so fucking much that I struggle to get the words out.  So before I continue with that rant let me give you some of my background.

I grew up with a real hippy mom.  Not a pot-smoking, free loving "groovy" hippy, no.  I mean a strongly political, true pacifist who taught us to speak out and stand up for what we believed in.  I went to environmental rallies and talked openly with my mom about sex, drugs and being weird.  When I was in high school I joined the Environmental Youth Alliance and helped organize a peace rally during the first gulf war.  Later, when I moved to Guelph I got involved with an activist teen 'zine.  As a result of joining the 'zine I got involved with the International Socialists (if you know them I can only say I had yet to learn what they were really about).  I joined this group thinking I had found a group of like-minded activists.  It didn't take long for me to see that they were mostly bullies dressed in activists clothing.  I never doubted their commitment but they were rigid, unimaginative, and frequently unkind.  They believed that their way was the only way and there was no room for real discussion and exploration of the issues.

After I left I.S. I stayed in Guelph and went to school there.  My years there, always in fairly close contact with "activisty types" I got more and more frustrated and fed-up with this brand of activism.  Put simply I have no tolerance for violence, I have no tolerance for hate, and I have no tolerance for the belief that the ends justify the means.  And let there be no confusion, violence is an act of hate.  There can and will not be any positive change as a result of hateful actions. 

I've heard a few people say about the madness that hit Toronto today that "There was no violence, only property damage.  That can be fixed with money."  Let's be perfectly clear, throwing bricks and rocks through store windows is violent.  Throwing shit at a store (literally, they actually threw feces into a store) is violent.  Destroying and setting on fire cop cars is violent.  This is not something you do because you believe that it will create real change (if you do, you're fucking deluded).  This is something you do because you like to "fuck shit up" and activism and anarchism give you some kind of thinly veiled excuse to be an asshole.  And by the way, what kind of anti-capitalist use the argument that it's okay because "money can fix it." Last time I checked that was the attitude that got us into this fucking mess.

So let's break it down.  A small faction (and I do mean small, like 1%) of the protesters broke off, fucked some shit up, and then tried to blend back into the crowd so they wouldn't be arrested.  If you're going to disrupt an otherwise peaceful protest with this violent bullshit the least you can do is fucking own it.  But no, you use the presence of the people whose protest you thoroughly fucking undermined to escape arrest.  That's not courage, that's not commitment to the cause.  The kind of activists I was raised to admire were the ones who were willing to get arrested and used passive resistance to emphasize the excessive nature of the police reaction.  With morons like the "Black Bloc" running around it's pretty  bloody hard to make the argument that the security measures are out of line. 

Okay, so now that we've established that these people have no clit to speak of let's move on to the fact that they have completely overshadowed what the other 9,900 people had to say.  Or how about the fact that the actions of the clueless few are endangering the safety of all those other protesters.  Tear gas, sonic cannons and rubber bullets are indiscriminate and when the shit hits the fan it's not only the shit disturbers that get hit.

Simply put: if you don't want to live in a violent world, don't live a life of violence.  If you don't want to life in a hateful world, don't act out of hatred.  And if you think the ends justify the means, you're missing the point.  Because one thing I know is that we are defined by our actions, the ends don't justify the means because the means are and end in themselves. 

To paraphrase Forest Gump's mother, "violence is as violence does" so put down your rocks and bricks and chill the fuck out.