December 26, 2012
Idle No More and the Spectre of Racism
I first heard about Idle No More on December 9, 2012. Started by four First Nations women two months earlier, the movement sought, in general, to draw attention to the deteriorating relationship between Canada’s government and First Nations people by focusing on specific legislation (Bill C-45) that would, in the words of the movement’s website, “not only affect our First Nations people but the rest of Canada's citizens, lands and waters.” The concerns quickly spread across social media, and by Christmastime, there had been rallies, spontaneous drumming sessions in malls (“flash mobs”), blockades, and marches consisting of supportive people of all stripes.
Idle No More is exposing a lot of nationwide resentment toward the ruling Conservative party, but there’s other resentment bubbling to the surface as well:
racism: 1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2. Racial prejudice or discrimination
I like musing over topics about which people are passionate. Racism fits that bill in spades. I’d say virtually everyone feels strongly about it, fearing their own racial biases, and/or perhaps those of others who would do them harm. And yet, even when we want to broach the subject, we seem woefully unequipped to have even remotely constructive discussions with one another. Like many topics that mean anything at all, it can get too hot too quick, and attempts to gain understanding often end up creating more confusion. I find this fascinating, frustrating, and definitely worthy of further investigation.
I usually begin my analysis of any topic with a degree of self-evaluation. In this case, the process starts with: am I a racist, and if yes, how much so?
Frankly, I think it’s very difficult to exist in the world and not be racially biased to some degree. In virtually every moment in history, in every corner of the world, there have been groups who feel tensions with outsiders (those who are different), and I suspect our ancient ancestors were keenly aware of blood-churning racism before there was even a word for it. Today, despite decades of globalized diversity and integration, substantial educational efforts, and legal charters against discrimination, we’re all still bombarded with themes of distrust, division, and defensiveness against visible “others”, and we act accordingly. It takes a great deal of effort to be “colorblind”, and most of us don’t pull it off. Maybe it’s not even possible (or desirable, but I’ll get to that later).
Since I catch myself from time to time thinking something stereotypical of a different race, I simply cannot excuse myself from the label of racist. I consider them minor offences of a well-disciplined but still somewhat hard-wired brain, but the fact remains: some thoughts of mine are based on nothing but lazy, prejudicial baggage. Sure, it might be the intellectual equivalent of junk mail (mostly harmless but annoying, certainly a misguided endeavor with limited social usefulness), but it’s there, stuck like a splinter in my mind. To deny its existence would be utterly dishonest.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to admit to being a racist without immediately being grouped in with the Ku Klux Klan or Adolf Hitler. The word ‘racist’ doesn’t come with color-coded levels or a scale from 1-10. In our limited language, on a topic of such importance, you’re either a racist or you’re not, and that seems unfair and wholly unproductive. We need to be able to distinguish those racists (I would suggest the majority) who are somewhat innocently ignorant of facts or caught regurgitating some ancient wives’ tale, from those who refuse to incorporate new ideas, and from those who actively advocate for genocidal “solutions”. There is a spectrum of racism, and no one benefits from an all or nothing paradigm.
For the purposes of my musing, I’ve proposed a numerical modifier, with 1 being a low-level racism (say, some boob using the phrase “in a coon’s age” because a) its actual origin is controversial/unknown or b) it hasn’t even occurred to him/her as potentially offensive to someone), and 10 being full-blown racism (say, Adolf Hitler). Level 1 Racism would still be racism, but a form that could be easily overcome with some simple conversation and a friendly pat on the back. Level 10 Racism is a form that potentially sets the world at war with itself. Few of us probably encounter Level 10, but most have at least one uncle or acquaintance who would help fill in the middle ground.
My belief is that everyone reading this who is not a newborn is at least a 1 on the Racism Scale. I’m sorry if that offends you, but I’m working off the assumption that no one is perfect. Of course, this could never be, or ever should be, a definitive, objective scale. It’s a completely academic exercise, only to be used to offer nuance to a potentially incendiary topic. Maybe others would grade us differently than we would ourselves. Maybe someone speaks the words of a Level 8, but actually feels like a Level 1 (some “outrageous” comedians, for example). Language barriers, disingenuous dialogue, lack of context, improperly defined terminology, for example, all could contribute to misapplied ratings, which would defeat the very purpose.
If you want to know what I rate myself, please finish reading the article, and see if your rating for me is similar.
On December 11th, 2012, CBC News online ran the headline “Attawapiskat chief 'willing to die' to force Harper meeting”. It told of Theresa Spence, chief of an economically impoverished community in Northern Ontario, who was holding a hunger strike in an attempt to get a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In her words, “[We need] a partnership … as we speak, our people are suffering because of the decisions that are made by the government.” The article also made mention that Spence’s decision to go on the hunger strike came on the heels of the newly organized Idle No More movement.
In the brave new world of the internet, cbc.ca, like all other news outlets, offers its visitors a comments section, where posters from around the world can opine on the stories they follow. This article featured 300 comments, the most popular of which contained vitriol that apparently crossed the line of good taste: of the top 50 highest rated comments on the article, 39 were removed by the site moderator, presumably because the language became too racially inflammatory to remain. I can only imagine how offensive they were. The top rated comment, which managed to survive the “censor” was this:
“Perhaps Chief Spence could outline the initiatives she's spearheaded in the past year to improve life for her people? What have the people of Attawapiskat done to help themselves? How have other First Nation communities contributed?”
This whole article, but especially this lone voice at the top of the “everyman’s forum”, seemed to sum up for me the complexity surrounding racism and how it can so mystify us.
My first thought was, well, at least the commentator used some of the most currently acceptable vernacular for indigenous people: First Nations. Credit where credit is due says I. Points also for good grammar.
But the dripping arrogance, air of superiority, paternalistic tone, and overall smarminess contributed to what was one of the most blatant and gross examples of “blame the victim” mentality that I’d seen in a long time. There was simply not one mote of acknowledgement of the frustration Theresa Spence must have felt to take such a drastic step. No consideration given to the plight of First Nations across Canada who are still surviving and trying to recover from centuries of colonial misdeeds. No agreement that the Canadian Prime Minister might be able to offer a meeting with someone who was this passionately concerned for her people. No support. No nuance. Just “this is your own fault”.
It’s impossible to accurately judge a human being’s racism rating in just one three sentence comment, but I’ll take a stab at it: 4. Whoever this anonymous writer is, it is only by virtue of his/her not resorting to name calling or using other invectives that keeps my vote this low. Of course, it could be that the author simply lacks compassion for all races, and would be equally dismissive of suffering regardless of who it involved, ergo he/she might not be a racist at all, but rather just an extremely callous and mean-spirited person. I’ll take my chances with the 4.
The very fact that the response to this story was so negative pointed to what I suspect so many First Nations people already know and face every single day: Canada is a racist country.
By the way, that CBC story? Curious about the lowest rated comment of the 300? Brace yourself for profanity:
“Idle No More....Rise Up First Nations....before your land and rights are stripped away by Harper”
It’s interesting to see how so many people in Canada react harshly whenever the issue of racism is raised in the context of First Nations. They seem able to grasp racism on a global scale; they probably join the usual chorus of people who condemn the history of slavery in the US, the Holocaust, Rwandan and Sudanese genocide, Apartheid, Israeli occupation of Gaza, or the stubborn popularity of white supremacist groups around the world. They understand how destructive racism in foreign lands can be, and are first to show compassion for the oppressed.
But when it comes to their own backyard, Canadians seem to have a tremendous amnesia. They offer rare acknowledgement or awareness of the effects of colonization on First Nations people in general (the usurping of a traditional way of life), and even less of the Crown’s specific actions that accelerated the process (the introduction of alcohol, disease, residential schools, marginal reserve lands, ignored treaties, etc.). On the contrary, many Canadians act as if First Nations people were airdropped onto reserves from the planet “Indian” hundreds of years ago and through their own devices began a determined campaign to destroy themselves. It comes across as if, unlike every other textbook case of systemic racism from time immemorial, the British/Canadian approach to First Nations people had no real impact on their present struggles. How can people see the complex historical leading up to one tragedy, but claim another developed in a vacuum? I find this “blindness of history” vexing.
Equally so is the notion of “colorblindness”. This is the idea that everyone should be treated exactly the same way so as to remove the issue of race from the world altogether. It’s an attractive position to take because the person who claims to be “post-racial” appears to be beyond reproach, since he/she simply “doesn’t see color”. Assuming such a talent is even achievable, I’m not convinced the “colorblind” are any more exempt from the racist label than anyone else.
Why? Because in my opinion, a lot of people identify (as I indicated near the outset) with their own racial groups and have since the beginning of time. It is often their shared history of struggles and achievements that make them distinct and interesting. In making an effort to erase this “racialness” from a person via “colorblindness”, we also risk erasing the universe of generational events that led them to who they are today, and that would be a disservice to us all.
Most people would never ask a person of Jewish descent to forget about the Holocaust. They would never ask a black person in the US to “suck it up” and move past slavery. In these cases, they look at the millions of lives lost, the mental and physical scars of oppression, the pain that survivors have endured, and they say: “We’ve got your back.” They recognize the gravity of these events, and understand that their effects ripple through generations and take time to heal. There is no steely suggestion that they simply “get on with life”, or “get a job”, or “wake up to the real world”, but rather an acknowledgment that as long as it takes for a battered people to get their own footing, there will be support.
We need to be able to see race because it is a window into the past, and if we allow ourselves to forget the injustices that have occurred there, we lose the chance to properly address them, ever. Instead, we convince ourselves that a “fresh start” is fair, even though many aren’t at the starting line yet. We end up with attitudes like Level 4 Racist from cbc.ca, whose message seems to be: you have only yourselves to blame for the situation you’re in.
This brings me to a final point, one last tentacle of racism: the fear of literally not knowing what to do.
Is there a right way to think about this subject? What words do you say? Where do you place your next footfall in the linguistic and social minefield that is race relations? What number do you assign someone who cares so much about injustice that in trying to help another, they inadvertently perpetuate a stereotype that reinforces the victim status of the very people they’re trying to support? (It’s well-intentioned support, but it’s still racist, and it’s still condescending.) How do we assign responsibility for change? What if, in this case, some First Nations people don’t want to rehash the past? What if they’re ready to move on, and don’t want some anti-racist zealot holding them back with anger over one hundred year old crimes? What if some of them want to become post-racial, leave their heritage behind and assimilate, becoming just another face in the crowd? What if some want to segregate and secede, creating a new, sovereign Grand First Nation?
I wish I had answers to any of this, but I don’t. In fact, the more I wonder about racism, the more questions I have. That’s why I’m writing this.
Everyone knows there is no magic bullet for racism. A panacea is impossible when every race is as internally diverse as every other, and the second we start to assume that there’s some monolithic block of solidarity fused by skin pigment is the second we’ve taken a giant step back. But there are lots and lots of little things that can wrestle with racism, and those things are us, with our ability to listen and communicate and try our best to understand.
I do feel that I know this much: your assigned Racism Level Number, whether applied from within or without, will be mostly determined by what’s in your heart, because an ability to treat others equally is usually a good sign of empathy and compassion. If you genuinely want to see peace and happiness for your brothers and sisters regardless of their skin color or social predicament, you’ll likely end up with a pretty low number. Conversely, if your words and deeds have dark edges, and you’re motivated by deep seated fear, greed, or resentment, then you’ll have to start working to do better.
Idle No More is showing us that change can happen. People from diverse backgrounds, from different races, with undefined goals and nothing but good spirits, are coming together to try and make things better. By raising issues for discussion, we can continue the long process.
Go now, ones and twos. Talk to the fours and fives you know. Tens, be ready to talk to some eights, they’re coming. Be prepared, all of you, to have your numbers adjusted. Be brave.
By the way, I rated myself a 2. Was I close?
June 10, 2010
revised Dec. 25, 2012
My Meaning of Life
Philosophers, armchair or otherwise, are always on the lookout for a point to human existence or a system for living the best possible life. It's an exhausting endeavor, and I don't know if they're ever going to find the Holy Grail on such questions; we are a diverse species, and a universal "meaning of life" is probably as likely as finding a melody that appeals to every human on the planet. Still, I hereby humbly offer up "my" meaning of life for consideration. It's simple, approachable, and practical:
Finding meaning in life, and living a good life, is bound up in the appreciation we give and receive from others.
Even though this is likely obvious, I will expand. I believe:
1. The primary motivation of a human being is to be appreciated by other human beings.
2. The greatest satisfaction a human being can experience is to be appreciated by other human beings.
3. Our greatest duty to others is to appreciate them.
Defined, appreciation is "favourable or grateful recognition". It is the emotional currency of someone caring about you that gives appreciation its intrinsic value, and I believe it is more profound a reward than anything else. You might give it a different name- love, respect, reverence, but it means the same: you have transcended the notion of existence for survival's sake, and your life is about more than a monotonous cycle of production and consumption.
What does this mean in the real world?
It means that by evaluating your life in terms of appreciation (the substantive goal) as opposed to money, material luxuries, celebrity, or power (the superficial goal), you will most likely make better decisions and take better actions throughout your life. The simplest example is work. If you work to be appreciated, you're likely to be rewarded monetarily as a result. You will be successful financially and emotionally. But, if you work simply to be rewarded monetarily, there's a great chance you'll lose out on the appreciation, and I submit that is a significant loss.
It also means you don't have to seach the cosmos for some grand answer to your purpose on Earth. Just strive to be as good a person as you can, one who brings happiness to others and rejoices in their simple esteem.
I'm no guru, but try it on for size. Think about your life and how others matter to you. Picture yourself suddenly alone on the planet and calculate what meaning your existence would have. Would any of your pursuits still seem worthwhile? Would anything you own compensate for the loss of other smiles and embraces?
The people around you may not know what you now know. They may not realize how much your appreciation means to them. And they may not show you the appreciation they actually feel. So don't be shy. Don't be afraid.
Show them my meaning of life.
February 24, 2010
red ant is about "the power of the small". In a world where size matters, it is important to reflect on what this actually means. To me, "the power of the small" refers to the specks of resistance that never go away, the tiny dormant seeds that wait patiently for sunlight, the motes of dust that eventually plug the vents, the molecules that break down buildings over time. It is about recognizing that anything big will have its end, sooner or later. Nothing is immune from decay.
We humans are bigger than bacteria. But they will be around to feast on our corpses.
Governments and corporations are bigger than individual humans. But we ARE governments and corporations, and with a stroke of a pen, we can change their reality.
The entire planet dwarves the puny human beings scattered all over it, and yet we can gradually break it down into a dead rock.
Everything is small, and everything has power.
What do we humans do with this power? Pretend it doesn't exist? Ignore its consequences? Squander it on trivialities? Destroy it against a brick wall? Use it to build something beautiful? Channel it against our enemies?
We've seen ourselves do it all. The key, however, is to understand, in the beginning, that we have it.