Tag Archives: race

Finished this book: The Invisible Empire: A History of Racism in Canada by Margaret Cannon

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

This book was published back in 1995 and I remember quite liking it then. I was at the tail end of my Women’s Studies degree and quite impressed with my own knowledge and open-mindedness. A book about racism in Canada was right up my alley. Not only would it look impressive when I read it on the bus, but it was also unlikely (I was certain) to challenge me in any real way, given all the recent reading and learning I had done around the intersections among race, class, power, sexuality, and gender.

Rereading this book almost a quarter of a century later has been a sobering experience. I don’t recall exactly what I thought and felt about this book back then; I just had a general feeling of it being an interesting look at the then-current state of race in my country.

Now, however, I am surprised that I would have bought a book by a white woman to learn about racism in Canada. Particularly not a person who is writing from such a place of power and privilege, with access to the media as a journalist, private school for her daughter, etc. It amazes me that I thought this might be a useful perspective.

There was some interesting information and research about such things as how the Heritage Front is constituted and connected to other people and groups (and how these groups exist to basically protect middle-aged white, middle-aged women like the author), some history of  immigration in Toronto, etc. But overall I was pretty disappointed in this book now. To put it in today’s terms, I felt it smelled strongly of #notallwhitepeople.

Things that made me feel this way:

  • lots of pointing out how different ethnic groups also dislike or discriminate against each other (felt like: “they do it too”)
  • lots of “trying to find the truth” between the lived experience of POC and the feelings of white people (felt like: “both sides of the story are equally valid and have to be heard”)
  • a discomfort with naming racism, hatred, and consequences clearly (felt like “try to remain polite”)
  • not enough analysis or placing of events / issues in a context of systemic oppression, but rather more explaining the way things are. Perhaps this descriptive rather than analytical approach comes from the writer’s journalist background. But description by a member of the oppressor’s group is not neutral.
  • too many protestations of the goodness of individual white people (for example, “June Callwood did so much good for the community and is being persecuted for this mistake / misunderstanding”; and, regarding the ROM Into the Heart of Darkness / Africa exhibit: “but the curators did a brilliant job; it’s just that people didn’t understand the cleverness and intellectualism and irony of it all!”; and how opening a new theatre with a production of Showboat was was a more of a lapse of good judgement than actual racism
  • blaming multiculturalism for a lot of these problems (which felt like: “immigrants should just adapt to our ways and there wouldn’t be a problem”

 

While Cannon does seem to be pushing her own comfort zone in this book, especially when venturing out to attend Heritage Front meetings and the like, and does seem to move toward an understanding of the fact that racism extends beyond the confines of actual “hate groups” to include the beliefs and actions of “ordinary people like you and me” (with the definite assumption that “we”—she and her readers— are white people), she does not take her understanding further to embed this in a systemic context.

On the one hand, I understand that this was a fairly new concept for a lot of us white people back in the nineties, but on the other hand, at that time, I certainly owned and worked hard at understanding an expensive pile of textbooks talking about this exact systemic dynamic, textbooks which would certainly have been accessible and parseable by someone with Cannon’s writerly qualifications.

I will put this book in the giveaway pile and wouldn’t recommend it now, but it was very interesting to take this trip backward and see how much my own views and understanding of racism have changed over time. It makes me wonder uncomfortably how much more I have yet to learn, and how another quarter century will (I hope) change my views and deepen my understanding of the toxic webs of systemic oppression and my place in them.

.

Very Important Note: None of the phrases in quotation marks are direct quotes from the book.


 

How to Tell People They Sound Racist

Here’s a short video I love and share widely: Jay Smooth’s How to Tell People They Sound Racist. It’s an entertaining and articulate take on how to deal with people who make racist comments.

The take-home message is to separate the person from the problem by focusing on what they did rather than who they are, in an effort to prevent the discussion from being derailed by the whole “I’m not a racist!” defence and keeping it to “that thing you said was racist.”

I really like his advice and his analogy of someone who steals your wallet: you don’t chase him down to find out if he feels like a thief deep in his heart; you chase him because you want your wallet back (i.e., you want to address the harm done regardless of the thief’s unprovable motives and intents).

I’m white, and have struggled a lot to come to terms with the racism I’ve internalised from birth onward. I’ve mentioned before that I was racialised from an early age by my Danish grandfather who felt that I was a half-breed because my mom’s family is from the south of France (“they’re not really white that far south”). I would like to think that I am non-racist but I know the best I can hope for is to be anti-racist—to examine my own words and actions, to strive to do better, to interrupt racism when it occurs around me, and to be open to anger and criticism if I screw up.

It helps that I am also an outspoken feminist, and that when I took my Women’s Studies degree I was extremely fortunate to be taught by professors who were passionate about the interconnections of oppression. I learned and deeply believe that all the isms (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, etc. etc. etc.) are interconnected and mutually reinforcing (Marilyn Frye’s essay “Oppression” was helpful for me in understanding this). Also, my experiences as a feminist dealing with men (and a bisexual dealing  with straights) helps me to understand the ways in which men (or whites or heterosexuals) just don’t get it sometimes, regardless of how good their / our intentions may be. So not only do I consider racist speech and acts to impact me personally even though I am white, I am utterly convinced that this is also my fight. I might do it wrong sometimes and I might not have as full an understanding as I one day will. But inaction is not an option.

Jay Smooth says, regarding dealing with people who have said / done something racist: “I don’t care what you are; I care about what you did.” I think this applies to people like me (white) who abhor racism. We can be totally anti-racist in our hearts, but if we don’t actually do something about it, then we’re doing it wrong.

Applying Jay Smooth’s strategies to conversations about race—holding others responsible for their words and actions—is one way to take action.

Hair Matters

My actual hair now.

My actual hair now.

A few days ago, whereshappy posted about getting a horribly disappointing perm when she was eleven years old. That post made me laugh and it made me sad. I remember well how disappointed I was with a couple of perms I had when I was kid. I went in envisioning lovely big loose curls and I ended up looking like a poodle. But my mom and aunt (who performed the act) were so pleased with the results that I pretended I was delighted, although inside I felt uglier and more loserly than ever.

When that first perm faded away, my mom took me back for another one. Continue reading