Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Racist No More

My piece from last week on the Idle No More movement garnered significant attention over the last seven days. It is in not terribly surprising given the moment we are living in. In my discussion I touched on a lot of different aspects of the movement and response. However, over the past week there was something I want to revisit – racism.

Racism, obviously, is a highly loaded word. In contemporary society there may be no more serious allegation than that of “racist”, but I am beginning to doubt that. Clear displays of racism are essentially intolerable in Canadian society. Overt symbols such as the swastika, the Ku Klux Klan and certain words (which I chose not to write) are simply not permitted and solicit strong public outcry.

While modern Canada has worked hard to eliminate overt racism the systematic and institutional racism that existed within previous systems of power continue to linger. Coming out of an Education background I became very familiar with the institutional biases that are stacked against non-majority students. Studies show again and again that non-white students underperform. Theories exist to explain it; my favourite one was essentially coined by George W. Bush as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

So while you would be hard pressed to find a white American who would use the “n-word” in polite conversation, you probably would struggle to find a Canadian to call First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit “savages”. That being said, many of the institutional problems that confront these marginalized minorities persist, and worse still, they persist within the minds of their fellow citizens.

Comment sections on news articles have now been long-known to be hotbed of the most virulent and abusive of remarks. Mallick from the Toronto Star wrote an article this week about the degrading tone and what it might suggest about the Canadian public in general. I know I have my own biases, I made that clear enough I believe last week, and in general in this blog. It is my opinion that there are commonly held opinions that if applied to other groups would clearly be construed as racist remarks, but given our own cultural context appear normal.

Imagine if this comment, “The majority of them could not seem to harness the positive energy to do something constructive,” was said not about Aboriginals on reserves, but about African-Americans. If a Congressman or woman said those comments he/she would be rightfully targeted by the media and tried in the court of public opinion – harshly. Sadly, I think far too many Canadians read comments like that and say, “Yes, that’s the truth.” It’s that soft bigotry; we expect nothing from indigenous people and assume they are capable of nothing.

As a counterpoint activists on social media began to use the hashtag #Ottawapiskat to point out hypocrisy in the treatment of reserves versus every other aspect of the federal government. Given my political persuasion it is particularly galling to hear over and over how reserves need transparency as our government has rammed in massive omnibus budgets with unforeseen consequences.

The treatment of Aboriginal people and our colonial history is Canada’s national shame. Like many we want to avoid our shame and blame others instead of taking responsibility for it. We misdirect criticism, minimize abuses and misconstrue attempts at reconciliation as attacks. Perhaps the biggest problem is that for many Canadians is that the issues confronting Native peoples are Native peoples’ problems. They don’t see them, they do not feel responsible and blame those facing this issues rather than the issues themselves. When protesters and leaders try to get Canadians’ attention one can almost hear the audible sigh, “What do they want now?”

I sincerely hope we do not get to a crisis point in this country, but as I said last week it feels like the two major sides in this debate cannot even agree on terms, or the parameters of the discussion. Therefore we have these current “discussions” where at least one side, and sometimes both, chooses not to listen.

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