Tag Archives: Aboriginal Peoples

The Seaport Farmers’ Market and Halifax’s Race Problem

14 Apr

Last week, the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market announced that several “prepared food vendors” would be moved from the market’s busy main level up to its mezzanine level. According to the Halifax Port Authority (the government agency in charge of the market, not to be confused with the Halifax Party Authority, which used to be some drunk dude’s house on Hunter street) this will be done to make room for more farmers. Which, fine, makes sense since it is, after all, a farmers’ market. Farmers gonna farm, I guess. Here’s where things get tricky: all of the vendors asked to move were “ethnic” foods, including Mary’s African Cuisine, Viji’s Veggies, Stella’s, Pierogis 4 U, Turkish Cuisine and Amin’s Indian food. Meanwhile, two other prepared food vendors – Julien’s Pastry Shop and The Cake Lady – are allowed to stay where they are on the first floor.

It would be easy to argue that there aren’t any racial undertones to this situation. After all, pierogies fall pretty firmly into the camp of Foods Traditionally Consumed By White People. The argument put forth by the Port Authority that they’d prefer to have all of the farmers on one level and all of the ready-to-eat food on another seems reasonable enough at first glance. And if there are enough businesses operating on the mezzanine, well, won’t that just draw more traffic up there? Plus, the Port Authority is really, really insistent that “Ethnicity has nothing to do with this decision.”

First of all, I think there are probably racial undertones to anything that even just maybe sort of seems to have racial undertones. Secondly, I feel pretty cautious about anyone who feels the need to insist that no, for sure, this decision which impacts only “ethnic food” vendors definitely has nothing to do with ethnicity. Finally, I’m skeptical of claims of not-racism because this is Halifax, a city that struggles with its deep-seated racism. Not only that, but this is the same farmers’ market that a few years ago considered flat out getting rid of the “ethnic” vendors based on the idea that cruise ship passengers shopping at the market are looking for “authentic maritime culture.”

Of course, what they mean by “authentic maritime culture” is: white people culture. Specifically, they mean the pseudo Scottish-Irish-Celtic culture the east coast is famous for. They for sure do not mean M’ikmaq culture (although there’s nothing more authentically maritime than that), or Black Nova Scotian culture (in spite of the fact that there’s been a thriving Black population in Nova Scotia since the 1700s), or any of the other races or ethnicities that been in and around Halifax for hundreds of years. In Halifax municipal government speak, maritimer is synonymous with white and everyone else is a come-from-away. Even if their family has been occupying this land since long before the white people arrived.

I love Halifax. Both of my father’s parents grew up in the north end, and I was lucky enough to visit at least once a year when I was growing up. Later, I moved there for school and wound up staying for nearly a decade. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived, and has a lot going for it – friendly people, a great local arts scene, a sweet work-to-live-not-live-to-work vibe and a really big hill with a clock tower on it. It’s also the most white supremacist places I’ve ever lived, and I say that as someone who grew up in a city that used to be called Berlin and at one point had a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm in a downtown park.

A big part of Halifax’s race problem is that it doesn’t want to admit that it has a race problem. Ask most people about the destruction of Africville (a predominantly Black community that was literally razed to the ground in the 1960s) and they’ll glibly tell you that it needed to be torn down to build the new bridge and anyway wasn’t it, like, actually a dump? They don’t want to hear about the tight-knit community that existed there; they’d rather not know about how the provincial and municipal governments purposefully placed a prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse, a fecal waste depository and, yes, finally the town dump next to Africville. If you mention the fact that the Africville church was secretly demolished by the city at night to limit protests, they’ll roll their eyes and say that was a long time ago and why isn’t everyone over that by now.

It was not a long time ago. The church was torn down in 1969. The final house in Africville was demolished in 1970. And the pervasive racism that led to the demise of Africville is still going strong in Halifax today. According to Sherwood Hines, three businesses in Halifax have been fined in the last year for not serving Black customers. IT IS 2015 AND BUSINESSES IN HALIFAX ARE FULLY NOT SERVING PEOPLE BECAUSE OF THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN. That is literally a thing that is happening and I don’t even know what to say about except: Halifax, you should be fucking better than that.

During the last few years that I lived in Halifax there was a lot of talk about “revitalizing” the north end. On the surface, this seemed like a great idea, especially since there was a several-mile radius that contained no banks or grocery stores or pharmacies. I was like, “Perfect, I can’t wait to not have to haul food all the way from Quinpool road. Bring on the revitalization.” Except, of course, what folks meant by “revitalization” was gentrification. Almost all of the new businesses that have moved into the north end are owned by white people, employ a primarily white staff, and serve white customers. The Black population in the north end no longer feel like they belong in their own neighbourhood.

The movement of the “ethnic” food vendors and the gentrification of the north end are all part of the same problem: cultural erasure and whitewashing. White Nova Scotians are eager to preserve the idea that maritime culture is a bunch of white people singing sea shanties and downing cod, and the folks selling samosas and dolmas don’t fit into that narrative arc. But you know what, Halifax? Not only is that narrative racist, reductionist and completely inaccurate, it’s also played out. YOU ARE BETTER THAN A BUNCH OF DRUNK FRAT DUDES PUKING ON THE FLOOR OF THE SPLIT CROW BETWEEN VERSES OF BARRETT’S PRIVATEERS. Nova Scotia is diverse. Nova Scotia has always been diverse. How about we recognize that and celebrate it instead of tucking away those inconvenient shish taouk vendors and pretending that Black culture isn’t a thing that’s been happening in Nova Scotia for three hundred years?

Halifax, you need to get your shit together. You have an amazing population, and it’s time to start serving all of them.

todays-vendor-listing

Idle No More

26 Dec

Last night, as we sat down to Christmas dinner, my mother’s dining room table practically groaning under the weight of all the food, I couldn’t help but think of Chief Theresa Spence, who is now on the 14th day of her hunger strike. As I piled my plate high with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and turnips, as the members of my family bowed their heads for grace and then raised their glasses in a toast, I thought of the woman who, only 100 miles away in Ottawa, was willing to die for her people.

Today, as others are rushing out to buy cheap goods in a glut of mass consumerism, I’m reminded of how very much so many of us already have, while others have so little.

Theresa Spence is the chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community near James Bay, which drew media attention earlier this year due to its ongoing housing crisis. Residents in Attawapiskat, and many other First Nations communities, face a shortage of funding when it comes to, well, just about everything, but the situation is especially dire with regards to housing and education. Late 2011 found families in Attawapiskat, including young children, living in uninsulated tents; some of those who were lucky enough to have more adequate housing still lacked basic necessities like running water, and were using buckets for toilets. Although the crisis in Attawapiskat drew significant media attention, it seems that little there has changed over the course of the year.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement it helped spark aren’t just about the subhuman living conditions in Attwapiskat and other reserves, though. It’s not just about the dire conditions found on so many First Nations reserves across the country. It’s not just about Bill C-45, which was passed earlier this year and both reduces the federal protection for Canadian waterways and also facilitates the government selling of reserve lands without consultation. Yes, it’s part of the fight against all those injustices, but it’s also about so much more.

It’s about the fact that our government has continued to ignore or downplay the rights and needs of this country’s Indigenous Peoples.

It’s about the fact that a small group of powerful, mostly white people still insist that they know what’s best for the diverse and culturally rich Canadian First Nations, even though history has proved time and time again that they don’t.

It’s about the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized in 2008 for the Canadian residential school system, which forced countless Indigenous children from their homes and into schools where they were beaten, sexually abused and grossly mistreated, and actually promised to help forge a “new relationship” with the First Nations based on “partnership” and “respect”, and yet refuses to meet with Chief Spence.

It’s about the fact that the next year, at the 2009 G20 summit, Harper said that Canada had “no history of colonialism.”

It’s about the fact that in the years since Harper promised to improve relations with First Nations peoples, he has instead cut aboriginal health funding, and his government sent body bags to a Manitoba reserve after its leaders requested federal assistance in dealing with an outbreak of swine flu.

It’s about the fact that over 600 Aboriginal women are missing, and no one seems to give a shit.

It’s about the fact that the Indian Act is so fucking oppressive that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, a First Nation can only be “formed” and formally recognized by the crown if the Minister of Indian Affairs approves it, even if that nation and its people have existed since long before white settlers came to North America. For another, First Nations peoples have very little control over reserve land, and the Minister must approve any land sales or transfers. Not only that, but First Nations people need to seek government approval for selling or bartering any crops, livestock and other products grown, reared or cultivated on reserve lands; any First Nations person failing to do so will be guilty of an offence. Reserve lands, including roads, bridges and fences, must be maintained by the Band Council, and if the Minister decides that they’re not doing an adequate job, he can order them to make repairs, and any money for those repairs must come from the Band Council. Oh, and if you’re an Indigenous Person, you’d better hope that the government doesn’t declare you to be “mentally incompetent”, as that means that the Minister can force you to sell, lease or mortgage your land as he sees fit. Even a dead Indigenous person isn’t safe from the Minister; no wills drawn up on reserve lands are considered legally valid until the Minister approves them.

Like, what in the actual fuck? Other Canadians don’t have to live this way, and if they did, there would be a fucking revolution. Why are we okay with our government treating the First Nations this way? Even worse, why do people make remarks about Indigenous Peoples wanting special treatment, sneering at things like government-funded post-secondary education and exemption from paying certain taxes. To anyone privileged enough to make comments like that, I have only this to say: you fucking try living through a Northern Ontario winter in an uninsulated tent, shitting and pissing in a bucket and knowing that the government maintains control over nearly every aspect of your lives but pretty much refuses to lift a finger to help you, and then come talk to me about special treatment.

Chief Theresa Spence’s demands are simple: she wants to meet with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. She wants to sit down with them and discuss the plight of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. She has said that, should Harper refuse her request, she will die for her people.

Harper won’t meet with Spence. Instead, as Spence starves herself in a teepee near the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, he’s enjoying Christmas with his family in Calgary, and composing hilarious tweets about bacon.

Rather than engaging Spence himself, Harper has deputized his Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan, to meet with her. Duncan, in turn, has publicly decried Spence for refusing to meet with him, and has urged her to end her hunger strike, out of “concern” for her health. As if it’s not offensive to Indigenous Canadians to say that our Prime Minister is so busy and important that he has to pawn them off to the ministry that has been specially created to deal with them. As if there’s nothing inappropriate about a white man to telling a First Nations woman how to behave or what to do with her body.

Look, I’m not a member of the First Nations. I’m a product of colonialism, descended from settlers who came here from France in 1645. I’m as white as they come. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t my fight. This should be every Canadian’s fight. The treatment of the First Nations peoples should matter to everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin; this is a case of human rights, not just Aboriginal rights. We all need to take action on this issue.

At the end of the day, we all share the same country. And we need to make this a country that treats all of its citizens with dignity and respect, not just its white citizens, not just its privileged citizens. Other countries view Canada as a fair, peaceful nation where all people have the same rights and privileges – we as Canadians need to start living up to that reputation.

The Canadian First Nations have spent more than a century waiting for things to improve, waiting for better treatment at the hands of the government and hoping that every new promise made by each successive Prime Minister would prove to be more substantial than the empty talk of all the ones that came before. The time to wait is over; now it’s time to stand up and fight back.

Thank you, Chief Theresa Spence, for being so brave, braver than I could ever be. I stand in solidarity with you.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

Saint Catherine’s Day

26 Nov

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine, a fact which really means nothing to me now that I’m a bonafide adult living in a secular, anglophone world. When I was a kid attending French Catholic school, though, St. Catherine’s Day was one of my red-letter days. Back then, every month seemed to have a holiday or feast day; these little celebrations and diversions helped us make it through the long school year. For anglo kids, the big November holiday was probably Remembrance Day, but for those of us at École Cardinal Léger, November 11th was always overshadowed by November 25th. This was true for one reason and one reason only: candy. Lots of candy.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is mostly famous for the terrible way she died. Born to the (pagan) king and queen of Alexandria, Catherine converted to Christianity at the age of 14. The reason for her conversion was a mystical vision in which the Virgin Mary gave Catherine to Jesus as a wife, and the two of them joined together in a holy union – I mean, you know, the usual. Catherine went on to convert hundreds of pagans to Christianity which, naturally, angered the Roman emperor at the time, Maxentius. Maxentius, a big fan of persecuting Christians, decided that the solution to his problem was to marry Catherine. When she refused (because she was already married to Jesus, duh), he tried to break her on the wheel. God, naturally, destroyed said wheel, so Maxentius just beheaded Catherine instead. I’m unsure as to how God could destroy the wheel but still allow her to be beheaded, but, um, I guess he works in mysterious ways?

Naturally, you want to know what the hell this all has to do with candy.

Relax. I’m getting to that.

The key to our modern celebration of Saint Catherine’s Day is Marguerite Bourgeouys, a nun who came to Canada in the 1600s. Marguerite opened a public school for girls in Montreal in 1658 (yay!), which marked the beginning of public schooling in Montreal (double yay!). She then decided that the First Nations children should also attend her school (problematic?) and began to devise ways by which she could lure them to her schoolhouse (definitely problematic). Her solution was to make taffy and then leave a trail of said taffy all the way from the local First Nations settlement to her schoolhouse (SUPER PROBLEMATIC). Oh, and apparently she made this taffy on St. Catherine’s Day, and young French Canadians have been doing so ever since.

I mean, at least her intentions were good? That has to count for something, right?

Marguerite Bourgeoys and her First Nations friends: 99 Problematics

Anyway, Marguerite Bourgeoys is a saint now, so at least she’s got that going for her.

My sister was born on November 24th, 1988. I remember the day of her birth pretty clearly; my mother came into my room early in the morning to tell me that she was going to the hospital to be induced, and then my principal pulled me out of class around noon with the news that I was now a big sister. My principal let me sit in her office and make my mother a card, probably assuming that I would produce the standard “YAY BABY” Hallmark-type fare. I, naturally, had other ideas in mind. Most likely influenced by the fact that Christmas was only a month away, I ended up drawing my mother as the Virgin Mary and my new sister as the Baby Jesus. Being a student at a Catholic school, I, of course, had heard the term virgin thrown around. However, being only six years old, I had no idea what it meant. I thought that “virgin” was synonymous with “good person”, which helps explain why, on my card, I wrote, Maman, tu es une vierge [Mama, you are a virgin]. I think I remember indulgent smiles from the grown ups at my school; at any rate, they didn’t immediately seize my card and burn it, so it couldn’t have been too blasphemous.

That night, I went to visit my mother in the hospital. There was an earthquake while we were there; a small one, but big enough that it made the glass tremble on my mother’s bedside table and the tacky framed prints sway on the wall. My parents laughed, and joked that it was an omen portending that my sister would accomplish great things. That one remark was a watershed moment in my life; for the first time, I experienced that complicated, emotionally charged state that we call sibling rivalry. What did they mean that she would accomplish great things? Had they said the same thing about me at my birth? What had my omens been?

I asked if there had been an earthquake the night I was born. No, my parents said. How about a full moon? A thunderstorm? Anything? My parents just rolled their eyes and laughed. Meanwhile, I glared at my fat, red, wrinkled nemesis.

The next night, when my father brought me back to the hospital for another visit, I proudly announced that we’d celebrated St. Catherine’s Day at school by making candy. My parents, who hadn’t yet come up with a name for my sister, gave each other this look like, WHOA, ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING? WE ARE FOR SURE GENIUSES.

Needless to say, they named her Catherine.

Catherine, which I thought was probably the bossiest name I’d ever heard.

Catherine, the perfect name for someone who would accomplish great things.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, my parents insisted on telling everyone that my sister’s name had been my idea. Whenever they said this in my presence, I would yell, THAT’S A DAMN LIE, I WANTED TO NAME HER SOPHIE, and then, naturally, immediately get sent to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room after my sister’s birth, mostly because I couldn’t understand how my parents could equate my casually mentioning a name in their presence with suggesting it as the word that we would ever use when referring to my new sibling. In retrospect, I’m sure that my parents were trying to help me adapt to having a sister after spending more than half a decade as an only child; at the time it just seemed like they were wilfully ignoring everything I had to say.

When Catherine started school, her teachers went out of their way to make St. Catherine’s Day a big deal for her. They would make her a paper crown, and spend the day treating her like a princess. At the end of the festivities, she would bring home a bigger pile of candy than anyone else.

Did I have a special saint’s day that gave my the chance to wear a crown and bring home an exceptionally large pile of candy?

No. No, I did not.

Probably because I wasn’t destined to do great things.

Throughout Catherine’s early years, I found various ways to torment her. I stuck clothespins in her hair. I called her ridiculous names. I made faces at her at the dinner table. Nothing I did was overly terrible, but then, it didn’t need to be; Catherine threw tantrums as if she had a calling for it. Catherine screamed and kicked as if it was her vocation; she once had a legendary meltdown over the fact that her toast was cut  vertically instead of diagonally. This meant that it was both easy and satisfying to provoke her.

When I entered my teen years, my mother developed a fascination with mediums and psychics. She began having her tarot cards read on a regular basis.

“The psychic says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles,” she told me once in the car, as she was driving me to a dance class.

Naturally, I was more interested in what she’d had to say about me.

“Oh, she says, you’re boy-crazy,” my mother replied dismissively, “as if I didn’t already know that. But she says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked

“I don’t know, but I’d better not hear you making fun of her for it,” my mother said in her most threatening tones.

Why would I make fun of her for it? I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she was destined to do great things, while I was destined to be a pathetic, boy-crazy teenager forever.

Catherine and I continued to have an adversarial relationship throughout the rest of my time in high school, and my first few years of university. I can clearly remember bringing Matt home to meet my family for the first time, and whining to my mother about how Catherine was being rude to him. I don’t remember what she was being rude about, mind you, just that I didn’t like the way she talked to him. Catherine told me constantly that I was old and boring, and that my music sucked. While I was nearly always single and lonely, Catherine had a steady stream of boyfriends from the time she was 13. Instead of abating, our rivalry seemed to be heating up. On top of all that, I was deeply embarrassed by that I was jealous of someone who was six years younger than me.

This continued on for several years, until, sometime in my early twenties, we had a fight. Like, a big fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, I just remember yelling, even screaming at her. I was furious. Beyond furious. Somehow, having run out of things that actually had to do with what we were fighting about, I got around to the anger and jealousy that I’d been harbouring all these years.

You don’t even like me,” I yelled at her. “Why do you even bother talking to me? You don’t have anything to talk to me about! You think you’re better than me! You think you’re going to do great things!”

At this point, Catherine burst into tears, which, if you knew her, you would know how highly unusual that is.

“What do you mean I don’t like you?” she wailed. “I love you! You’re my big sister! I look up to you for everything!”

That stopped me dead in my tracks. How could it possibly be that my sister, my destined-for-great-things, Queen-of-Pentacles sister could ever look up to me, failure that I was, for anything?

That night was a turning point in our relationship. We’ve been close ever since; she even lived with us for a few months this year. Now that she’s back living three hours away, I miss her, even though we talk all the time.

I hope she had a good birthday.

I hope she knows how proud I am of her.

I hope that this year she continues to do great things.

I hope that she had some candy today, in honour of St.Catherine.

Catherine with her cat, Chairman Mao

Happy birthday, little sister.

p.s. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine’s Day Taffy, if you want to try making it yourself.

Guest Post: Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

8 Nov

As promised, here is a post from my friend L, who blogs over at Life In Pint-Sized Form, explaining why she chooses to wear a Remembrance poppy. Thank you, L, for taking the time to put together such a wonderful, informative and heartfelt post.

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Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

Remembrance Day is upon us – the day the Armistice was put into place that ended the First World War, and the day that Canadians take a moment at the stroke of 11 AM to remember our veterans, our dead, and the victims and senselessness of war.

Well, that’s what we’re supposed to be remembering. Instead, we have a lot of hypocrisy – people who support wars, who even glorify them, wearing poppies. Notably, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wears a blood-red poppy on his suit lapel while he bids goodbye to the Canadian soldiers going to their fate in Afghanistan.

Makes it kind of hard to remember that the poppy is supposed to represent “never another war”.

Yesterday Annabelle from The Belle Jar wrote about why she chooses not to wear a Remembrance poppy. She states that it’s because she doesn’t agree with the reasons for wearing it. She doesn’t forget, because we as Canadians don’t forget war. It’s on the History Channel. It’s in movies, it’s in popular culture. There’s a show on TV right now called Bomb Girls, about women who helped the war effort in ammunition factories. We don’t forget the wars. We don’t forget the senseless fighting, the history that came out of it and the way we are because of it.

I respect Annabelle’s choice to wear the white poppy, or not to wear a poppy at all. However, I do choose to wear the red poppy of Remembrance Day, and this is why.

An 18-year-old boy left his home on the Melbourne Chippewa reserve to join the Navy. He became an officer on a ship headed for the South Pacific, where he fought against the Japanese in the Second World War. He fought despite the fact that his family lost their culture due to the actions of the Canadian government, that he lost his language, his cultural arts, and his identity as a Native man.

That man is my grandfather.

While we remember the many veterans who fought in the many wars Canada has been involved in, the iconic images of these veterans are whitewashed. We don’t see the people of colour who, despite the treatment they received from our country, fought wholeheartedly for Canada. Stood beside their white military fellows, held the same guns. Manned the same cannons and threw the same grenades. Died in the trenches and on the seas . . . their faces never to be seen again under miles of thick, bloody mud.

Why don’t we see those faces when we remember?

I choose to remember the sacrifices that our citizens of colour made during the wars. I choose to remember that they didn’t give up their lives, they gave up their culture, their language, their right to freedom, and still fought. I choose to honour those veterans, those Native, African-Canadian, Asian-Canadian soldiers. Those ones we never see.

And I wear the poppy not just as a way to remember, but as a statement: freedom doesn’t just belong to white folks. The sacrifices weren’t just made by your English grandfather who manned a gun in World War II. They were made by people who clawed their way back to the surface after our country did its best to bury them through colonization. Who have seen more loss than all of us combined.

I proudly wear my poppy for peace. For sacrifice. For the victims we lost, and for my grandfather and his Native peers.

Lest we forget.

Deconstructing Racism And Privilege

18 Oct

Before we start, let me be really upfront about a few things.

First of all, I am not an expert on racism; I haven’t studied it extensively, and what I’m about to write here is mostly based on a few smart books/articles, conversations with friends, and stuff that I’ve read online. Oh, and feelings. I have a lot of feelings about racism.

Second of all, I’m white. I mean, like, really white. I have the complexion of an anemic Swede. So obviously I don’t fully understand racism and its impact because I will never personally experience it directed towards me. Everything that I’m writing here is offered as the perspective of someone who lives in the land of white privilege.

So with that baseline in place, I want to talk a bit about racism in general and some of the fallout from The Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle in particular (sidebar: isn’t debacle a great word? let’s all agree to use it more often). I’ve been reading some of the comments left on my blog, on my Facebook page, on BlogHer and on this piece in The Guardian, and many of them are, well, troubling. To put it mildly.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the comments:

“Oh for pity’s sake, must everything be offensive? Political Correctness gone wild.”

“WHAT aboriginal community in the U.S. ? This belief in the U.S. is dead. The only complainers are the very few who were conquered. Conquering is not new to any culture. If the Native Americans weren’t so busy trying to conquer each other, they might have been able to keep more of their land. It seems every culture grew from conquering over a culture for whatever reasons they had. The system is world wide. Just because we finally gave it a name doesn’t mean we alone own it.”

“OMG, and the shirt is black too, with white text. We must read everything into this!”

What I find truly annoying it that creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism … Instead of fighting actual racists, they find it easier to make normal people, without racists tendencies, to tread on eggshells around minorities.

I think this is absolutely ridiculous that natives feel entitled to stick their nose into everyone’s business because it ‘hurts their feelings’.

We get it, we took your land and you feel a deep entitlement to free education, no taxes and who knows what else. But you know what… throughout history people have been stealing land from other people. You need to stop drawing pity to your people and move forward like the rest of the world.

You are just a bunch of entitled greedy leeches that like to cry out and draw attention to yourselves.”

I think that a lot of these responses are knee-jerk reactions that come from a place of fear. We see something like the Manifest Destiny tee, and we don’t see a problem with it. Then someone tells us that it’s racist, and our reaction falls into one of the following categories:

1. We accept that it’s racist, and work to understand the how and why of it

2. We deny that it’s racist, and then defend that denial

I think that a lot of people choose the latter because accepting that the t-shirt is racist, and knowing that they didn’t initially understand why, means that they are racist. And they’re not racist! They have friends who are people of colour! They would never do/say/think anything racist! So, logically, if they are not racist, then the shirt must not be, either.

For those of you who are afraid of being racist, I’m going to tell you something that will maybe sort of let you off the hook:

If you are white, you are racist.

To be clear, for the purposes of this post I’m defining racism as prejudice plus power. In the western world, in this specific time in history, only white people can be racist. People of colour can certainly be prejudiced against those of other ethnicities, but they can’t be racist because they don’t have the societal power to enforce those prejudices.

Look, it’s not your fault that you’re racist; you’re probably a really nice person and yes, I do believe you when you tell me that you have friends of many different ethnicities. You grew up in a world where you were immersed in white privilege, and that privilege was constantly being reinforced by your education, the media and society in general. You didn’t ask for that privilege; it was handed to you whether you wanted it or not. Given these circumstances, you can’t help being racist.

But believe me when I tell you that you are racist. I am racist. We need to acknowledge and accept this before we move forward.

That fact being established, I want to be really clear on something: it is not for white people to say what is and isn’t racist. It’s not our place to roll our eyes and say, Really, do I have to be offended by everything now?

I’m not saying that there is never any overreaction when it comes to racial issues. What I am saying is, if a person of colour tells you that something is racist, give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t understand why it’s racist, ask them to help you understand. If the explanation makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why it makes you uncomfortable.

And for the record, I would rather overreact to something than under-react to it. I would prefer to be labeled hysterical than labeled an apologist. I would rather be hated for being outspoken than look back on a a terrible event and feel like I could have done something if only I’d had the courage to open my mouth.

So remember earlier, when I told you that I was sort of letting you off the hook? Well, here’s the part where it turns out that I’m not letting you off the hook at all. Yes, you are a good person. No, you can’t help being racist. What matters now is what you do with this information; what matters is whether or not you remain blind to the fact that you are subject to prejudices against people of colour, or whether you accept it and say, okay, what do I do now?

To say stuff like, “… creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism”, is to remain wilfully blind to your own racism. It’s to see racism as a series of overtly cruel acts perpetrated by other people, and not as an inherent part of the invisible systems we all participate in that benefit white people.

To make comments to the effect that what was done to the Aboriginal peoples in North America is ancient history, and that “conquering” is just a normal part of civilization, is to remain wilfully ignorant to the truth of what happened, and how it’s still happening today.

To say that we live in a society where political correctness has gone overboard and to dismiss the cries of racism from people of colour as a gross overreaction is to assert that it is, in fact, up to white people to decide what is and isn’t racist. It’s saying that people of colour aren’t smart enough to know what true racism is, or that all they want is our pity or our land or our money. It’s perpetuating the idea that only white people know what is best, and it’s insinuating that it would be wrong or even dangerous to have people of colour in positions of power where their poor judgment and conniving ways could have a disastrous effect on everyone.

Okay. What do we do now?

I’m going to say something that might seem really scary, but here it is:

Let people of colour have a voice. Seriously listen to what they have to say. When what they say frightens and confuses you, don’t shut them out. Keep listening. Be willing to work with them; be willing to have them tell you that you’re wrong. Spend every moment of every day fighting against your prejudices. When you want to leave a comment like the ones above on an online article, take a moment before you hit the reply button and think, what am I really saying here?

It’s hard, I know. Many (most?) of us grew up in an era where overt racism was very much frowned upon, but the underlying racist structure of society was never talked about. We grew up with books and television shows and movies that were racist, although we didn’t know that at the time, and it can be difficult to cherish the memories of those things while at the same time admitting that they were problematic. We grew up knowing that racism was so wrong, which means admitting that we’re racist makes us feel like monsters.

The hardest thing of all is accepting that society has to change, because why would we want to change things when everything is set up to benefit us? What motivation is there to have anything be different from the way it is?

Well, for one thing, I want Theo to grow up in a better world than I did; I don’t want him to have to have the same prejudices I do. I want to stop feeling guilty just because my skin is white. I want to look at someone and see who they are, instead of first noticing their race.

Most of all, I want to live in a world where everyone is equal. Yes, I know that people will always be born into different socioeconomic circumstances; yes, I understand that some people will always have to struggle more than others just to achieve the same thing. But that struggle should never, ever be tied to a person’s skin colour. A person should not be set up to fail from the very beginning just because they’re not white.

And if you don’t understand that, then I don’t know what to say.

A Few Small Things

16 Oct

Hey y’all, here are a few things I wanted to share with you today:

1. Here is a post about women in geek culture that I wrote for Shameless Magazine’s blog. I am really proud of it! I am also super stoked that I had the chance to write it, and want to give Shameless Magazine a thousand smooches for publishing my stuff. If you want to read about misogyny, racism, and the lack of representation of queer and trans folks in geek culture, you should check it out. If you want to read about my love for Wil Wheaton, you should DOUBLE check it out.

OMGGGGGG IMAGINE IF WIL WHEATON EVER READ IT, I WOULD DIIIIIEEEEEE.

Hi, Wil Wheaton, call me, okay?

2. It looks like The Gap has pulled the Manifest Destiny shirt, and offered this lukewarm non-apology:

They tweeted something very similar yesterday, but it looks like the tweet has been removed.

I would really love for them to handle this the way Paul Frank handled the recent outcry over their racist and offensive fashion show, and I’m still hopeful that they might, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of my favourite parts of Paul Frank’s response is that they said they like to collaborate with an Aboriginal artist on future designs and that the profits from that collaboration would be donated to an Aboriginal cause. How amazing would it be if The Gap could follow their lead?

3. My Manifest Destiny post was featured on BlogHer! It’s on the front page of the site, and it feels bananas to load the page and see something I wrote front and centre. I feel super flattered that they featured it!

4. You should really check out my friend L’s response to Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle over at her blog, Life In Pint-Sized Form. Her grandfather is a full-blood Chippewa, and she brings a fantastic perspective to this issue. Reading what she wrote literally gave me chills.

5. Artist Gregg Deal, who is Aboriginal and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, created this image in response to Manifest Destiny shirt:

I love these designs because they show so clearly the subtext behind the term Manifest Destiny, a subtext that many people seem hesitant to acknowledge. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? I also love that he used humour to address the racism of Gap’s design, because I think that humour can be a super important weapon against all forms of intolerance.

5. October 15th was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. Two of my friends wrote very movingly about their experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth, and I wanted to share their posts with you. The first is from my friend Jodi, who blogs over at Mama To Bean and whose son Joel was stillborn last year – you can read her reflections on what this day means to her here.

The second post comes from The Yellow Blanket, which is written anonymously by a woman who has suffered multiple unexplained pregnancy losses. She writes incredibly movingly about her losses, and what her pregnancies have meant to her.

If you plan on reading these posts, I would suggest that you break out the kleenex.

6. A lot of the stuff in this post has been pretty heavy. If you need something to lift your spirits after all this profound grief/righteous indignation/sadness that you are not, in fact, married to Wil Wheaton, then I highly recommend The Hairpin’s Texts From Little Women. I was reading this in the yoga studio while there was a class going on, and I was trying SO HARD to stifle my laughter because, well, Jo March. God I love Jo March.

Here’s a sample – the italicized text is Jo March, and the plain text is Meg March:

I hope you realize you’re breaking up the family 

I really wish you wouldn’t see things that way

a broken home 
that’s what I come from now 
a broken home

that’s not what they call it when your sister gets married

then why does it feel broken, Meg
why does it feel broken
this is the worst thing 
that has ever happened 
to anyone 
since Father died 

Father didn’t die, Jo!
he’s only been wounded!

oh 
didn’t he? 
for some reason I thought he’d died 

no
he’ll be home in a few weeks
Ah

do you suppose he’s going to want his old greatcoat 
and riding boots 
and shaving things 
and top hat
when he gets back? 

I expect that he will

HANG EVERYTHING” 

Hang everything indeed.

Mark McNairy, I Can’t Even

15 Oct

Mark McNairy, the man who designed the Manifest Destiny shirt for The Gap, tweeted the following on Saturday evening:

(He has since deleted the tweet, but fortunately a few people were able to get screen grabs)

When I saw this, I turned to Matt and said, He must not know what Manifest Destiny means.

I mean, he can’t know, right? There is no way that I can live in a world where a white American dude just posted publicly on the internet that the systematic oppression, destruction and abuse of North American Aboriginal peoples happened because white people are the FITTEST. I can’t possibly live in that world.

See, this is where my own wilful ignorance kicks in. When writing about issues like this, I try really, really hard to be fair and objective. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and do my best to offer an unbiased, balanced perspective on issues that trigger big emotions in me. I tend to assume that everyone has good intentions, but they just get bogged down by misuse of language, or lack of information. When someone says something as glaringly racist and offensive as the above, my brain just can’t process the fact that they might be serious.

What does he even mean by fittest, anyway? Is he referring to the Aboriginal peoples’ lack of immunity to diseases such as smallpox that were endemic in most European populations? Does he mean the fact that said members of the European population had guns when they arrived in North America while the indigenous peoples didn’t? Does he think that by swaggering onto this continent and declaring everything they saw as theirs, our colonial ancestors are somehow more fit? Does he think that the North American Aboriginal peoples are where they are today because they just haven’t worked hard enough?

If that last one is the case, I would like to paraphrase the first sentence of this article: If wealth and being  was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, the members of the First Nations populations would be millionaires.

What I want to do right now is call this McNairy fellow up and ask him if he’s aware of what he’s saying, and if he’s thought about what the fallout from his careless remarks might be. I want to point out that he owns his own (eponymous) business, and, as an ambassador for this brand, he needs to be aware that everything he says will have an impact on his business’ success. I want to reach through the phone, grab him by the shoulders and yell, What the hell were you thinking?

Of course, the questions that I really want to ask are the ones whose answers I’m not sure I can handle

What I need to know the most is whether Mark McNairy cares about how hurtful his remarks were. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to grow up in the grinding poverty and inhumane living conditions of many of the First Nations’ reserves, only to be told by a white man that you are there, on that reserve, because of survival of the fittest. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to see the name of the philosophy that led to the attempted genocide of your people splashed across a t-shirt, and then see the man responsible for that  shirt taking to Twitter to defend it. I need to know if he’s ever thought about anything outside of his existence as a privileged white man.

I am afraid to know what McNairy’s responses would be to these questions. Afraid, yes, but still brave enough to hear them. Because I will never be able to overcome my own wilful ignorance, my smiling, apologetic naïveté until I am forced to look at the naked truth.

I can’t possibly live in a world where people say things like this, except that I do.