Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Truth, reconciliation, and Canadian systemic racism

Prior to and during the pandemic, the issue of systemic racism has been extremely visible in Canada and elsewhere.  I felt it was time for me to continue my learning to become antiracist.

For context and further reading, this month I've read the following:

 
 
White Fragility provides context for people where discussions of racism are new. I provided a review earlier, discussing the problem with the focus on individuals vs systems, and "racist = bad / not racist = good" simplistic binary thinking. I was born into a racist society, so even though I grew up oblivious to the concept of race, I absorbed racist ideas around me.  The only way for me to have been anti racist would have been for me to have been race aware and reject the racist ideas around me.

In The Skin We're In, Desmond Cole used the events of 2017 to discuss racism in Canada.  This is important for Canadians who like to believe that racism is a problem elsewhere, often pointing at the United States and believing we are so much better.  Canadians' aren't as loud and proud as our southern neighbours, but my reading suggests we should stop trying to be so smug.

Stamped was a huge eye opening history lesson, from Aristotle all the way to present day.  If you only take one thing from this amazing book, it is introduced on page 2 (prologue).


In 2016, the United States is celebrating its 240th birthday. But even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group. Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. During the ongoing debate over police killings, these three sides to the argument have been on full display. Segregationists have been blaming the recklessly criminal behavior of the Black people who were killed by police officers. Michael Brown was a monstrous, threatening thief; therefore Darren Wilson had reason to fear him and to kill him. Antiracists have been blaming the recklessly racist behavior of the police. The life of this dark-skinned eighteen-year-old did not matter to Darren Wilson. Assimilationists have tried to have it both ways. Both Wilson and Brown acted like irresponsible criminals.


By watching interviews I learned that part of  Ibram X. Kendi's goal is to remove the concept of "non-racist" from our vocabulary.  Given the societies we live in are racist, we have two types of racist ideas (segregationist and assimilationist), and we have antiracist ideas.

It isn't possible for an individual to be "not racist" in a racist society, they must become antiracist.  For the vast majority of my life I was "not racist", meaning I didn't ever deliberately attack someone from a different race due to the racist ideas I had absorbed around me.  This really had no meaning as I  still held some racist ideas.

The 21 things book is an expansion by the author of a blog posting in 2015 with the same name.
 
I believe it is critical for all Canadians to read about the Indian Act.  At various points in our history the Indian Act enforces segregationist and/or assimilationist ideas, but its purpose was to one way or another wipe out any differences that existed from the Christian European Colonists.  While residential schools were the most visible act of cultural genocide, this was only one part of a much larger scheme on the part of the colonialists.
 
That history was very visible in the reactions to the 2020 Canadian pipeline and railway protests, and how so many Canadians of European descent were claiming that the "elected" councils approved the pipeline, while it was only the "hereditary" chiefs that were opposed.
 
Lets try a thought experiment.  The mere discussion of Sharia (Islamic) law in Canada causes an uproar.  This is not even a discussion of applying Sharia law to non-muslims, but allowing Muslims to harness Sharia laws as part of the governance within their own communities.
 
Christian European laws and traditions are as different from North American Indigenous laws and traditions as Sharia law is from Christian European laws and traditions.  One of the parts of the cultural genocide embedded in the Indian Act is to impose Chrisitian European laws and traditions onto Indigenous persons, outlawing in most ways their traditional governance.  The Indian Act created an "elected" bureaucracy to administer the Indian Act, and those are the so-called "elected" band councils.   I am putting the word "elected" in quotations as Indigenous persons aren't any more interested in participating in this foreign system any more than the average Canadian of European descent would vote for a Sharia law council.
 
If Canada is to move towards any attempt at truth or reconciliation we need to stop thinking that "elected" Indian Act bureaucrats are legitimate spokespersons for Indigenous people. These bureaucrats are accountable to the Canadian government via the Indian Act, and are not representatives of Indigenous people.
 
 
Those of a "Liberal" persuasion in Canada should avoid thinking it was only "Conservatives" that were pushing against truth and reconciliation with their desire to inflate the relevance of the Indian Act bureaucrats in order to push their pipeline project through.  We only need to look to the aggressive assimilationist policies of  Pierre Elliott Trudeau (PM at the time) and Jean Chr├ętien (Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time) to recognize this attitude crosses party lines.
 
After generations of the "voluntary" assimilation policies of the Indian Act not being successful in wiping out Indigenous culture, Trudeau's government came up with their Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy (The White Paper, 1969).  The core idea was to end the voluntary assimilation policies through a final assimilation which would end any concept of Indian status.

When forced to withdraw the White Paper in 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is said to have stated, "We'll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want." (21 things, p.92)

Prime Minister Harper offered a full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system, and Justin Trudeau has apologised to some who were missing from the earlier apology.


It seemed obvious from the discussion at the beginning of this year that there has been no movement on removing the most offensive aspects of the Indian Act, or reducing Canadian racist attitudes towards Indigenous people.  Governments of European descent and politicians seem to find it easy to give speeches that sound good, but when it comes to conflicts around extracting resources or so-called "public works" projects any actual truth, reconciliation, or antiracism disappears.

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

My reading of "White Fragility"

I just finished reading White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo.

My reading this isn't very novel, as many people have.  The book is aimed at people who are identified (by others, even if not by themselves) as "white".  While I recognize that race is a social construct, it is a social construct I was ignorant of growing up.  I have had the opportunity in recent decades to become more aware of race, and thus aware of my own participation in this society.

I want to talk more about the concepts in the book, but there are a few issues that hold me back.

  • I worry that any discussion will be seen as if it were "virtue signalling", given how popular the book has become in certain circles.
  • Since the book uses different definitions of some terminology than how others use it, I feel like anything I say won't make sense to anyone who hasn't read the book or is otherwise aware of the language in this subject area.

Ms. Diangelo discusses racism not in terms of a conscious act by an individual, but as a system.  Some people try to discuss around the term "systemic racism", but that also causes the same confusion as this isn't about social structures filled with racist individuals, but about social structures and institutions which are themselves racist in their design (separate from any specific individuals that exist within that system).

In my profession I act as a systems and network administrator, and software author. I'm excited to move out of the "racist = bad / not racist = good" simplistic binary thinking, and to look at systems and networks rather than at individuals.  While racist individuals exist and can elicit a lot of emotion, I have always believed actual change requires focusing on systems.

Much of the technological systems and networks I manage are invisible to others, offering me sometimes undue influence over communications.  This is the nature of systems, and I have always worked in my profession to try to make technological systems as transparent as possible so people can have informed policy and other conversations about them.  (I spent 10 years talking to policy makers about "Copyright" for that purpose).  I have always considered opaque systems to be potentially dangerous weak-points (in the home, in workplaces, in society).

I have a hard time understanding anyone who, once made aware of the system components that make up our society, would not recognize it as racist.  This is not the same as suggesting that any specific human is individually racists, but that we have built social structures that are racist and these systemic bugs should be fixed.


I have come across many of the components of these systems discussed in this book in other contexts.  The counterproductive focus on individualism, and belief in the concept of objectivity can be seen in how people discuss politics and the media.  The more politicians and media communicators (social or less democratized) claim they are being objective, the more they are trying to keep opaque the biases which all humans have.

The only way to navigate biases is to expose them and not falsely claim to be objective, and the only way to understand and fix bugs in systems is to be aware they exist and not pretend we exist as individuals outside those systems.


While reading the book I was reminded of earlier conversations with other descendants of northern Europeans (indigenous in Europe, colonists and/or immigrants in other parts of the world such as Canada) about where COVID-19 infected first.  I also believe how these descendants have interpreted the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is also quite dependent on racial and political biases.


I am aware of a variety of critiques of the arguments made in the book, but have thus far not been persuaded by them.  I grew up oblivious to race, went through a phase where I considered myself non-racist when race became visible, and only later became antiracist.  Given this progression I consider this an opportunity for lifelong learning, so will remain open to hearing persuasive arguments.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone to read, no matter where you live or what socially constructed race you were born into.  Even if we later disagree in a conversation, we will at least be able to have that discussion using some shared terminology.