The title of this post was inspired by a College Humor video of the same name (click image for video).
The content of the post has been on my mind for quite some time, and is really an opportunity to talk through some of the ongoing iterations of ethnoracial discrimination that circulate in everyday dialogue.
I want to start by talking about the continual process of racialization, also related to racial profiling or stereotyping. Profiling, gender or sexuality based stereotypes and assumptions, are a way to categorize and “attempt to make sense of differences” between people and communities (as the soft excuses go), and really are a way to maintain inequitable power structures. The subtle and often erroneous ways that stereotypes are set in society are, from my perspective, key to breaking down the deeper structural forms of racism that inform how individuals and communities are treated. The shooting of black boys and men, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the unresolved murder of Indigenous women are two examples of how negative and ill-informed public portrayals of particular communities – and the resultant public perception of these communities – leads to violence and injustice against them. Racializing any community of people categorically groups them as homogenous (first), and then ranks them against “others” [with more social and economic power] (second). Once these ideas are circulating values are imposed on them, values that are read publicly through the way they/we look (skin color, gender and sexuality based performance, style of dress, etc.) and read against the dominant status quo or “normalcy” (the farther you/we are from the “norm” the more we are scrutinized and criticized and devalued).
In her 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian author Chimanada Ngozi Adichie addresses ‘the danger of the single story’. Adichie nicely describes how limited and simplified ideas about complex and heterogeneous communities result in ignorant and oppressive stereotypes. What I’ve struggled with recently is how to interrupt the continual reproduction of ethnoracial stereotypes in every day dialogue. For example, I was recently speaking with a neighbor about their child in daycare, and some of the problems they were having with the new daycare supervisors on site there. The woman described to me the unpleasant temperament of the daycare manager and included casually somewhere in the discussion that the daycare manager was Native. By complaining about this daycare manager’s demeanor and unhappy temperament, and then associating those attributes with a particular ethnoracial heritage, my neighbor – intentionally or not – engaged in a racial microaggression. The daycare manager’s ethnoracial background had no relevance to her behavior. In this case, then, attaching the behavior with being “Native” (as though “Native” is one homogenous community or had anything to do with the story) creates a connection between this negative story and (inherently) being Native (or reflecting that perception in my neighbor’s view). This type of categorical creation of stereotypes is part of a slow and minute amalgamation of incidents, selective histories (constructed by people in power), and a misallocation of complaints about individuals as reflecting entire groups. “Positive” stereotypes can do just as much damage, cited in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology as being accepted without question and simultaneously contributing to a greater likelihood of belief in other (damaging and erroneous) biological foundations for what are often socially and culturally constructed difference. The following photos depict examples of racial microaggressions, created by Kiyun Kim:
There may be occasions when referring to someone’s ethnoracial background is relevant to a story, but as I’ve been paying more and more attention, much of the time I find it to be an unnecessary and damaging addition to casual conversation. If I had to have a bottom line, I would ask people to think about why they are making reference to a person’s race, religion, nationality, sexuality, or culture before including it in the conversation. I met a guy last week who asked me quite eloquently how I ethnically identify. I responded politely asking why, within 5 minutes of conversation, he wanted to know. He responded that if he knew, he might understand something more about me. In some cases, that may be true and perhaps grounds for solidarity. And in some cases, that also might place people with diverse interests, distinct ideological standpoints, disparate socioeconomic upbringings and current contexts, sexuality, etc. etc. into very small boxes.
Diet racism comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes in the form of mimicking accents where an accent is the bud of a joke, meaning that a culture is the bud of a joke, that those individuals who speak with an accent are comical and their language differences are something to be laughed at. Sometimes an accent is mimicked in the retelling of a story with no humor at all, but to ‘simply reflect the way a person was speaking’ (as it’s been said to me recently). This, in my opinion, is quite the same as naming an ethnoracial group in association with a behavior. It’s offensive because it’s (poorly) trying to capture something more meaningful (a cultural referent) through mimicry that is always inadequate. It’s all tantamount to inappropriate Halloween costumes and the appreciation vs. appropriation discussion around culturally inspired fashion and cultural appropriation in general.
These are all very delicate matters, especially in a political climate with minority groups and our allies trying to poke holes in the status quo of patriarchal capitalist imperialism (borrowing from bell hooks) left, right and center. We all need to err on the side of caution when it comes to diet racism and think carefully before we speak.
This is absolutely worth watching or listening to while you cook, clean, or mentally meander.
Gloria Steinem and bell hooks “Forever Young: A Public Dialogue”
New to the city, I follow my old life on Twitter. There I hear most often the panic of the world and the unwavering politics of broken systems. Meanwhile, the west is laden with transience and migration. With homeless people on the streets year round; circulating histories/realities of racial divide, of slavery, of colonialism, everywhere; tech giants and start-ups fighting for digital and physical space, and to patent the ideologies that promote technology as the 21st century equalizer. All ebbing and flowing with the downfall of rain.
First it was the silence that troubled me. Then it was the noise. The footsteps landing on the newly laid slabs of concrete, weaving through the freshly landscaped grass; the pitter and patter of canine toes shuffling through the wet soil and shrubs; the lack of urban noise.
From the balcony, the air smells like ocean. A mix of sea weed and sea salt caught in a quiet west coast wind and carrying all the same complication.
Recently, I’ve had a series of encounters that have brought (again) to the forefront important reminders regarding the politics of gender, race and privilege. Each of these scenarios highlights nuanced, complex and often understated political implications to seemingly “normal” (or at least today socially accepted) behaviors.
I am walking down the street near my house coming back from the grocery store in shorts and a tank top on a hot Saturday afternoon. The neighborhood is quiet. A (white) man rides up next to me on his bicycle.
“You’ve got to be Brazilian, right? You’ve got to be.”
“Not Brazilian.” I replied coolly as I quickened my pace down the street. Not that he noticed my quickened pace, my short tone, my disinterest in presenting (or withholding) my history as a game for him to play.
“Seriously? No way. K’mon…” He said as I continued to not engage and move swiftly towards my front door. He followed me onto the path and building entrance before riding off. When I got in and told my partner he said, “It’s such bullshit that a woman goes out in a pair of shorts and a man thinks he has the right to harass her”. Indeed, it is bullshit, among other things.
In this short exchange, this man a) imposed on my physical space, uninvited, and b) imposed on my emotional-historical space by assuming he had a right to satisfy his curiosity about my ethnoracial background without hesitation, without permission, without even a basic, polite introductory conversation. This reflects a gross set of entitlement (and privilege, both male and white) and is a problem for me for a number of reasons.
First, it highlights my otherness, racializing me immediately as non-white, as not from here, as if that is something different from most other people in Canada – excluding Indigenous people, of course (who are the only people who are indeed from this land) – meaning that “white people” (European settlers) are also foreigners or “from somewhere else”. And yet, white people are rarely asked (or ask each other so far as I understand it as an opening line) “So, where are you from?” in a way where “Canada” is not an acceptable answer. Second, were I to answer the question, the response would be an inadequate reflection of how my complex ethnoracial, gender, socioeconomic and other intersecting histories relate to my identity, which leads to the third problem. By asking the question, by presuming that having an answer will give you some “valuable” [read: exotic, intriguing, “different”] information about me (despite not knowing me at all) there is a necessary cultural stereotyping that would occur – because why ask unless you already have ideas about what my answer might mean? Why guess unless you’ve already presumed to know something about who I am based on how I look? Curious because my ‘look’ is a mystery to you (and you need to categorize it/me)? Too bad, you are not entitled to know and all of these “reasons” why a complete stranger might ask or guess my “background” point to what some call racial profiling – and an opportunity to construct racial profiles – intended or not.
In some ways, to this latter point, I do believe that we can all engage in this basic and limiting means of trying to understand individuals by assuming a quick answer about race/culture/nationhood (much like gender and sexuality) might quicken the slow work of actually getting to know a person as an individual. Similarly, these forms of categorization may be efforts to escape what is for some people an uncomfortable reality that there are people/experiences/communities/cultures/histories we do not know and may never know or understand.
At any rate, what the man on the bike did not consider (in all his privilege and power) are the multitude of things I had to think about regarding my safety, security, comfort, and positioning as a woman of colour in that moment, in my own community, at my own front door (literally) – my refuge now known to this man, leaving me estranged within my own community and vulnerable against his embodied and imposed power.
See Kamala Visweswaran and Sara Ahmed’s works for more reading on topics of racial and cultural difference, estrangement and belonging.
I am sitting in the Apple Store at a long wooden table waiting for one of those fabulous geniuses to come and bring my phone back to life. The (white) man sitting across from me is staring at me. Let me be clear. He looked at me, and that is fine. And then he looked again, and held his gaze for a while longer, and this continued periodically as I sat there (im)patiently waiting and working on my phone for the next 30 minutes (not fine, and to be clear would not have been fine even in a much smaller dose).
Somewhat like Scenario 1, this man’s prolonged gaze was (or could have been, to be generous in explaining the possibilities) a number of things: ‘admiration of physical beauty’ (as some would argue) that falls more often in the category of objectification (because is it really admiration or are you just turned on, which is actually still about you); fetishism, exoticization, perversion, curiosity, or worse hate, judgment or anger. Perhaps his prolonged look was none of these and instead a matter of mind lost in memory or…who knows. But the key (political) point is that he (clearly) felt that he was perfectly entitled to experience whatever he was feeling/thinking/wondering/seeing/wanting without considering how I would experience his gaze. Or at least, he was completely unaware that this was something that needed to be considered.
I could have asked him to stop looking at me (which I thought about) but felt that would expose me further, leaving me subject to at best an even more uncomfortable scenario where I (again) began to think about my position. Would this guy follow me through the mall to intimidate me (that has happened to me before)? Would he verbally harass me in the store, calling me a “bitch” or “crazy” for asking him to respect my physical and social space (has also happened before)? Would this encounter then contribute to an already distorted and overplayed portrayal of brown women as not “allowed” to be looked at [read: oppressed and under the control of brown men] because of my response? In this case, I felt that no matter how I reacted (if I reacted) the power in his gaze and the perceptions of the public (pre-informed by mass media very much portraying the world through a racializing/white privileged male gaze) might still leave me in a vulnerable and judged position. As a minority, outlined clearly by postcolonial feminist scholars like Uma Narayan (for example), women of colour are all too often assumed to represent their entire communities, making the weight of these very public decisions additionally burdensome.
Sometimes silence does not reflect acceptance of what is happening. Sometimes silence just means that a long list of complicated social and political factors have stopped a person from speaking (back).
The third scenario is a tricky one and I almost feel guilty writing it, because the way it played out was subtle and the people involved were friends. Four of us sat down to dinner with one new addition to the group, a friend of a friend who was joining us for the first time. He was from the outset evidently kind and friendly. We had a nice meal with interesting conversation ranging from the ingredients in our food to parenthood and thoughts on the power of media and international affairs. In many ways, I enjoyed his banter and ideas. Looking back, however, he did most of the talking (more so than he listened or asked questions of the rest of us). He jumped into conversation as soon as there was a pause (or he had something to say), and he (relatedly) didn’t often pause to let others into the discussion. While it may be a (politically situated and complicated) choice to not fight for discursive space, it is also a choice consume it (and arguably in a respectful dialogue no one should be ‘fighting’ to talk as opinions and dialogue should be solicited across participants consistently).
As an academic (and a talker) I can relate in particular to this (social and economic) privilege of voice and authority to speak. It is important to me to try to ensure that conversation remains a dialogue – an exchange of ideas and information between people rather than an opportunity for me to tell (presumably those who I would then assume need to hear it, as is implied in lecturing/preaching) what I know (though I often fall short of my intentions). With the larger scope of gender and racial politics circulating in my mind, in retrospect, it is hard to swallow (my voice) given that three minorities – two of whom were women – were sitting with a white man who was doing most of the talking. It is not his “fault” that he is talkative or confident (or white or male) enough to speak his mind without a second thought, but it is his responsibility to know when to speak (and when to stay silent). It is a matter of history and current political reality: a reflection of the positioning and privileging of certain voices over others that makes it easy for him to speak (and us to remain inaudible) unwittingly, maybe unknowingly and certainly unintentionally in this case.
The point is not to silence one person or community in order to empower another. But creating social equity – building fair opportunities to participate in society and having a voice requires that those already in power recognize their/our positions and create space for others to simply speak/share/contribute in whatever ways they want to (if they want to). Since we can’t always know at first sight who may be part of a minority or marginalized group, perhaps learning to listen (as opposed to hear) more than talk is a good way to stay aware our own privileges, to mind our expressions of interest and expertise into (or onto) what might be other people’s (positive or negative but ultimately private) lived (and ancestral) realities. It is not only about what you/I/we/they have to say, it is also about how others will receive it.
This is in part what Peggy McIntosh attempts to address in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” (a straight forward, short read), and it is deeply related to the complex and ongoing patriarchal social, economic and political system we all live in. These scenarios reflect larger inequitable social structures that continue to circulate in our imperfect world. Each of these reproductions of inequity (and oppression) could be avoided if greater efforts are made to live and practice our politics, recognize, and move to interrupt our own positions of privilege, not only here in writing, or in verbose academic theory, but in interactions with the unique human beings we encounter every day.
Check out the very well researched posts about the dangers of moving dangers materials on our rail cars across Canada (as elsewhere), written by Michael Butler and posted to the Council of Canadians blog. I was completely astounded at the disregard for human safety in place of capital gain perpetuated by government and non-government policy and procedures around oil, rail and economic gain. These matters matter. It is our right to know.
I am pleased to be co-guest editor on a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology focused on voice and representation in youth media production in educational settings. Click here for details!