So the Canadian Forces made themselves a racist video…

Apparently some of the soldiers stationed CFB, experiencing boredom, decided to make themselves a little video to make each other laugh. Donning ‘brown face’[1], and a fake turban, a soldier impersonated Osama Bin Laden’s older brother. Relying on ethnic stereotypes that I am not going to repeat here, the impersonator carried out a skit in the video.

According to Peter Mackay, Canada’s Minister of Defence, states the video “is in poor taste but does not reflect the wider military community.”[2] I don’t know about you but his assurances do nothing for me.

Videos and comedy are a byproduct of society at large. People only engage in this type of behavior if they think it will be well accepted by their peers. We have spent a long time in Afghanistan and clearly our soldiers view the population there with suspicion and derision. Factor in popular media, inaccurate portrayals in TV and movies and a serious problem emerges.

Racism is different than discrimination yet the two are often seen as the same thing. Power is a central tenet of racism. This is why there is no such thing as ‘reverse racism.’ Minority groups cannot be racist as they do not have systemic power in our society. Our culture, rooted in Protestant Christianity, permeates every aspect of our culture. We have been conditioned to believe that anyone or anything that is not white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant is less than. We are suspicious and judgmental of anyone who is different.

When you consider our response to what is different, imagine how this plays out in government offices across the country. How many staff in those offices actively discriminates against people of colour or people from a different religion?[3] How is the system itself racist?

As a former civil servant, I can tell you that I worked with some very racist people. When I challenged some people on their behavior, I was ostracized and criticized. I did a presentation yesterday for a class of nurses. The instructor repeated a story she heard from an NGO worker about a Muslim woman who said she kept having babies so she could the child tax benefit every month. She really, truly believed it. I decided it was important to deconstruct what she was saying. There could be many reasons why the woman had multiple children and I dare say that none of them had anything to do with the paltry amount of money she would receive from the Government of Canada.

We discussed several scenarios as to the reasons for her prolific reproduction:

  • Birth control – she may trouble accessing it
  • Religion – she may be extremely religious and against birth control
  • She may just want a large family
  • She may have a husband who forced her to continue having babies
  • She may come from a culture that values large families
  • She may be from a culture where you have lots of children to ensure that someone would look after you in your old age.[4]

One of the students suggested that the woman may have told the NGO worker she had lots of babies for the money instead of the real reason.

I have gone into detail about this to illustrate a point. Often times we blindly accept information we are given when it seems to come from an authority. We take it in; we believe it and; we repeat it. Effectively, it then becomes a truth, which then informs how we look at others. Challenging the instructor was not an easy place for me to be in yesterday but I could not let that stand without examining it critically.

Let’s return to the Canadian Forces video. The skits performed relied on conclusions and stereotypes widely accepted. The stereotypes become a form of shorthand that doesn’t require explanation. In this case, popular media promulgates the misinformation. Like many other institutions, the Canadian Forces are racist; for Peter Mackay to state otherwise is ignorant and disingenuous.

What can we all do to make a difference? The most important thing we can do is to examine our own racist thoughts and actions. Examining our own privilege and identifying the sources of these ideas helps us to take them apart and see from where they come. Most people believe they are not racist when challenged on their ideas. It is uncomfortable for us to admit to our racism. I admit, almost every single day, that I am a racist. I work very hard to deconstruct my own ideas and to replace them with fact where I can. I also challenge others to do the same, all the while admitting my own privilege and racism. I believe that this is what is required if we are to create more harmony and welcoming communities for other people.

Do you have an example of a racist story that is shared as fact? What do you do when you’re faced with racism in yourself or others? This is a very worthy conversation in which to engage.

[1] Seriously. Haven’t we learned how wrong and racist this is?

[2] Article here.

[3] There are very good and aware civil servants who treat people fairly, however they work in an inherently racist institution.

[4] High infant mortality rates may have also been an issue in her country of origin.

Notions of Race and Ethnicity

There have been two stunning examples of how race and ethnicity mix together to produce vile results. While the events are not linked in any way, what they do illustrate is how systemic, almost to the cellular level, racism is in Canada today. The first event was the reaction of Sageunay mayor Jean Tremblay to the PQ’s secularism policy.[1] The second issue was the bank of Canada’s decision to change the features of the female researcher on the back of the new Canadian $100 bill to make her look more racially ‘neutral’. These issues clearly demonstrate that while Canada may pride itself on being multicultural, we are still a nation of xenophobes when it comes right down to it. Racism runs far, wide and deep in this country.

One of the things Jean Tremblay said regarding the PQ’s secularism policy:[2] “We have to respect the Muslim but we have to respect the Christian more.” He went on to rail about how Canada was a Christian country and that people coming here had to respect this fact. He was saying this with a certain PQ candidate in mind who happened to come from Algeria.[3] She earned the ire of the mayor by supporting her party’s secularism policy. What Tremblay is not saying is that ‘those’ people, who also happen to be non-Christian and non-white need to learn their place. If they dare to come to Canada and in particular Quebec, they had best be prepared to bow down to the white, Christian man.[4] In his world, Catholicism is the only acceptable religion and any limits placed on its expression are outrageous.

As the Bank of Canada was designing our new plastic money, the decided to consult some focus groups. Apparently, there was concern that the picture of the researcher on the back of the new $100 bill looked like she had some ‘Asian’ features. The Bank of Canada was skittish enough that they decided to ask for revisions to make the woman have a more ‘neutral’ racial look. The use of the word ‘neutral’ here is extremely problematic. Clearly the Bank of Canada defines ‘neutral’ ethnicity as Caucasian. They then went on to say that they don’t feature any racial groups on Canadian money. Whoa, wait a minute no racial groups? What are Caucasians if not a racial group? What the Bank of Canada really meant was that they only group they will feature on money is Caucasian people. So we can now all know that we are getting a large heaping serving of racism along with our money!

These examples illustrate how white privilege permeates every part of our society. Racism thrives on power imbalances. In Canada, white people have all the power and, apparently, we feel the need to let every non-white person know the score.

As a Canadian, this disgusts me.

[1] Which I blogged about here.

[2] This policy would forbid any provincial government employee from wearing any religious paraphernalia (Kirpan, Hijab, Burka etc) however they could wear one small cross. They also said they would not take down the crucifix in the National Assembly.

[3] In a spectacular display of racism and privilege he said her name was completely unpronounceable to him.

[4] Who is also straight.

Barack Obama and Racism

There have been lots of blog worthy events lately, some inspiring and some, well, not so much.

President Barack Obama has not disappointed since taking the Oath of Office on Tuesday. He has signed several Executive Orders which have substantially changed the look of American politics. From suspending the Military Tribunals at Gitmo to lifting the international gag order on abortion funding. His reform of lobbying and statement of ethics is a refreshing change. After eight long years, there is finally a leader in the White House. Changing the culture in Washington cannot be done with a few Executive Orders. Pork barreling and earmarks are common and have been a major part of American politics since the War of Independence. In a political system that celebrates the separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary, where party discipline is not enforced, much legislation is passed as a result of give and take. In the short term, Obama has a lot of political capital and good will from Congress but this may not last, particularly if Congress starts to sense that his actions re impinging on some of their power. One can only hope that Obama, who appears to be a man of principles and ethics, can stay above the fray and lead with moral authority.

A disturbing incident happened in Vancouver as a result of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Apparently three off duty police officers, from three different municipalities in Metro Vancouver, assaulted a man and hurled racial slurs at him. Now, the fact this happened in Metro Vancouver is not a big surprise. Sadly, our police officers are not known for their tolerance towards racial minorities. No amount of training is going to correct this problem. These police officers (and others who attack anyone who is different) believe they have a sense of entitlement to do so. They think that they are better than other people who are of a different race, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. My sincere hope is for these officers to be charged with a hate crime.

Now, how best to address racism in our society? For me, it comes down to understanding that almost every single Caucasian person who has grown up in Western society is racist. We have benefited directly and indirectly from racist institutions. We have been presumed innocent when others, because of their skin colour, are presumed guilty. People are given more opportunities based on their skin colour or their perceived sexual orientation. Those who fall outside acceptable norms for sexual orientation, gender identity, colour, and ethnicity are not afforded the same opportunities as others. Even worse, these people are often singled out for harsh and unfair treatment from police officers, judges, and other government bureaucrats. People with power in our society are generally not aware that their actions and behaviours are racist and how they reinforce racism in our institutions.

Only through constant examination of one’s values, beliefs and actions can we ever hope to begin to unravel our racist system. As a society, we must be tireless in our efforts to suss out racist thoughts and behaviours from ourselves, our families, our friends and our co-workers. It is very difficult to operate at that level of self-awareness. Moreover, it is ugly, particularly for those of us who work with diverse groups. I see racism alive and well where I work.

We need to eliminate our society’s perception that we are entitled. This attitude is wreaking havoc with the earth and other species who share it with us. The roots of this belief are biblical. Christians are taught to believe that God created the world for them to exploit. Many of our other entitlement beliefs are based in Christianity as well. John Calvin believed in pre-determination which basically states that when we are born it is already determined who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. We know who is going to heaven by how successful they are in this life. Rich people with lots of status are going to heaven and those who are homeless and begging on the streets or anyone living in poverty is going to hell. We see these beliefs played out in how we react to homelessness and poverty, believing that it is somehow their fault. We think that if they would only get a job their lives would be better. As a society that is largely Protestant we are inculcated with these beliefs from a very young age. Have you ever heard of the protestant work ethic?  We learn very quickly who is worthy of respect and who is deserving of our scorn and derision.

We need to take apart these views and attitudes. Understanding their origins are necessary if we are to counter them and begin to have new ways of looking at the world. So what does this mean for the three cops who beat up Phil Khan? They need top be held to account – they must be charged with hate crimes. As a society we must demand more from our governments in terms of taking apart our racist systems, one brick at a time. We must cast light into dark places, places we don’t even want to admit exist. We must not tolerate or give tacit approval to racist thoughts and actions in ourselves and others. We must seek to understand those who are different from us and we must not impose our view of the world on them or judge them by our values.

We have a lot of work to do. I am hopeful that our a new generation of leadership has come to fruition in the United States. I only hope that a great leader for Canada will come soon.

Now I am really disturbed…

I have been having a ‘discussion’ with some women on the facebook group for “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” They have actually called me a ‘feminazi’ because I dared to bring up the fact that the Marias were being referred to as girls all the time. To quote Simon Lee, I am ‘gobsmacked.’ I expect to have these discussions with some men (there are men who are feminists and who get it) but I cannot believe what is coming from women. They clearly have no understanding of their own ignorance and privilege nor their own oppression. Not only do they not see, they don’t want to see. They do not see how their reluctance to address their own oppression contributes to the oppression of others.

You know, there are days when I wish I did not see these things. When I did not see the sytemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, hetersexism etc that exists in our society. Life would be much easier if I did not see the intersections of poverty, addicition, mental health, gender and all of the isms mentioned above. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if I was not constantly engaged in working out my own racism, classism etc. But that is not my lot in life. I do see and I need to say something or I am complicit.

Privilege (heterosexual and others)

I am writing this blog entry in response to all the comments I received on facebook when I updated my status to indicate that I was annoyed by heterosexual privilege. Frankly, the comments surprised me but I guess I should not have been. Inherently, when one is in receipt of a societal privilege they may not be aware of it. This appears to be the case. Rather than going into a long drawn out explanation of heterosexual privilege I will refer you to an excellent blog entry written by Teh Portly Dyke. She does an excellent job explaining this and its impact on homosexuals. She also issues a challenge in her entry I encourage you to try it to gain a better understanding of how insidious heterosexual privilege is in our society.

Privilege is everywhere in our society and depending on your class, race, economic status or gender expression you may or may not enjoy privilege. Being Caucasian in our society affords you a great deal of privilege. Our society is geared to make life easier for people who are white. All of our institutions are inherently racist and difficult for people of colour to navigate and receive fair treatment. If you don’t believe me ask a person of colour what their experience is at a bank or worse trying to get welfare or other government services. When I worked in a downtown eastside welfare office in Vancouver there was a great deal of racism dished out to people of colour and particularly aboriginal people.

Class is another area of privilege. I certainly noticed that as a homeowner I am treated very differently by service people than I was when i was a renter. The white woman in Kerrisdale is treated much differently than an Aboriginal woman from the downtown eastside. Many of our judgements about class are rooted in the Protestant work ethic and Protestantism in general. One of the foremost Protestant thinkers, John Calvin, believed that it was predetermined who was going to heaven and who was not. Those people who were successful in life were assumed to be going to heaven and therefore treated differently from those who were impoverished. It was also believed that if those who were not successful ‘just tried a little harder’ they too could be successful. The old adage of ‘pulling up their boot straps’ applied. We may not consciously think this way but these ideas inform our culture and the way we view the world and the people in it.

Gender expression is another area of privilege. Those who fit into society’s binary gender roles of male and female enjoy privilege. There is no question which bathroom to use and you are treated with respect. Those who are gender queer, gender ambiguous or trans have murky waters to navigate. A male to female transsexual for example may be harassed for using the woman’s bathroom. Gender expression seems to invoke violent responses from some people. Many trans people are routinely targeted for abuse by people in our society who are uncomfortable with their gender expression.

It is interesting to talk to people who are different from you and to learn how privilege or the lack thereof impacts their lives. As a white woman I know that I enjoy a fair amount of privilege in our society. I have privileges of class, race and gender. However, somethings work against me. As a fat lesbian woman I have been the target of discrimination and hate although not that often. The group with the most privilege in our society are straight, white men. It is interesting to determine what privilege you enjoy and why you have it. Deconstructing privilege helps us to understand how our society works and how we can work to be allies to those who do not enjoy the same privileges that we do. It takes a great deal of work to look inside and see what is really there – the racist and classist thoughts and to try and understand how they impact our interactions with other people. It is a life-long process and one that is very difficult. Realizing our own racist, classist and gender biases can be uncomfortable. Talking about them and challenging others racist, classist and gender biases is even more difficult. If, as an individual, you are committed to an egalitarian society it starts with you.