Monday, July 24, 2006

Review: Taking Responsibility Taking Direction

[Sheila Wilmot. Taking Responsibility Taking Direction: White Anti-Racism in Canada. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2005.]

I feel kind of bad about it, but I was just not terribly impressed by this book. I know that one stupid thing that can sometimes happen among activists, particularly those socialized into the predominant forms of masculinity, is the need to win the "I'm more radical than thou" game, including white anti-racists proving that they are the white people who really get it by trashing other white anti-racists. I hope I'm not doing that here. But I don't think I am, because I don't think I have a whole lot against this book's politics, other than some concerns with the use of the dichotomy named in its title as a framework for understanding our choices -- it has lots of good material in it that I think lots of people will find useful in the context of overall efforts to educate ourselves about such things. Rather, I just think that as a piece of writing it could have been more effective if it had been put together differently.

The book is short and a reasonably easy read, though the writing does feel quite academic in parts. Its structure is fairly simple: it justifies its focus, defines some terms, presents a brief picture of Canadian history through an anti-racist feminist lens, talks about some of the ways in which white activists and unionists learn about anti-racism, and then makes some suggestions about how to improve things.

I think the underlying issue that makes the book less effective is that it needs to refine its focus. The intended audience is white Canadians who identify their politics as being progressive or left or radical, particularly those who are activists, and who have not necessarily thought much before about racism or who have thought and are struggling with the issue. Different parts of the text seem to assume different subsets of that audience, which is not necessarily a problem but can lead not to including more people but to turning everyone off. Sometimes it feels like it is going out of its way to make sure it is accessible to people without too much background in left political or relevant academic ways of thinking and talking, but other times it seems more concerned with weighing in on debates among different analyses of these issues without adequately contextualizing them -- for example, will most white progressives, even most white activists, really identify much with a rebuttal of the International Socialists' position on racism unless you give them more of a reason to? Or will a paragraph disagreeing with an aspect of the Race Traitor thesis tacked on to a section on whiteness that does not otherwise mention (let alone explain) that approach be meaningful except to folks who have already done lots of reading in the area?

The section on history has lots of good information and lots of good references to more detailed sources, but I think it would've been improved by easing off on the academic essay approach to quotations and perhaps trying to cover less ground but doing so in a way that more clearly focuses on conveying a few central concepts. The section on recent anti-racist organizing in Canada is interesting but it could have used more depth and a more critical approach, perhaps using interviews with several different people with different relationships to the collectives in question rather than one or two key informant interviews to get a general picture. In particular, I can guarantee you that at least some of the activists of colour in those groups or who have interacted with them in the community will have critical things to say about the roles that white people play in them, and getting a greater sense of those critiques is necessary for developing a decent analysis of current white anti-racism in Canada. As well, I am a fan of authors integrating personal experience with material from other sources, but I think it could have been done more smoothly and effectively in some instances in this book. Overall, I think Taking would have benefited from developing more focused answers to questions like "Who is this book for?" and "What is it meant to accomplish?" and "What should that mean for the structure and writing?", and from more attention to producing a clear narrative and conceptual flow. I think as well that part of the problem might have been space limitations, and that adding fifty or a hundred pages to the book might have been useful.

My attention was drawn to the existence of this book by a conversation in which the distinction described in its title was referenced in passing: taking responsibility versus taking direction when relating to struggles against oppressions which you do not yourself experience. The conversation was brief and constrained by other circumstances so I did not have a chance to really understand in that context what the other person was talking about, and unfortunately I don't feel that this book has completely clarified the issue for me either. I mean, on a certain level I get it: taking responsibility means acting where you are at based on your own best analysis of the situation; taking direction means being willing to follow the lead provided by people who actually experience the oppression in question. Sometimes there might be conflict between these two things that need to be navigated. I can recognize that in principle, but I have trouble seeing why it deserves to be posed as such a fundamental tension, as opposites. In my experience, trying to engage in social change work is always fraught with various issues related to power and privilege, but I can't think of any situation in my experience as an individual or as part of a collective where this particular tension was defining. I suspect it may come out of particular experiences in particular activist settings, such as with predominantly white Marxist groups in Toronto trying to figure out how to stay true to their particular analysis of capitalism and its overthrow while reconciling that with a recognition of the political importance in working with groups based in communities of colour that do not necessarily have an anti-capitalist analysis. I do not know this for sure and I would want to know more before commenting further, but I suspect that even if this is the case, the counterposition of taking responsibility and taking direction may still not be the most useful place from which to start the process of deciding what to do.

Talking about this binary is perhaps one way of getting at questions that deserve much more sophisticated treatment, questions related to the path to doing. As far as I can tell, the model implicit in most liberal thought and in the more dogmatic forms of Marxist thought in the West in the 20th century is that you intellectually come to an analysis of the world and that determines your actions. A more sophisticated notion can be found in other readings of Marx, in some feminist thought, in Freirian pedagogy: a cycle amongst experience, reflection, and action, where each informs the others. This is a definite improvement, but counting on only that cycle can lead to relatively well-off white male workers, say, or middle-class white feminist women (to say nothing of middle-class white male activist/writers) to political practices that do indeed focus on their own liberation in dynamic ways but that function to oppress others.

How, then, to relate to the experiences and analyses of others into those cycles, in particular others whose oppressions you benefit from? Because your local reality exists as it does in part because their local realities exist as they do, it seems to me there is a political responsibility to find ways to be responsive to those other local realities in ways that go beyond "taking direction" in a purely exlicit sense. How are we to listen (and engage in respectful dialogue) in ways that transcend the polarity of putting self first and denying other or putting other first and denying self -- in ways that create dynamic, responsive, responsible, accountable ways of catching echoes of the local realities and analyses produced from local realities that are beyond ourselves; in ways that can, through intellectual and empathic mechanisms, be brought to bear on the continual process of becoming that is the evolution of one's experience, commonsense, analysis, and actions?

Obviously I'm still muddling through exactly how to talk about that process, but the thought of framing it as juggling or balancing "doing what I/we think" and "doing what they think" is profoundly unsatisfying and largely misses what is most politically important and interesting about it, I think.

So there you go. Am I being unfair? Maybe, maybe. Like I said, there's lots of great material in there, and the author can probably claim more experience and better credentials than me in lots of relevant ways. But I think different choices around how the document was put together would have made it a much more powerful work. And it is significant for being the first book that I am aware of to treat this issue specifically in the Canadian context, and I hope it can be a part of a long and productive multifaceted discussion that will lead to ever greater numbers of white people, white progressives, white activists supporting people of colour and indigenous people in substantive ways in the struggle against white supremacy (and all of the other oppressions with which it intersects).

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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