Sunday, September 10, 2006

Review: A Place Called Heaven

[Cecil Foster. A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins Publisher, Ltd., 1996.]

Several years and two cities ago, I attended a one-day symposium on anti-racism. It was designed for people in the community who had been active on related issues to come together, go through a process, and put together a proposed agenda for change with a particular focus. I knew I was leaving the city soon, my active involvement both in helping to push a particular project at a mainstream (i.e. white-dominated) organization and in being active as a white ally in a funded anti-racism project led by people of colour were over, and I knew the day would have painful moments, so I didn't really want to go. However, a couple of the main organizers were people I knew and respected and liked, so when they were talking up the day and pushing as many people as possible to attend, I said yes.

One of the day's painful moments came in one of the small-group sessions I attended. I can no longer remember the exact words that were uttered, but one of the other participants said something along the lines of: "Let's make sure this is all straightforward and in simple language and easy to understand, because I've come across so much that I just don't understand. If you do that, then we can make things happen." This was delivered in a light and mildly self-deprecating tone, but with real frustration obviously underlying it.

On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable request. Anti-racism can come attached to some pretty obscure language sometimes. There are many situations in which non-mainstream language is required to convey ideas that run counter to mainstream commonsense understandings of the world, but there are also lots of situations where academic anti-oppression language gets in the way. So, fair enough.

However, even if that is all that the speaker intended, the statement carried some other baggage with it as well. By this point the speaker had developed some experience in the role, but she was a white woman who had been hired as the sole staff person of a major, mainstream, community-focused but institutional response to racism, despite the fact that she had no experience with the issue whatsoever when she started the job and that there were many people of colour in the community with a lifetime of paid and unpaid relevant experience. The sentiment of needing it broken down in simple terms was a reminder of that history, for me and I'm sure for others around the table.

Beyond that, again regardless of the speaker's intent, the statement also carried with it some underlying implications that felt like they were grounded in white privilege. It seemed to imply that one of the big things that needs to change in order to deal with this whole racism thing is for people of colour to change how they communicate their experiences and their demands, and not only to change it but to change it with the needs of white people in mind. To take that to its (il)logical conclusion, it would almost be like saying, "If only you people could communicate your grievances in simple, straightforward ways that we white liberals could understand, then it would all have been resolved decades ago." And reactions along these lines are not uncommon from white folk when we finally come across a situation or institution or person that refuses to let us just continue ignoring racism -- it is easy for us to assume that this is all new and unsettling to us because of some failure to communicate it in the past, or some unfairness or illogic in the current attempt to communicate it, or the presence of some expectations on the part of people of colour that sound "unreasonable" to white ears. A more useful response is to recognize a long history of problems with how white people, individually and collectively, have listened and how we have acted on what we have heard. We find countless excuses not to listen or not to apply what we have heard to ourselves or not to act on what we have heard and intellectually applied. (And I should add that this is not me pointing blaming figners; the use of first person plural and present tense in that sentence is quite deliberate.)

Because the fact is, though there are sources out there that do use some academic jargon -- valuable sources that can have an important place in efforts to create change -- there are also lots of easily accessible, plain-language, published sources dating back a century or two in which people of colour and indigenous peoples in North America lay out their issues, name racism, and argue for the changes that their communities need. A Place Called Heaven is one great example in that tradition.

Cecil Foster is a well-known Canadian journalist and writer. He has written for community media, worked in national mainstream newspapers, television, and radio, published novels and books of nonfiction, and taught journalism at the post-secondary level. He is a Black man and he moved from Barbados to Canada as a young adult. He is a skilled storyteller, and he weaves together his own experiences, material from interviews, and insights from other authors to delve into a number of crucial areas in the lives of Black people in Canada today, including religion, employment, education, the media, party politics, and the criminal justice system.

I read it, of course, as yet another piece of research for my work on social movement history in Canada. I would have been satisfied with this book if it had only presented a present-day snapshot of a community and its struggles, but it also included some important history as well. In particular, its discussion of aspects of the history of the relationship between the Black community and the police in Toronto in the '80s and '90s was useful, as well as its discussion of the troubled community politics involved in one of Canada's largest cultural festivals, Caribana in Toronto. And because the book itself came out ten years ago, it offers an interesting window into a very particular moment in time -- the impacts of the first harshly neoliberal Paul Martin budget were just being felt, and the neoconservative Ontario provincial government of Mike Harris was just beginning to do its work. This was not a hopeful time for the Black community in Toronto, but it was a time where at least moderate hope for imporvement was within recent memory. And even though the book is ten years old, a lot of the material on experiences of Black youth with racism in the education system and the criminal justice system is just as relevant today, if not moreso after a decade of aggressive neoliberalism at both levels of government.

Foster is a journalist by training, and puts that to use doing what seems (to me as an outsider, at any rate) to be a good job of illustrating the range of politics within the Black community and not allowing his own politics to overwhelm that, while at the same time not denying that he has a particular viewpoint of his own.

As far as I can tell, he would not consider himself to be on the radical end of the spectrum within the Black community. Nonetheless, his naming of racism and the kinds of changes that would be necessary to respond adequately to it would be read as radical, probably "too radical", by much of mainstream white Canada, and met with the "Well, yes, but..." of liberal inaction. On the other hand, I can imagine white folk on the radical left finding ways to avoid really dealing with how his observations about racism might apply to them and their efforts to create change because he is not, at least in their sense, an anti-capitalist, and some of his suggestions for reform might get him dismissed as insufficiently revolutionary -- as if our movements never make interim, reformist or ostensibly reformist demands on what we hope is the path to our larger visions. And these are just two of the ways in which we white people manage to pretend to ourselves that there is a lack in what is being communicated or how it is being communicated, some problem with attempts at dialogue or demands for change, rather than recognizing a persistent problem across the white political spectrum of resistance to really listening to and hearing deeply considered and eloquently articulated analyses and demands from people of colour.

Of course this is only one book, by one man, with one particular set of experiences, grounded in one particular part of one particular community. But it is one excellent example of the material that is out there and which by its very existence demonstrates the political inadequacy of insistent white Canadian use of excuses like "But we don't understand!" and "But we don't know what you want!" and "I don't know anything about that issue!" Once we get past such silliness and are at least occasionally able to overcome our resistance and hear what is being said by indigenous people and people of colour in Canada, then we can get to work on figuring out what we, as white people, need to do to finally take moral and political responsibility for our complicity in white supremacy in this country.

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

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hmmm...someone left a good long comment here while I was out of town, but it has since disappeared, presumably deleted by the person who posted it. Or perhaps lost by the commenting software? I don't know.

I'll do my best to respond anyway.

First of all, thanks for your comment!

One question was about the utility of mass-statistics in understanding racism in institutions. I agree with the questioner that this is a very dubious approach. It can probably be useful in specific situations -- for example, if there are particular practices that are ostensibly race-neutral but that are generally known by anti-racist activists to be disproportionate barriers to people of colour, asking people about the existence of said practices (likely in a way that doesn't directly ask about racism) can be a useful way of building knowledge about what kinds of institutional change are necessary in a given instance. But I've also seen things like, "Have you ever experienced discrimination based on race in your workplace?", which I don't think are going to result in data that means very much.

The commenter also asked about Town Hall meetings...those can be useful too, I guess, though they also have some down sides. For instance, my sense of such things is that they are usually premised on a liberal understanding of who is present and what it means for them to participate, which often translates into far more institutional concern for the comfort of the white people who are participating than the safety of the people of colour. Such events can end up being traumatizing for people of colour without actually accomplishing very much. Though, again, a lot would probably depend on the details.

I'm not sure exactly what the answer is, partly because it wasn't entirely clear to me what kind of change the commenter was asking about. But if you do read this, and you feel like continuing the conversation, please tell me more about the exact kind/location of change you are thinking about!