Monday, November 19, 2007

Review:Learning From Our History

[Tania Das Gupta. Learning From Our History: Community Development by Immigrant Women in Ontario 1958-1986: A Tool for Action. Toronto: Cross Cultural Communications Centre, 1986.]

This is a short, deceptively simple book. It is a rare example of a text produced out of, by, and for communities in struggle. Though its author had recently received a PhD for work on/with garment workers in Toronto (and later wrote this book and contributed to this book, I think among others), it is not at all a product of academia, nor is it oriented towards academic consumption. Neither is it interested in preconceptions, often held by more privileged folk who don the mantle "activist," that mistake certain moments and modes of confrontation for the entirety of "struggle." Rather, it is immigrant women and women of colour preserving some of their collective experience from the erasure it often faces, in the interest of supporting other immigrant women and women of colour in their efforts.

After some concise introductory remarks, the book moves on to its main content: a schematic presentation of groups and programs created by immigrant women and women of colour in Ontario over the decades in question with a few key reflections on each, followed by a more detailed examination of some of the key groups. The book closes with a detailed listing of practical resources, including contact information of groups and organizations and networks, and a list of relevant publications.

I'm not clear how useful this volume would be today as a practical tool -- "a tool for action", as the subtitle says -- in the manner originally intended. I think at least some of the practical lessons that are drawn from the detailed case studies would remain relevant to similar work today. At the same time, a lot has changed. The communities have changed, in that most are much larger today than they were 20 years ago, and at different stages of institutional and political evolution. The state has changed as well, both in ways prompted by pressure from below to respond to the needs of racialized and/or new Canadians, and in ways prompted by the mix of pressures from above and elite reorientations that gets labelled "neoliberalism." I suspect this means that the opportunities and challenges facing organizing by immigrant women and women of colour in Canada have changed since then in important practical ways, though I do not know enough to speculate about how.

One of the things that jumped out at me as being different then than it would probably be in similar work today was the way in which the categories "immigrant women" and "women of colour" were related. My sense is that at that time, at least in Toronto, there was considerable effort to distinguish the specificities of the experiences of racialized immigrants so as to pointedly counter earlier erasure and in the face of political clout and access to resources related to the label "immigrant" (such as they were) still falling disproportionately to organizations coming out of southern European communities, even though non-European immigration was well on its way to becoming numerically predominant. This book is very clear in naming racism and pointing out some of the ways that mattered at the time for immigrant women, but I suspect the ways that would show up in the text and in implicit assumptions about "natural" communities of interest would be different today.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that the vast majority of the history that it chronicles is about the relationship between immigrant women and the state. In some ways, this is not surprising. After all, much of the organizing by immigrant women was in response to very immediate, very urgent needs experienced by themselves, their families, and their communities. The strand of social democracy in the political culture in general, the particular approaches introduced into state practices by the Liberal governments of the '70s, and the fact that there was really nowhere else to get the resources to respond to community needs makes this orientation an obvious, almost inevitable, choice.

The book is quite up-front about the problems with state funding, and offers suggestions about how to deal with those potential pitfalls, but because of the practical focus of the book there is still a lot that strikes me as key about this issue that remains implicit. It is quite clear, and pointed out overtly in the text, that most of the time efforts by the state to meet the needs of immigrant women were in response to self-activity by those women rather than spontaneous beneficence. Even so, you can see how the urgency of meeting material needs, the fact that capitalist social relations predominate and get to largely define what "practical" means, and the interest of state authorities in catering to the needs of capital have all worked together to create a somewhat more liveable subordination for women of colour, as in the labour market stratified by race and gender, rather than anything resembling liberation. And this isn't meant at all as some sort of moralistic denunciation of the women who did the organizing -- it is a recognition of the barriers placed in their way and their need to prioritize survival while creating the capacity for adapting, subverting, getting around, and confronting the boxes within which dominant social relations try to contain survival for immigrant women and women of colour. It is the navigation of that particular dynamic that I would be interested in seeing narrated more consciously and completely in the context of this particular piece of history.

The final thing that really leaped out at me from this book is how it shows, without really making a point of it, that the state -- which is generally a pretty nasty piece of work despite the genuinely positive social democratic bells and whistles added to it since World War II and subsequently partially removed again -- seems to have been more responsive and sooner to the experiences of immigrant women and women of colour than many ostensibly progressive social movement spaces in Canada. There were lots of reasons for this, I think, and many have to do with the role that the state plays in society, so it isn't an entirely fair comparison. But it is still, for me, a striking illustration of progressive and radical white Canadians largely dropping the ball. It is also a testament to why relatively privileged progressives and radicals need to avoid falling into that easy "we" that assumes a unity when any meaningful "we" really needs to be built by hard work -- however oppressive and hierarchical the national "we" that the state has been trying to build with the way it has responded to organizing by immigrants and people of colour, it was at least recognizing that building "we" is a political act and (inadequately, problematically) meeting urgent needs in the process, while the majority of (white) participants in movements organizing around workers, women, peace, and other things were at least up to the early '80s blissfully unaware that there was even a challenge to be taken up let alone doing much about it. Opinions vary as to how much has changed in the interim.

In fact, now that I think of it, this may be connected to a peculiarity of Canada's political culture that I once read about: In most white-dominated capitalist countries, people of colour are statistically more likely to vote and even identify with whatever the mainstream party of the left happens to be and opposing racism is popularly understood as a "left" issue, however poorly the left might actually deal with it in practice. In Canada, however, there is a much greater history of relationships between immigrant and racialized communities and the Liberal Party (and, in a more limited way in the first half of the last century, the Communist Party) while our social democratic party, the NDP, has historically been considerably whiter (with more recent, local exceptions).

Anyway. I'm not sure how much practical use this book will be to most people two decades after its publication, except those with an interest in the history. However, it certainly reinforces my support for community-based efforts to produce history, because much of this would likely have been lost without the determination of the immigrant women and women of colour and their allies working through the Cross Cultural Communications Centre to make sure it was preserved.

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

No comments: