Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review: Claiming Space

[Cheryl Teelucksingh, editor. Claiming Space: Racialization in Canadian Cities. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006.]

Thanks to the work of critical geographers and others, recent decades have seen increasing attention to the ways in which social relations happen in and through space, and to the ways that the physical landscape in which they happen shapes social relations. This includes, of course, social relations of racialization and white supremacy, which are the subject of this book. Space in this understanding is not just blank physicality, but has a complex character shaped by mechanisms of formal control, perception, imagination, experience, and social organization.

When people of a particular kind of radical bent hear the words "space" and "struggle," some jump straight to images of barricades. Certainly that sort of struggle over space is not unimportant, as are other forms of directly confrontational, grassroots mobilization. But most of the time and for most spaces, their character is determined (at least in an immediate sense) in much more everyday ways that are less obviously overt and collective but are very much socially organized. Those of us who are most likely to be privileged by this sort of everyday oppression often have many ingenious strategies to avoid seeing it as struggle -- or, sometimes, seeing it at all. A final way in which space is contested, which is not quite either of the above but can incorporate elements of both, is institutional struggle. This is more obviously collective but it lacks grassroots mobilization, or contains mobilization within strict bounds, and is channeled through institutions that are bound up in relations of ruling.

In thinking and writing about struggles over space, there are at least two tendencies that are worth making visible and taking into account. One I've already mentioned: the tendency of some privileged activists (some white men and others) to valourize only certain kinds of struggle based on a political or emotional investment in the tactics involved and to disregard the importance of other moments and modes of struggle, particularly the everyday. Even when we don't openly dismiss the importance of oppression and resistance at the everyday level in our rhetoric, often our practices fail rather spectacularly to recognize the necessary integration of the everyday with the overtly collective and confrontational.

The other relevant tendency has to do with the social relations of academic knowledge production. One feature of that process is that even when those individuals doing the producing are committed to and involved in struggles for social justice, often the knowledge that results from their academic work is not most directly oriented to the needs of ongoing grassroots struggles. Certainly the best stuff can be appropriated by movements, and I am of the opinion that there is far more politically great stuff in the work of lefty academics than many community-based people have the time or inclination to unearth. But doing that work is often not a simple enterprise, often not because of any failure of vision or politics on the part of activists in the academy but because of the institutional realities that shape what gets produced.

All of that is to set the context for my puzzlement about certain features of this book -- which is to say, what is there is (mostly) good, but what is absent is still a bit surprising.

For instance, take the first chapter, in which the editor sets the context for the book. It lays out some basic concepts around racialization and around spatial analysis, presumably to ground readers for the rest of the book. It introduces the specific pieces. It has some good, sharply critical analysis of state multiculturalism. I quite like its use of the example of Dundas Square in Toronto to illustrate the ways in which urban space gets shaped in racialized ways, and gets contested. Yet it would not be too hard to write something that accomplished all of the necessary tasks that any introductory essay must accomplish while also painting a more politically pointed and rousing picture of the historical trajectory of the racialization of space in Canada, and of the multiple levels at which racialized people and their allies intervene in and struggle with that process.

Part of the explanation for why a somewhat more muted approach was taken may be what Teelucksing identifies as the "variety of perspectives on claims to space by racialized people in Canada" expressed in the different contributions. Her intro has to set the stage for all of those perspectives, after all. This variety can be understood in a number of ways, but what really struck me was the spectrum from inclusionary politics to transformative politics. And, yes, I recognize that such labels inevitably simplify and can end up being quite unfair, but I think they get at some important aspects of the pieces in this collection.

By "inclusionary," I mean struggles over space that have to do with carving out a niche, often an institutional niche, that certainly claims space for the group in question but that leaves underlying social relations -- that is, in part, white supremacy organized through state multiculturalism -- more or less unchallenged. Kelly Amanda Train's essay on the building of a Sephardic Jewish community centre in Toronto and Anastasia N. Panagakos' essay on the main Greek community organization in Calgary were the most obvious members of this category for me. They talked about efforts that were very important to those involved but, at least in these tellings, felt like they involved claiming space in the context of accepting the broader order.

Other contributions felt like they contained (at least in ways more legible to me) a greater attention to naming and troubling the oppressive character of social relations in Canada somewhat more broadly. For instance, Glenn Deer drew connections between local settler histories in Richmond, British Columbia, and a "moral panic" by white settler populations when an influx of newcomers from China in the 1990s seemed to be making white anglophone dominance of certain spaces less absolute. This panic played out mostly in the context of the media. Cathy van Ingen wrote the only piece concerned with indigenous people in the volume -- it talks about the efforts of an urban reserve community in Edmonton to take various economic and urban developments measures, including building a casino and resort on reserve land. More particularly, it talks about the resistance by surrounding white-dominated affluent neighbourhoods and white-dominated municipal authorities to the plan.

However, my favourite essays of the volume did not tend to deal with institutional struggles at all. They were much more about the relationship between social relations and the constitution of everyday experience in ways that felt, at least at the level of sensibility, focused on transformation. Though they did not necessarily focus on the collective and confrontational moments of struggle, it felt to me like they were oriented entirely towards the sorts of problems we need to understand in creating transformation through the entire range of moments that constitute struggles for justice and liberation:

  • Awad Ibrahim looks at the ways in which youth from continental Africa engage in the construction of new selves in their new, Canadian spaces, in ways that do not involve a rejection of their African heritage but rather a synthetic dialogue between who they already know themselves to be and the Blackness into which they are racialized (and which they actively take up) in the Canadian context.

  • Jenny Burnam challenges the conventional ways in which academics have conceptualized immigrant communities in Canadian cities, with the endless and unhelpful musings about "assimilation" and "retention" and so on, by looking at the city through the lens of diaspora. Though white supremacy remains, the critical mass of living and fluid diasporic communities in a city like Toronto create new kinds of spaces and new opportunities for living, creating, and resisting, that older frameworks fail to express.

  • Rinaldo Walcott starts from a footnote in Franz Fanon and talks about the documentary Divas: Love Me Forever about Black drag queens in Toronto, and talks about the scope for Black gay men to intervene in both the crisis of Black masculinity and the white domination of queer space. (Btw, if any of my Sudbury comrades read this and happen to have that film, I'd be interested in borrowing it...)

  • Leeno Luke Karumanchery wrote the last essay in the book, a powerful examination of the pervasive everyday trauma that is part of existing as a racialized person in almost every space within Canada. I have some uncertainties and further questions about his project of infusing social and anti-oppression analysis into discourse/practices organized around ideas of "mental health." However, as I found with the book he co-wrote that I read many years ago, his detailed and relentless analysis of the everyday traumas of racism present a grim reality that we white activists and radicals need to understand and wrestle with in much more fundamental practical ways than is currently the case in most spaces, or we will continue to reproduce harm and to fail in our struggles for social transformation.

Despite this breadth of material, including some that I found to be important and powerful, I was surprised that certain issues were not mentioned, or came up only in brief passages in essays focusing on other things. I was surprised there was nothing about the direct action struggles of the Iroquois people of the Six Nations to prevent the further colonization of their traditional territory by white-owned businesses wishing to build housing developments. I was surprised there was only a page or two about the ways in which the Canadian national security state has, both before and since 9/11, shaped how Muslims of various racial backgrounds experience urban and other spaces. I was surprised there was nothing about the ongoing struggles by racialized -- particularly Black and indigenous -- communities with respect to racist policing and how that shapes the character of urban space. I was also surprised there was little about gentrification, an issue in which social relations of racism tend to play a more complex role in Canada than stock examples of the process sometimes assume but which is nonetheless deeply racialized.

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

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