Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review: The Dark Side of the Nation

[Himani Bannerji. The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2000.]

If I talk less in this review about the new ideas I've gained from this book than I usually do, and less about its importance in understanding what gets called "Canada" than its content deserves, it is more a reflection of the context from which I am reading than because the book is at all lacking in either of those areas.

Though it is short, The Dark Side of the Nation takes the reader, particularly the reader who has not yet encountered Bannerji's work, through several crucial applications of her distinctive marxist and anti-racist feminism (related in its philosophical roots to Dorothy Smith's work). Her main target in this volume is Canada, and particularly the white liberal conceits around race, nation, and gender through which white Canadians largely define ourselves. Particularly important is her understanding of official multiculturalism as a practice of social control, her dismantling of liberal notions like "diversity," and even her troubling of the term "women of colour" as an effective space for resistance.

My muted reaction is not because I think this work isn't valuable, but just because it is not all that new to me. Much of her general take on race and gender can be found in an earlier book, which I read years ago and then re-read last year and reviewed. The current book develops her analysis of multiculturalism and the Canadian nation much more fully, but even this was only somewhat new to me because the take on multiculturalism in the book by Sunera Thobani that I recently reviewed drew heavily on Bannerji's and developed it in new ways. And, finally, the chapter called "A Question of Silence: Reflections on Violence Against Women in Communities of Colour" -- the essay of most direct relevance to the chapter of my own work that currently teeters on the brink of completion -- was originally published in a multi-author collection, which I also read years ago then re-read last year and reviewed.

So the interest that this book might hold for you depends entirely on where your own path of reading has taken you. If you have not encountered Bannerji's work before or if you are new to critical analyses of Canada that talk about relations of oppression on the bases of race, gender, and class, this might be a book for you. It is perhaps not as attentive as it could be to the place of indigenous peoples in understanding Canada (though it does not omit this), and there is one place where it is summarizing the process of Canadian state formation that it comes across as surprisingly schematic for a thinker as powerfully original as Bannerji, but its political and literary clarity makes this a great place to start, or to continue, to develop a critical understanding of Canada.

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