What was your experience of reading ‘Brother’ by David Chariandy?

For a second year, London Public Library invites the community to a massive, virtual ‘city-wide bookclub’ by proposing a book to read and discuss together. This year the title is Brother by David Chariandy. As many of us have discovered, this little book punches far above its weight class in size. It is concise, paced, and courageous. Set in housing complex in Scarborough in the summer of 1991, Brother weaves together a story about identity, family, and masculinity. Questions about the experience of immigration, criminiality, racism, poverty, precarious employment, and housing fill in the margins. In a very short and accessible read, Chariandy weaves together a story that is worthy of everyone’s attention.

In this discussion, four community leaders join Curious Public at Central Library to share their experiences and reactions to reading Brother.

The Panel

Melanie-Anne Atkins is the Wellness Coordinator at the Wellness Education Centre at Western University.

Kristen Caschera (@librariankris) is a Librarian at London Public Library. She is a program coordinator for the One Book One London initiative.

Marcel Marcellin (@MarcellinMarcelis the Director of Organizational Strategy at the City of London. He previously served as a Sergeant for the London Police for over 20 years.

Anaise Muzima (@anashakyss) is a Master of Laws graduate from Western University and is currently a settlement worker at Collège Boréal.

 

 

 

Blank Panther, Violence, and The Wretched of the Earth

Our book club finished reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth just about the time that Marvel’s Blank Panther hit the theatres. This convergence wasn’t planned, but it distinctively shaped the way a few of us experienced Black Panther. Watching the film through the ‘lens’ of Fanon’s arguments about colonization and liberation was… unsettling? I am personally still not sure of the right word is to describe it.

In this episode, Jasmine Jasani, a fellow book club member and Curious Public podcast contributor, joins me at London Public Library to talk about reading Wretched of the Earth and watching Black Panther in such proximity.

Is violence a legitimate tool to overthrow an oppressor who has or is committing violence against you? Who has the ‘right’ to tell an oppressed person how to achieve their liberation? What does it mean to transcend the binary of ‘us and them’ when one has colonized and brutalized the other?

What does ‘Reconciliation’ mean for an individual Canadian like me?

The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.

A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.

Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.

In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.

Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.

Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’

I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.

It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.

As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.

I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time

Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.

Is Hate a Public Health Emergency?

On Monday, December 11, Christopher Mackie (@Healthmac), Michele Manocchi (@manocchimichele), Jennifer O’Brien (@JeninLdnont), and myself discussed the question, Is Hate a Public Health Emergency? Does the metaphor of a medical emergency accurately depict our social climate? Or is calling racism and xenophobia a “public health emergency” simplistic, journalistic sensationalism that distracts us from the real work of understanding causes and solutions?

To get the conversation going, we read these three articles ahead of our time together:

Thanks once again, and always, to London Public Library for providing this program.

Notes

I am not an non-racist person

Is the idea that “racism = some problem other people have” my greatest blinding bias? Before I glimpse my own racism, what am I describing as racism in others?

When I want to exclaim, “How can you be so tone deaf?” I need to remember how much I have, might, and am probably still missing.

I’m never going describe myself as ‘woke.’ As far as I can tell, there will always be an infinite number of things to which I must yet awake.

Where else can the blinding toxicity of racism take greater hold than in a person who is utterly obsessed with the belief that they are not racist?

What if ‘woke’ risks becoming an impairment to solidarity?

The Good, Great, Bad, and Terrifying: adapting to the world of social media

When we weigh all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

…does it bring people together to mobilize for their rights? Or just give corporations and governments the ability to track our every move?

…does it introduce us to new ideas and different perspectives? Or does it surround us in “echo chambers” of our own voices and beliefs?

…does it spawn innovation, creativity, and collaboration? Or is it a psychological liability that leaves us addicted to our newsfeeds and notifications?

On Monday, I hosted a panel in the Curious Public at Central Library series to explore some of these questions. My guests were Tim Blackmore, Emma Blue (@EmmaJaeBlue), Carmi Levy (@carmilevy), and Rowa Mohamed (@RowaMohamed).

Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

On Monday, September 18, I hosted a panel discussion with Helene Berman, Melanie Katsivo , and Warren Steele (see bios) on the topic of structural violence. The event was titled, Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? This framing question morphed into, Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

If you skim over to the Wikipedia entry on ‘structural violence’ you’ll read that the term refers to “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized adultism, ageism, classism, elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, speciesism, racism, and sexism are some examples of structural violence…”

In this podcast episode we attempt to drag the concept of ‘structural violence’ out of the academic world and apply it to our community. Who is served by the institutions of our society… and who is harmed in the process?

A Critique of Multiculturalism – Heenal Rajani’s Poetic Harvest

If you listened to Monday’s Curious Public discussion, A Critique of Multiculturalism, in its entirety, you discovered a surprise at the end: a poetic harvest recited by Heenal Rajani. The 3-minute poem reconstructs the hightlights, architecture, and flow of the hour-long conversation. So, if you haven’t listened to the whole conversation yet, Heenal’s poem might just provide the intrigue and provocation to hear the entire dialogue that inspired it.

Identity Politics v Universalism?

On Sunday I read a fascinating blog post by Kenan Malik about identity politics. As usual, Malik raises some fascinating perspectives. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. What follows comprises of my notes, personal interpretation, and a question.

First, Malik traces the history of identity politics to a time before it was even called ‘identity politics.’ He draws attention to critics of the Enlightenment, who decried the universalizing ideals of the movement. These original champions of identity-oriented politics were those who felt that the calls for equality would strip away the safe, ethnocentric nationalism of the status quo. In other words, the original ‘identity politics’ was grounded in attitudes and agendas we would define as ‘racist’ or ‘supremacist’ today.

By and large, the 18-19th-century defenders of equality took a wholly different approach: they advocated for universal rights. This notion of universality — especially when practiced politically — stood in direct contrast to the reactionary ethnic/identity-based politics standing in defense of the status quo.

In Malik’s view, the original iteration of ‘identity politics’ dissipated after the Second World War. The Holocaust effectively made the notion orienting one’s political agenda around an ethnic identity unpalatable. But in the wake of the war — and amid the hyper identity-conscious restructuring of borders — the role of identity in politics shifted dramatically. The transformation was slow but significant.

The most crucial change, argues Malik, is our definition and practice of solidarity. Identity politics “stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture,” whereas solidarity “draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.” Ironically, identity-based politics makes forming mass political movements increasingly difficult. The number of large-scale solidarity movements that have drawn people together across distinctive backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures has declined significantly. It is arguably easier to galvanize people into direct-action solidarity over shared values — such as a common conception of justice — than it is to make the distinct identity and experience of an oppressed group the focal reason for engagement.

In other words, we’re collectively spending more time asking ourselves, “Who are we?” and less time thinking about, “What kind of society do we want to build?” But we can’t equate identity-building with nation-building. To change the structural and institutional landscape of a state — that is, to address power — requires a coordination of ideological values (the Zeitgeist, so to speak) that must by definition transcend any particular camp of identity.

But perhaps the most chilling point of Malik’s account is the idea that the ‘mainstreaming’ of identity politics has paved the way for the way for white identity politics:

as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

The question for all of us who value the hope and dream of living in truly equitable societies boils down to this: are universalism and identity politics fundamentally at odds with one another? For Malik,

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it…only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.

What do you think?

Prejudice and Power

A recent panel discussion at London School of Economics highlights two distinctive ways to think about the nature of prejudice.

On the one hand, we might think about prejudice as a function of individual psychology. We might say that humans are wired by evolution to spot patterns and predict the behaviours of others. Yes, people make erroneous judgments all the time, such as ascribing incorrect beliefs and motives to individuals from observed external characteristics, but these glitches might be corrected by education and training.

The other way to describe prejudice is to locate it in a social environment. In this case, it is not merely the case that some individuals make incorrect prejudgments, but rather that the structures of society more or less train us to systematically assume certain things about one another. For example, if the media repeatedly pummels us with images of a particular group performing violent acts, we are far more likely to prejudge (unconsciously or otherwise) an identifiable individual from this group when we meet them on the street. Scale this up and you have oppression: societal discrimination operationalized to assign certain groups subordinate roles in society.

The idea here is that we need to see the causation of discrimination as cyclical: we have biological processes that equip us to make heuristic snap judgments about one another, yes, but we live in a social world that informs the objects and content of our prejudice. In other words: our prejudice frames the world and the world frames our prejudice. To understand how prejudice manifests itself, we need to realize that these two “distinctive” modes function reciprocally, not in isolation from one another.

This view of prejudice as a self-reinforcing social phenomenon leads us to a critical observation: we cannot fully talk about the prejudice of individuals without talking about who has power in society. Power and prejudice are inextricably linked to one another. Thinking about prejudice as an exclusively “personal” or “individualistic” problem fails to account for the ways that institutions and governments are critical actors in the social environments that nurture, inform, and bias the opinions of individuals. At this level, then, we need to think about prejudice as systemic and structural as it is personal and individualistic.

If this is true, it does little good to place the “blame” for prejudice at the doorstep of an individual who has a preconceived opinion about another group of people, at least to the extent that their preconceived ideas came from reified “cues” in society. The end game of this perspective is not to fully write off the responsibility of the individual for acting in prejudicial or discriminatory ways, but rather to situate the individual in a context that attempts to account for the array of social, political, and corporate interests pushing and nudging them at all times.

If we say that prejudice is only a “natural” human phenomenon, we are effectively (and selectively?) ignoring all the other structures we have enshrined to organize society.

The Heuristic of Hate: Dissecting Islamophobia

In this podcast episode, Rifat Hussain and Tristan Johnson reflect on the history of Islamophobia and the impact that it has on the lives of Muslims today.

Rifat Hussain is the manager of Orientation Services for Newcomers at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre, and she has played an integral role in helping settle hundreds of refugees and newcomers in the city. She is also the chair of London’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Oppression Advisory Committee. Rifat’s family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom when she was very young. She has degrees in Criminology and International Politics. Rifat is deeply invested in efforts to support cross cultural communication, cultural diversity, anti-bullying, and interfaith dialogue.

In 2014, Tristan Johnson was working on a Masters in American Cultural Studies and researched the experiences of American Muslims after the September 11th attacks. Digging through the statistics, he charted the way Islamophobia morphed from anxiety and fear in 2001, to a more generalized hatred by 2014, complete with attribution to anyone who looks or dresses like someone from Turkey, the Middle-East, North Africa, or South Asia. Now working on his PhD, Tristan is revisiting his 2014 research, investigating the impact of ISIS on Islamophobia and examining the way that Islamophobic attitudes have spread in Canada and Europe.

Mistaken Identities

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s 2016 Reith Lectures series, entitled Mistaken Identities, is a must-listen. Over four lectures, Appiah analyzes four constructs of identity (alliterated as creed, culture, colour, and country) and questions the common narratives that underpin them.

For example, Appiah argues (transcript) that we over estimate the role of scripture in defining the religious identities of ourselves and others. From a historical lens, he posits that religions must continuously evolve, and that religious identity is itself highly fluid. There are all kinds of interesting implications that can be taken up here. (For instance, when detractors of Islam or Christianity quote scriptural references back to the faithful, what are the blind assumptions made about function of text in a contemporary community of religious practice?)

The second lecture tackles the idea of culture as identity. For instance, what exactly does “western culture” mean and who gets to write the definition? Appiah takes a pragmatic approach to suggest (transcript) that the concept of a western culture itself is unhelpful and nonsensical at best, and perhaps highly destructive at worst. This is challenging on many levels: once you have deconstructed and “dessentialized” the idea of “western civilization”, you are left with the problem of justifying how to define anyone by their civilization. But this is precisely Appiah’s point.

Appiah applies the same logic to race by proposing (transcript) that an unfortunate byproduct or residue of the Enlightenment is the concept of a “racial essence” that divides human groups from one another predominately on the basis of skin colour. Science has long since laid this notion to rest, and this leaves us with race as a construct of our own making: “race is something we make; not something that makes us.” This, too, obviously runs into difficult questions: if people are racialized by others, then does adopting a racialized identity or politics inadvertently conform to the racism (or agenda) of the people who are doing the racializing in the first place? But if race is used to oppress, how can race not then be used to gather solidarity for resistance? Appiah’s reflections on the BlackLivesMatter movement (in the Colour lecture) are thought-provoking:

Identities are going to have pluses and minuses. When an identity is used as a source of solidarity in order to help people resist oppression, for example, it also create boundaries with people outside who might want to be friendly with you because they’re not in favour of your oppression. And so you have to think as time goes on about how modulate the different roles that identity plays in our lives. (37:47)

Similarly, the question, “What is a national identity?” leads Appiah to a parallel position (transcript): nationalism is mythology. Appiah makes an increasingly popular distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the end, the only so-called “national identities” that matters are common, collective commitments to shared beliefs. These commitments can be something worth defending, whereas defining a nation as a transcendent linkage to some geographically-based ancestral heritage is problematic. Therefore, you can be highly patriotic inasmuch as you share common values with others (like equality, for instance), while not necessarily being nationalistic (that is, believing that your country is inherently or manifestly superior to others countries).

I have been thinking about the intersection of identity and politics quite a bit recently, and this lecture series is a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced analysis. I think Appiah carves out a place for a constructive critique of identity without necessarily marginalizing the impacts of intersectionality in the real world. This seems important. Oppression, colonization, and racialization often seem to be systematically/structurally executed by groups who often justify their actions from a very clear sense of identity — such as ethnocentrism, nationalism, or some brand of economic idealism. Therefore, far from delegitimizing the role of identity in politics, a critical analysis of identity shows the ubiquity of identity.

Insofar as I can tell historically, wars have been largely waged over country, creed, culture, and colour — and that alone seems reason enough to warrant a critical investigation into the way we orientate ourselves towards the idea of “us” as a concept.