Equality Quest

It’s time to undermine the institutional and cultural foundations that support inequality

By Joyce Green

November 2004

This article is written to invite people (especially those marked by race privilege) to think reflectively about racism, and about how we are all positioned in relation to structural and cultural racism. Then, we can move to the important task of naming the evil of racism where it occurs throughout society, and to destabilizing it. Only through this kind of critical, self-reflective and political work can thoroughgoing structural and cultural racism be rooted out of our society.

“Nations,” said Edward Said, “are narrations.” By this he meant that nations are acts of imagination and also of articulation. In this process, some voices are dominant, others silenced.

Project Canada is a narration, a willing into being on the part of an exclusively white male politico-economic elite. Subsequently, this vision retains much of its original character even while new and more diverse players in more recent eras add their voices to the narration. The cultural corpus of Project Canada is part of its narration—and it’s primary means of conveying this vision intergenerationally. It’s what we all know to be true, without knowing quite how we came to this understanding.

I propose that colonialism is the progenitor of Project Canada. Colonialism is an imposed relationship implying dominance, exploitation and subordination, and it justifies it’s practices with racist ideology that normalizes racist policies and behaviours. That is, some of us are privileged because of the racism encoded in and practiced by the Canadian state. All of this forms an invisible foundation to our country, and the evil of racism is diffused throughout civil society in our political culture. It takes on banal forms in bureaucratic regulation of public policy, in tainted or preferential education, and in popular or entertainment culture. In this way it becomes insidious. Knowing our history is a prerequisite for understanding our present and envisioning our future. As American legal scholar Patricia Williams writes, “a refusal to talk about the past disguises a refusal to talk about the present.”

Some examples of institutionalized and bureaucratized racism include historic and contemporary policies through the Department of Indian Affairs, the office of Indian Agent, education curricula, residential school policy, citizenship status, popular depictions of Indians in movies and literature, popular depictions of Canadian life with no Aboriginal people, and the popular misconception that “cultural differences” exist, but not white racism.

Racism and sexism are moral wrongs. But they are also practices that violate fundamental human rights—rights that Canada has committed itself to in international law, and that are reiterated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Patricia Williams calls rights “islands of empowerment.” When we object to racism, we defend human rights. We need to consider how eliminating racism—not only the egregious forms of repugnant personal behaviour that most of us understand as racism, but the more diffuse, normalized and effective practices that sustain race privilege—is essential for some of us to have our full entitlement of human rights.

Consider that Canada has recently been gently chided by a United Nations committee, and urged to consider compensation in two cases of evident state-sponsored human rights violations based on racism: the razing of the primarily Black community Africville in Halifax 30 years ago; and the exclusionary and discriminatory head tax levied on Chinese immigrants for some decades in the first part of the last century. Will we support the acknowledgment of these racist violations of human rights, or will we argue that the events are long ago so can’t be judged by contemporary values and, after all, “We Weren’t There” and so can’t be collectively held accountable?

However, the injuries of those policies still exist in the communities affected. More tellingly, the privilege accrued by white citizens as a consequence of racist actions continues as well. Are some of us prepared to relinquish our race privilege, in the interest of supporting human rights and justice? Or will we argue that we have benefitted solely because of our merit?

If race privilege is to be destabilized, we must also think about how some of us enjoy an “unearned dividend,” which exists not because of merit but because of the convergence of chance with cultural preference. It marks us as invisible, normative, meritorious, believable, and so on. All of this holds true for gender privilege as well, where masculinity is marked as more valuable, meritorious, and credible than femininity. Legal scholar Richard Falk writes that “human rights cannot be solely concerned with substantive standards, but must be attentive to process” such as participation of marginalized communities in the creation of rights frameworks and regulatory regimes and all the policies implied by this. Consider our premier process—electoral democracy—and the gross under-representation of Aboriginal peoples, all categories of women, and other marginalized communities. Our political and electoral systems are deeply racist and sexist.

Education, too, is racist. It is partial in both senses of the word: it is incomplete, and preferential. This is so even in the ivory towers of elite university education. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, associate professor of Maori and Indigenous Education in New Zealand, writes: “The form that racism takes inside a university is related to the ways in which academic knowledge is structured, as well as to the organizational structures which govern a university. The insulation of disciplines, the culture of the institution which supports disciplines, and the systems of management and governance all work in ways which protect the privileges already in place.”

In this way, what we as experts know as “the canon,” and what we teach to our students, emerges from bodies of thought, ways of knowing and methodologies, all of which are themselves products of implicit assumptions about who is authoritative, what kinds of phenomena are worthy of study, and what knowledge is. And hence, our students study, for example, John Locke on questions of the nature of private property and state sovereignty, seldom considering how sexist and racist Locke’s thought is, and how thoroughly it services western assumptions about capitalist property relations. That is, Locke is seldom taught critically, or contrapuntally—what Edward Said called the information available in historical and theoretical silences as well as in the text. The consequence is that Locke is invested with too much authority, while other kinds of theory and knowledge, such as indigenous concepts of property and political legitimacy, are ignored while our courts rely upon Lockean philosophy in considering indigenous claims against the colonial state.

So what can we do to contest racist and other forms of intellectual hegemony? What should we do, and can we do, to destabilize systems of power and privilege, such as white skin privilege, colonial privilege, and male privilege? Here’s my recipe:

First: think critically, and know the institutions and practices of power in society, in business, in politics and in universities.

Second: name them.

Third: contest them. Especially for those with measures of privilege, contest them. Your privilege protects you, so take risks and act on principles. And, solidarity with those who are marginalized and subordinated should be considered a moral imperative.

Fourth: be reflective, reflexive, and humble. Do not become a grandstander, whereby you become the sensitive guy that speaks for women while silencing them and waiting for their approval; or that speaks for racialized persons and minorities without listening to them; or that ignores the politics and priorities of the resistance movements of colonized peoples while taking up much space talking about your own insights and goodness. Solidarity sometimes means stepping aside, mentoring, shutting up, making space, and supporting others to say what they think needs to be said.

Fifth: return to step one, and do it all over again.

Dr. Joyce Green is an associate professor in the departments of political science and women’s studies at the University of Regina.

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