March 21, 2013

What’s race got to do with it? An anti-violence critique of ‘post-racial’ thought.

 Where does race come into our work as anti-violence workers and support workers? Why should we care about race?

Mainstream media and Canada’s ‘Multiculturalism’ policies tells us that we’re living in a ‘post-racial’ world; A world that is past the so-called race question. An alluring sentiment indeed, but one that is deeply flawed. Spreading the idea of a ‘post-racial world’ works to mask the realities of structural racism that continue to thrive in the fabrics of society. ‘Post-racial’ is an ideological tool to deny both the violent historical racism, as well as deny contemporary racism. Racism is embedded in our institutions, our social and political structures, and our economy. It seeps into communities as an unnamed, often silent force, creating barriers of exclusion for racialized folks. In Canada, the idea of ‘post-racial’ ensures that this deeply rooted racism remains unnamed. It uses multiculturalism as a way to sidestep the pressing concerns of racialized communities, and covertly (but sometimes overtly) centralize whiteness. So, while racial discrimination, racial violence, and systemic racism continue to thrive, the state and by proxy dominant society deny racism, calling upon the flawed mantra of ‘post-racial world’. As Wahmeena Lubiano articulates, “central to the existence of racism is the politics of its denial.” In other words, the logical argument of a ‘post-racial world’ is paradoxical to actually ending racism.

And no, multiculturalism is not the answer we’re looking for. Once again, this sidesteps questions of racial exclusion and leaves whiteness untouched and unnamed. Under multiculturalism, certain communities are ‘granted’ the ability to practice certain cultural traditions, generally falling under the category of spectacle and celebration. For example, dance, food, and festivals are readily included under multicultural Canada, but other practice is expected to assimilate into Canadian society (read: white society). This works to essentialize cultures under one singular festival or food, ignoring the diverse intricacies of cultures. The major flaw in multicultural logic is the fact that it once again centers whiteness. Only non-white citizens are labelled as part of ‘multicultural Canada,’ while white Canadians remain the norm – the unnamed ‘authentic’ citizen of Canada. This leaves all racialized people and communities as second class, and puts them in a perpetual position of not-belonging.

Okay, so how does this relate to sexual violence and assault? Well, as I mentioned, it’s become almost a taboo to talk about race in this supposed ‘multicultural’ society. Anyone who mentions racism, or ‘plays the race card’ is immediately called out for ‘overreacting’ and reading too far into it. I can’t begin to express the amount of times I have been told, after articulating my frustration over the racism of a particular incident, that I’ve gone too far and that race has nothing to do with the incident in question. Take, for example, the tragic murder of January Marie Lapuz in New Westminster. January was of Filipino descent, and was active in queer South Asian community groups. Most media sources mentioned this in passing, but not as indicative of the violence she faced. Instead, many focused on violence against trans* folks as a whole, an issue that is certainly worthy of action and mourning, but one that also denies the crucial role that race plays. Trans* women of colour endure disproportionate amounts of violence, and face the scrutiny of not only a transphobic/transmisogynistic world, but also a white dominated, racist world. The two are not separate; they exist together in the lived experiences of trans* women of colour. To deny race would be to deny a central factor of not only her life, but also her violent murder.

So, as anti-violence workers and advocates, we must analyze race. Our very understandings of sexualized violence have been shaped by centuries of explicit, state-sanctioned racial violence against Indigenous women and African/Black slaves. Andrea Smith has written extensively on the ways in which sexual violence against Indigenous women was used as a strategic tool of colonialism. Sexual violence facilitated the mass dispossession of land, erasure of culture and community, and characterized the experiences of thousands of Indigenous children in residential schools. She argues that this violent history has shaped our contemporary understandings of Indigenous women, portraying them as “inherently rape-able.” We only need to look to the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women to see how this violence carries on today. Similarly, under slavery, African/Black women couldn’t legally be raped.[1] They were not seen as human, but instead as property. So, they endured treacherous violence at the hands of white ‘owners’, on top of being forced into an economy of labour, stripped from their families and homes, banned from marrying, used for scientific experiments, and so on.  These attitudes of white supremacy have been replicated, and carry on in the everyday lives of people living on this land.

Further, in both of these instances, sexual violence against Indigenous and African/Black women was not only accepted in society, but it was legislated. Our legal and political institutions were built on these racial violences, and these legacies have not disappeared. They remain woven into our institutions. Once again, look to the Missing and Murdered women from the Downtown Eastside, and the sham commission of inquiry that was meant to ‘solve’ the reason why violence was allowed to occur. Instead of protecting the lives of Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside, and serving them any sort of justice, the inquiry worked to protect police force and did little to ensure the violence will stop. Another example is Canada’s treacherously racist immigration system that simultaneously ‘imports’ temporary workers as commodified labour and deports undocumented workers, all to ‘protect’ the Canadian state and maintain the sanctity of the nation. In other words, our legal system allows for the exploitation of migrant workers, and allows them (actually, encourages them) to be discarded and dispelled when their labour is completed. So, racism is not only in the everyday actions of society, but also in the institutions that police and govern them.

Anti-violence workers deal with each level of society, the personal and the legal. A racialized survivor of violence must not only process the personal trauma of violence, which takes years to heal and never truly leaves for most, but they must also face the racist legal system that is meant to give them ‘justice.’ For example, an immigrant woman who is being sponsored by her abusive partner faces multiple barriers if she chooses to leave. As a sponsored immigrant, she must stay with her partner for 2 years if she wants to get permanent residency. If she chooses to leave before this two years, her access to resources like food banks, shelters, and so on are difficult if not impossible to reach with her immigrant status. She is unable to work or receive welfare, on top of experiencing the language and cultural barriers of being a recent immigrant.  Racism is thus central to their experience of violence,
and should thus be central to how anti-violence advocates and workers are fighting to end violence.

[1]  Contrary to what most Canadians like to believe, there is a long history of slavery in Canada – yet another example of the forceful denial of racism.

Additional sources and readings:

Andrea Smith. Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA : South End Press, 2005.

Higginbotham, Evelyn-Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.“ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 17.2 (1992):251-274. 

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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